Surviving a ‘lala company’ is hard but not impossible

Those who have built inspiring careers even at such companies had some things in common.
Those who have built inspiring careers even at such companies had some things in common.


Would the company be better off without Muneem and Chamchaa? Not at all.

Majority share ownership qualifies a company to be called a “family business". But to earn the distinctive title of a “Lala Company", the family member in charge of the business must act like a king. Or a deity. Sometimes both. Now, what is a king without subjects? The most notable ones in such a ‘Lala land’ (not to be confused with a 2016 US film), in my experience, are Muneem the accountant and Chamchaa the sycophant. Lalaji’s coterie. They often take the limelight away from other courtiers—the so-called professionals—like managers, vice-presidents, the COO and CEO. How pointless these designations are becomes evident when they must queue up for the blessings of Muneem and Chamchaa to survive in their jobs. How did these two aides earn such pre-eminence? Muneem talks about money all the time; Lalaji’s ears love this genre of music. Besides this, Muneem has convinced Lalaji that had it not been for his closely guarding each rupee of the company, greedy and opportunistic professionals would have looted the company’s exchequer. Chamchaa’s ploy is even more dramatic. He gathers all the gossip, such as who is going around with who, who is taking kickbacks, and who was talking ill about Lalaji, and then spices up this ‘research’, before muttering it into Lalaji’s ears. The king needs only a small spark to flare up. Chamchaa’s hard work pays off when a wrongdoer is fired.

You might also like 

Why are two Indian states fighting over a district?

'Bid to sully India’s tag as pharmacy of the world'

'EVs won’t need sops once market share surges'

2023 brings hope for FMCG companies

Are professionals always the victims? What about those who indulge in foul play— bribery, appointing relatives as employees or vendors, leaking confidential information to competitors, etc. Some go as far as to start their own company with an identical product line, taking away intellectual property, business contacts and employees. Can Lalaji, having suffered all this, trust professionals to lead his company? On the other hand, the ‘good employees’ who are honest, capable and committed know that they can be humiliated, demoted or fired at the whim and fancy of Lalaji. Or on the basis of what the coterie fed him. This trust deficit, between Lalaji and professionals, leads to an endless tussle in all business discussions and decisions. Muneem can act as a bridge. Though an employee himself, he understands Lalaji the best. However, driven by his own thirst for power, he encourages the divide to widen.

Would the company be better off without Muneem and Chamchaa? Not at all. The former is indispensable. But if someone in such a position is given unbridled authority what else does one expect? Chamchaa can play the vital role of unofficial vigilance mechanism. But if power goes his head, he becomes a manipulator. It happens.

As Lalaji’s family grows, there are many contenders for the throne: siblings, cousins, uncles, in-laws. They are constantly scheming to dethrone the supremo. Or at least get a powerful role that enhances their importance or allows access to company cash without anyone noticing. A squabble among family members is usually noticed by employees, though. And in many instances, the company’s unity of command-and-control gets compromised and confusion festers.

As for day-to-day operations, even while the professionals are busy executing a plan agreed with Lalaji at their previous meeting, all of a sudden the boss could ask them to quit what they’re doing and start working on a totally different initiative. The cause of this could well be the previous evening’s social get-together where Lalalji learnt how a business rival had grown his company 300% in just two years by entering certain markets, and this needs to be emulated. Only, he can’t wait that long. As he’s a superior businessman, his do-it-in-six-months command cannot be questioned, even if it is not backed by market research, cost-volume-profit simulations or timeline feasibility. His word is law, after all, and allegiance is mandated.

“Such is the breath of kings," said Shakespeare in King Richard II. What about contractual or verbal commitments made by Lalaji to employees, suppliers and business partners in the course of the business? They’re purely situational, based on a need at the time. There is neither reason nor precedence to honour them.

The Lala company is an archetype that many of us in India are familiar with. Does a business that’s run this way need competition to bring it down? Or is internal chaos and conflict adequate?

Lalaji and other family members need to reflect on this. If they don’t, they push the company towards extinction. Only a fraction of family businesses survive beyond the third generation. As Alfred Tennyson wrote, “The old order changeth yielding place to new… lest one good custom should corrupt the world."

How does a professional stuck with such a company survive? In my observation, those who have built inspiring careers even at such companies had some things in common: their conduct, strength of character, conviction in what they said or did, and above all, calm nerves. Armed with these, they navigated crocodile-ridden waters with skill, tact and diplomacy. They won the trust of Lalaji and his family, and gained immunity from attacks by his coterie. Having someone like this as a mentor is of great help to a recruit struggling to make sense of Lala land.

Rajiv Gupta is the author of ‘The Good Indian Employee’s Guide to Surviving a Lala Company’. 

Elsewhere in Mint

In Opinion, Rajani Sinha explains five key trends that will impact India's economy in 2023. Will ChatGPT replace Google? Jaspreet Bindra answers. Long Story checks the lie of the land as the market booms.

Catch all the Business News, Market News, Breaking News Events and Latest News Updates on Live Mint. Download The Mint News App to get Daily Market Updates.


Switch to the Mint app for fast and personalized news - Get App