‘Founders should be aggressive in work not behaviour’ - a sentiment that was echoed by founders and investors in the latest Moneycontrol Podcast on “What’s Hot”, which had panelists including former Infosys finance chief T.V Mohandas Pai, BigBasket HR Head T.N Hari, K Ganesh and Naiyya Saggi, co-founder of the Good Glamm Group. The theme of the podcast was why culture matters and how to build it.
“Aggression in itself is okay, otherwise they (founders) will not be able to easily disrupt. But the thin line is where you become toxic and cross the line. You have to see what kinds of comments you begin to make, behavior you begin to demonstrate and tweets you begin to do. Those are the defining things,” said Hari.
The panelists stressed on how startup culture should be transparent and open and while being aggressive in terms of achieving milestones, it should not cross the line of being toxic.“Most successful startup founders are alpha male or alpha females. Sometimes their behavior is abrasive and aggressive because that's how they see themselves. They do not see that they are hurting others because in their belief all others are like them,” said Pai.
“Ideally, the board should advise founders about their experience on how to work but the challenge is that most of the fund (managers) in India are young people themselves who have never built or run a company,” he added.
However, Hari said that investors have very limited capabilities on the culture for the reason that they are heavily dependent on the founders. “The tendency is to turn a blind eye to some of the deviations which tend to become big at some point. It’s very important to nip them at the bud, but most VCs in the board fail to do it.”
“Culture gets tested in difficult times and its very important to take the right decisions at that point of time because people within and outside the company are watching you. Actions always speak louder than words,” Hari added.
Saggi, on the other hand, argued saying that the startup ecosystem is still fairly new and the entrepreneurs are still learning. “Startup founders have become mainstream, but we are still fairly young and learning what it means to be a founder in India.”
“There is something so powerful about social media where bad behavior and culture get called out even before the formal whistle blowing happens. It is almost like social media/civil society, kind of a check and balance that has come into play for bad behavior and toxic culture,” she added.
The panelists highlighted the importance of building a transparent and open culture.
“Unless the culture is open and transparent, it becomes hierarchical, abusive, and it will become conflict driven. Culture should be built on a set of values, on a code of conduct and should be led by example by the person on top,” said Pai. “If the top person is open, approachable, discusses and resolves problems, it sets the tone for the enterprise.”
Naiyya agreed and also added, “When you move from a smaller organisation to a larger one, you take up more specialised roles and some may need the hand holding or coaching while taking those roles. Processes, feedback chats, setting up townhalls, openness is critical and doing them rigorously goes a long way in setting up the culture of the company.”
To resolve these issues, Ganesh also advised that since first-time entrepreneurs usually lack experience, having mechanisms should be critical. "Have the mechanisms, mandatory coaching for these young entrepreneurs, institutionalize mechanism as a condition to the investments, these need to be done by independent people as board members cannot play that role with a vested interest.”
On employees burning out or dealing with work pressure especially in startups, Pai said it is an individual choice. "Depends on what you want to do with your life. We work and travel seven days a week and do not spend time with our families. We were not good brothers or sisters or parents but we are successful. Somewhere, you have to sacrifice. It is up to the individual to decide what he or she wants and when you work in a high growth environment, there is no work life balance."