Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Opinion | How to retain the startup spirit of the early days in an organization

For a startup to continue to scale, it needs to adapt to new leadership styles and values

Organizations evolve as they scale. Each phase of growth calls for a different set of skills that the leadership, especially the founders, needs to master to transition seamlessly into the next phase.

One phase of growth, for instance, takes place through delegation and this requires the ability to hire competent leaders, empower them, and step back a little. This phase of growth often leads to a situation where multiple sub-cultures take shape. Autonomy results in a bit of empire building along with duplication of resources and capabilities. The way to deal with this is to create strong mechanisms that help hold the organization together through strong centrally driven processes and metrics. This fixes the problem of different parts of the company doing their own thing, but creates some bureaucracy that is resented by those who were used to autonomy.

How do you get out of this? How do you minimize bureaucracy and yet ensure that teams are able to work together with agility and a strong sense of ownership? How do you preserve some of the entrepreneurial zing that gave the startup life and energy in the early days?

I learnt two lessons about making this transition. First, as a startup scales, some degree of process orientation and stability is essential even if it means creating a perception that the startup has lost some of the early zing. This perception needs to be changed with education. Continuing with the chaos of the early days is not an option, however much some employees who had fallen in love with the hustle of the early days may desire.

On a continuum of hustle and speed, startups are at one extreme and large mature firms are at the other. The trick is to maintain a healthy balance and stay somewhere in between without going to either extreme. This is what will help a startup-turned-mature-firm continue to innovate and remain relevant.

The million dollar question is how do you get this balance right? Based on what I’ve seen, this is about equipping the key leaders at both the senior and mid-level with specific leadership and management skills. Two skills stand out as the most important: a sense of ownership and developing a strong sense of customer-centricity.

Most new ideas fall through the cracks or do not gain sufficient traction because of a lack of clarity on who owns the initiative. Most initiatives of substance cut across teams and are inherently difficult to drive. So, it is essential to assign an owner, and the seniority of the person in charge should depend on the complexity of the initiative.

Driving ownership is about holding individuals and role-holders accountable. This may not come easily to organizations that take pride in loosely organizing ownership and execution. Invariably, initiatives in such organizations falter at several points.

Driving ownership isn’t as simple as it sounds because it requires some education as well as constant nudging by the manager. For instance, the head of new product development may believe that her job ends with a proof of concept and that the responsibility for adoption lies with the users. That may not be the right assumption. Her role involves working closely with the users, taking feedback from the ground, making appropriate changes, and following through till it is successfully adopted. It is possible this assumption needs to be corrected. It is also possible she may not have the skills to work with the users and accelerate adoption. In such a case, her manager needs to step in. Often her manager herself may not figure this out.

The second skill is developing a strong sense of customer-centricity. This requires real collaboration. Here, I am talking mostly of internal customer orientation where functions and teams that are far removed from the ground treat those closer to the ground as their internal customers, and take their feedback seriously for a new product or process development. This requires a change in attitude because startups that are in a growth phase tend to do more coordination work, and drive things without a deep understanding of ground realities. The difference between collaboration and coordination is that the former is a two-way street.

For a startup to continue to scale and innovate, it needs to adapt to new leadership styles and values. If it can do that, it can continue to innovate with speed, remain agile and stay relevant to customers.

T.N. Hari is head of human resources at Bigbasket.com and adviser to several venture capital firms and startups. He is the co-author of Saying No To Jugaad: The Making Of BigBasket.

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