CEOs of large Indian start-ups turn to chiefs of staff to get things done
Bengaluru: Led by Flipkart, large Indian start-ups are creating a powerful yet loosely defined role of chief of staff to help chief executive officers (CEOs) enforce their will in companies that have become difficult to steer because of their growing size and attendant bureaucracy.
Flipkart first created the role of chief of staff—a position typically associated with US presidents—in 2015, taking a leaf out of the playbook of some US technology start-ups and companies.
Apart from Flipkart, cab-hailing firm Ola, restaurant discovery and food-ordering app Zomato, doctor discovery platform Practo and a few other start-ups have hired experienced professionals in the role of chief of staff to their CEOs. Flipkart, Ola and Practo even have chief of staff positions for some other senior leaders.
Depending on the company and the particular chief of staff, the role can vary from programme management to strictly controlling access to the CEO to administrative matters such as taking notes in important meetings. Programme management or project management usually comprises a large part of the responsibilities of a chief of staff.
“Chief of staff is a role that involves cross-functional work, so often you will find that it is held by executives with general management competencies or a consultancy background,” said Anshuman Das, managing partner at Longhouse Consulting, an executive search firm. “In start-ups, you are always doing too many projects and new initiatives along with your core business, so a chief of staff can help out a CEO with keeping tabs on them. Also, some start-ups have become very big so a chief of staff can help out by managing egos of senior executives across various functions and ensuring things get done.”
Some of these chiefs of staff are extremely influential. For instance, Nishit Garg, chief of staff to Flipkart CEO Kalyan Krishnamurthy, wields enough power to be seen as Krishnamurthy’s proxy. Garg worked with Krishnamurthy in 2013-2014 during the latter’s first stint at Flipkart. In 2015, Garg left Flipkart to join Krishnamurthy at Tiger Global Management, Flipkart’s largest investor. He then returned to Flipkart last year when Tiger Global brought back Krishnamurthy to rescue the company in its battle against Amazon.
“Nishit has a very influential position. He’s Kalyan’s ‘eyes and ears on the ground’, so he has a lot of leeway. He has the authority to question vertical heads and his views are usually taken to be an indicator of what Kalyan wants,” a former Flipkart executive said on condition of anonymity.
The profile of people in the chief of staff role differs. Some are veteran executives such as Meghana Reddyreddy, a former management consultant who was chief of staff to Flipkart co-founder Binny Bansal. At Zomato, the chief of staff to CEO and co-founder Deepinder Goyal is Surobhi Das, who was the company’s chief operating officer until April. In many cases, chiefs of staff have the profile of a typical middle manager.
The chief of staff role is a particularly attractive one for young managers, who get to learn about, and perform, a variety of tasks. They also work closely with senior leaders and have the kind of access to these executives that is envied by most employees.
Flipkart and Zomato didn’t respond to emails seeking comment.
One former chief of staff has seen a spectacular rise in his career. Amit Agarwal, the current Amazon India head, once held a similar role, shadowing Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com Inc. Now, Agarwal is overseeing Amazon’s business in its most promising market and is the youngest senior vice-president at the company. The massive $5 billion in cash that Amazon has committed to India is partly because of the confidence Bezos has in Agarwal, say former and current Amazon employees.
“Because of the cross-functional nature of the chief of staff position, it is one of the best ways for young managers to get a taste of a variety of positions and then choose what suits them best. It also gives you close access to the most important people in the company and that can be very, very useful,” Longhouse’s Das said.
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