Ankur Warikoo, founder and CEO of deals platform Nearbuy, and Akhilesh Bali, founder of LimeTray, a marketing platform for hotels and restaurants, are friends and entrepreneurs. In a casual conversation two-and-a-half years ago, Warikoo discovered that Bali had lunch with a new colleague every day.

Warikoo, 37, liked the concept and decided he too would introduce a similar idea at Nearbuy—he would have lunch at the office cafeteria with one employee every week. “I was in a spot where I didn’t know everyone personally because I was not hiring all of them. I recognized their faces but didn’t know their stories. That’s why I thought, why don’t I start having lunch with employees," he says.

This is just one of several unconventional employee engagement initiatives Warikoo has implemented. From writing letters to parents of top performers to creating a mechanism where employees can anonymously question him, Warikoo is looking to go the extra mile to build a bond with employees and initiate conversations at the workplace.

Three months ago, Warikoo started posting about these lunch interactions on Linkedln. If employees want to have lunch with him, they fill up a form; it generally gets scheduled two weeks ahead. Usually, it involves a 30- to 40-minute conversation in the office café or Warikoo’s cabin. The aim is to have a casual conversation about the employee’s life experiences, childhood and academic background. “My job is not to be the agony aunt for people, so I don’t expect employees to come in to these lunches to crib about their managers. My job is to define the company culture and that is what these meetings are," says Warikoo.

He believes this is helping him get the best out of people. Almost always, he says, the lunch starts with: “‘I am super nervous and I don’t know what this conversation will be all about.’ For them (employees), a CEO tag is someone completely out of the universe." 

Kriti Trivedi, a 23-year-old associate human resource executive, says she was eagerly awaiting the lunch. Trivedi spoke to Warikoo about the transition from her home-town of Lucknow to the city and her dilemma, whether to pursue a master’s in India or from abroad. “I literally talked my heart out that day, even though I am an introvert," she recalls.

Warikoo, in turn, has learnt that “a lot of people don’t have people they can speak to". People need people. Everything cannot be always about business. “I have had employees say that they have suicidal thoughts because they aren’t pretty, those who feel their elder brother has always had the love of their parents, and even senior people with 15 years of experience who feel their work is not in sync with the way the world is shaping up and millennials are taking over," he says.

While he is conscious of his role as a founder and CEO, and knows he cannot let personal conversations affect work, he says these interactions help him to be more empathetic.  

“I do this because I believe it emotionally marries people to an idea rather than a business. An idea could be an individual, a culture, a theme. I want to get the best out of people, not because they get paid a salary but because we are in this together," says Warikoo. Some of his professional friends and senior colleagues have expressed reservations with the idea of one-on-one interactions though. “I get a lot of differing opinions from people saying you are not building a company the way it should be. They tell me I have to be brutal, define terms, and not be emotional. I have even got advice to not hang around with employees or be too sensitive towards them but this is my way of communicating. This is my natural self."

While some leaders believe in an open-door policy, for Warikoo this has not been effective, even though he sat in an open-plan office until recently. “No one comes up to you just because you sit next to them. There is no human being whose natural propensity is to seek out help. An open-door policy is just fake advice," he says.

He has also initiated an employee feedback exercise—Why the F***—enabling employees to question him anonymously on any matter they are curious about or wish to provide feedback on. Warikoo says he goes by what Oscar Wilde said: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth." While the identity of the person providing feedback is anonymous, the question, and Warikoo’s answer to it, is public.

Warikoo also sends out an email every Friday, an exercise he calls ‘Five-Minute-Friday’. The mail, comprising five elements, takes around 5 minutes to read. “It is all about what I am excited about next week, what I am reading, what I am listening to, something I found on the internet, and a quote I would like to share," he says. Many a time, employees send him recommendations too.

A fourth initiative has been borrowed from PepsiCo’s Indra Nooyi: the practice of sending personal letters to the families of employees who perform well.  “When they (my family) received the letter, they were pleasantly surprised because I have always been the troublesome kid and there were good things written about me in it (the letter)," says Vinayak Chowdhri, whose parents received a letter from Warikoo for their son’s stellar work as the senior business development manager in 2016. Chowdhri, who now heads business development at Nearbuy, says, “It was a beautiful feeling as an employee." 

Some believe all this is too time-consuming. Warikoo dismisses this as a lame excuse. “Last year, I started waking up early, which is what I think contributed to a lot of things, including finding time to do things I like," concludes the CEO.

CEOs who bet big on bonding with their employees

Mark Zuckerberg. Photo: AFP
Mark Zuckerberg. Photo: AFP

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerburg: He has broken the traditional hierarchy by engaging with entry-level employees and interns in projects, and holds weekly meetings.

Brian Chesky. Photo: Reuters
Brian Chesky. Photo: Reuters

Airbnb’s Brian Chesky: He holds bi-weekly meetings with the Airfam (Airbnb employees) all over the world ( in person and on video) to get work updates.

Reed Hastings. Photo: Reuters
Reed Hastings. Photo: Reuters

Netflix’s CEO Reed Hastings: He has the famous “culture document" that communicates Netflix’s values, and encourages staff to go on vacations to think creatively.

Millennial Managers is a series which will decode the management techniques and wellness practices of leaders under 40.

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