Of untenable CEOs

The positions of two CEOs are being discussed this week as untenable. One of them is the British Prime Minister Theresa May, fresh from the weak and wobbly win at an election where she campaigned as the “strong and stable” alternative. The other is Travis Kalanick, the CEO of Uber, who is currently running an organisation without a COO, a CFO, a CMO or SVP of Engineering, and is under pressure to take a leave of absence following an investigation by Eric Holder into the pervasive sexist culture in the company.

On first glance, there are no similarities. What can a British PM fond of speaking in tautologies possibly have in common with a CEO of an organisation widely seen as having “disrupted” public transport and valued at US$ 70Bn (though some disagree)?

On a bit of reflection, one key similarity emerges: a leadership style that fosters a toxic organisational culture.

On becoming PM first, Mrs May famously operated a kitchen cabinet of sorts, with a small coterie of advisors and throwing out anyone who seemed to be out of line with her authoritarian way of working. She called an election presumably buoyed by a 20-point lead over Labour in the polls to seek an absolute majority to enable her to negotiate a Brexit deal without needing the support of the Parliamentary colleagues. Having called the election, she did not discuss her manifesto with her party or her team, focused on “Theresa May” and not the Conservative Party, and uttered meaningless soundbites that earned her the moniker MayBot over the campaign.

Mr Kalanick, on the other hand, presided over an organisation that thought nothing of threatening journalists and “weaponising facts“, nor of accessing and sharing medical records of a person raped by one of their drivers in a country far flung from California. Privacy was not a thing to bother with. He also deemed it acceptable to issue guidelines on how to have sex with a colleague at an office party.

Culture, as the developments this week show, does eat strategy for breakfast.

In Britain, the electorate was able to challenge Mrs May so much so that at the time of writing, there is a scramble on, and many Tories do not see her leadership going unchallenged.

In case of Uber, however, the three co-founders own a controlling stake. That may appear, at first glance, to make the job of the board harder if they wish to ask Mr Kalanick to step down. But the board has voted unanimously to adopt the Holder report and is said to be considering the option.

However, much as deposing Mrs May and Mr Kalanick may give a sense of having done something, the real challenges remain.

Uber’s culture will not repair itself overnight. Nor will the company magically be able to attract talent* to fill the key roles. Bad reputation and the whiff of scandals can endure, as another organisation unable to attract talent is currently experiencing.

Nor will Mrs May suddenly become better at being collaborative, discursive, amenable to advice, and realistic about Brexit negotiations, although this is precisely the advice being given to her. To be fair, she has apologised to Tory MPs. But despite her apparent contrition, “I will get us out of this mess” doesn’t sound like a departure from me-centricity.

Whoever takes the poisoned chalice, or chalices in case of Uber, shall face the challenge to be a vigilant steward of the interests of investors, shareholders, and citizens alike.

After all, in this brave new world of breaking coalitions and disrupted industries, “Eternal vigilance is not only the price of liberty; eternal vigilance is the price of human decency.”

*Link dated June the 14th added two days after this article was published.

Leadership and the importance of changing one’s mind

Martin McGuinness, former deputy first minister of Northern Ireland and also former IRA commander, died today. I was shocked to learn he was only 66. Shocked because I have known his name since I was a child growing up in India, and had always thought he was much older.

But he wasn’t. In that short life, McGuinness, as many obituaries are reminding us, went from being “the butcher of Bogside” to “brave statesman”. In other words, he changed his approach to finding an acceptable settlement and peace. And he did it in the glare of the public eye.

Changing one’s mind, one’s opinion, one’s approach is an important trait for good leaders. It shows their ability to take on board new information as well as their ability to admit mistakes and course-correct. Not only are these traits indicators of an open mind, they also enable people around the leader to speak truth to power, for the consequences of silence can be many and unwelcome.

Yet we — the press, the analysts writing about companies, the electorate — find it difficult to forgive anyone, especially a politician, who changes his or her mind on an issue.

Not changing one’s mind is seen as a virtue, immortalised by Mrs Thatcher’s punny soundbite “You turn if you want to; the lady is not for turning”, before Mr Blair even tried his hand on the politics of soundbites.

Even the liberal press finds it hard to resist the chance to take a dig when it discusses a change in the direction of travel, a “u-turn“. See, for instance, the Guardian insist Philip Hammond digs in on his u-turn on national insurance for the self-employed.

This bald criticism creates pressure on leaders to be perfect, in-control, and always-right. It is unfair and wrong. And sad, because it demonstrates the rigidity of the electorate and the press pundits, who expect a leader to remain rigid, regardless of circumstances and possible outcomes of the original course.

An open mind is not cynical; an open mind is sceptical, inquiring and searching.

An open-minded voter or commentator does not distrust a change in stance as a knee-jerk reaction. What s/he does or must do is question the reason for the change, without sarcasm or without expecting an abject apology.

Is the change really just political expediency?

Is the change informed by new information?

Is the change driven by a new understanding of historicity, and how one might have been on the wrong side of history due to any number of reasons?

These questions hold good in both hierarchical societies as well as those who see themselves as more egalitarian.

Further, we need to remember that hindsight really is 20/20, and our understanding and memory of history both short and imperfect.

A friend and I were once discussing the leadership of Nelson Mandela. He is often cited in the same breath as Gandhi, who too had his flaws but steadfastly refused to support or choose violence. Mandela however categorically refused to denounce violence as a weapon in the pursuit of his cause. At the time the UK government under Mrs Thatcher was fighting another nationalist cause, which used terrorism and violence as its tools, namely the IRA. The policy of branding both the IRA and Mandela/ ANC terrorists was consistent with the thinking at the time.

As the President of South Africa, Mandela has been on record speaking in favour of luminaries, such as Colonel Gaddafi , the common cause being Africa and their shared identity as Africans. General Suharto was another one accorded high state honours by Mandela while he was a serving President.

Yet over time, the former “terrorist” Mandela came to be hailed as a hero. This shift took more than just one change of heart or mind.

In the United States, the Democrat Bill Clinton, the “first black president of the United States” did nothing to remove Mandela from the US Terrorism Watch list, while the Republican President George Bush signed a bill to change that in 2008. In the United Kingdom, where then-PM, David Cameron, who had once worked under the Thatcher government as a young whippersnapper, publicly noted in 2006 that the Thatcherite policy to brand the anti-apartheid movement terrorist was wrong. Predictably, the latter lead to many wondering aloud if Cameron was a Conservative at all — making one wonder if an extreme form of white supremacism is an essential quality to one being a Conservative in the UK!

But here is the rub. Post Robben Island, in his writings and speeches, Mandela was brutally honest in admitting his errors of judgment, mistakes, and shortcomings.

In other words, Mandela changed his mind too.

As leadership — and indeed, statesmanship — go, there are lessons in here for us all.

Especially in these times, when it is increasingly in vogue to dig in and refuse to consider the damage hard, inflexible stances can do.

Preferably before it is too late.

Risk culture and your startup

This article is the tenth in the Startup Series on FirstPost’s Tech2 section and first appeared on January the 23rd, 2017.

A healthcare startup founder I know was in a dilemma. For a pretty sizeable chunk of the equity pie, she had agreed to take on as cofounder a tech development guy. He would in turn build the platform which would enable her business model. As delivered, the platform however was far from adequate. The tech cofounder however was not amenable to taking feedback. Lately he had gone completely quiet and was not responding to emails or picking up calls. Our healthcare founder was left with a platform that did not work as expected, with no access to the source code, and now a growing dread that the company was slipping away from her even before it was built. She had no more money left to bootstrap or to pay for legal advice to buy out his share so she could get the code and find another solution.

When I heard about it, I asked her if the equity was his outright or had a vesting schedule, whether there were ways of clawing back some of the equity as a BATNA, what checks and balances had been built into the agreement between them. What I found was not encouraging.

Through some wrangling, this particular situation somehow found a cobbled-up solution. It is, however, illustrative of why your company’s risk culture needs to be thought of right at the time of creating the startup.

Whenever I bring this up with founders, they ask if entrepreneurship is nothing but risk taking by any other name. It sure is! It is about taking those risks that advance your goals, not risks that destroy your dream. It helps to develop the ability to tell the two kinds of risks apart.

I am not recommending that instead of building your product and your customer base, you spend your time writing huge formal manuals or official policies. I am, however, strongly recommending that you give some thought to the values, beliefs, knowledge, attitudes and understanding about risk shared by a group of people with a common purpose, collectively the risk culture.

How to shape your risk culture in early days? Here are some tips to clarify your thinking.

First, ask if the risk advances your objectives, your dream. At what cost?

In early days of developing a product, building user communities for early testing of features and pricing, capturing feedback and using it to improve the product, all cofounders may use their own devices to write code, collect information and user feedback, keep essential documentation. This is a good move to avoid spending a lot of cash on buying hardware that belongs to the company, if indeed the company as a legal entity exists at all in the early days. There are of course several possible existential risks at this stage. How is the repository for what the cofounders are learning being built and accessed? Where is the essential information — source code, names of suppliers, passwords for services to name a few — kept? Can all cofounders access it? Can it be lost or tampered with easily? What is the backup plan?

Second, think of mitigation plans required, should the undesirable event you anticipated comes to pass.

What if cofounders fall out, someone wants to leave, or someone dies? Can one cofounder hold the entire venture to ransom? What if your only supplier decides not to work with you, and they have copies of your sketches which they could as easily manufacture and start selling? It goes without saying that this mitigation planning needs to happen when you are making key decisions about cofounder relationships, product development, suppliers etc. One can, of course, deal with undesirables as they arise but it is likely to cost more money and time to fix than to prevent or have other recourse.

Last but not the least, by thinking through, however uncomfortable it may be, what happens if it all goes to the wall.

This is the tricky bit. Our healthcare founder was on the verge of incurring a heavy cost for not thinking through the apocalypse scenarios regarding her cofounder. His contribution was essential to her startup but his temperament and working style could not be mitigated by writing tough contractual terms. We don’t like to imagine doomsday situations, sometimes rightly so as they can be paralysing and demotivating. But it is important to know at some level what you would do to salvage your startup if the worst things you had not planned for happened.

Our risk propensity is about that we are willing to accept for just returns. A clear framework for the risk culture makes it easier to identify, preempt, accept or reject those risks. It is wise to start early.

Governance is no “Indian wedding”

When India hosted the Commonwealth Games in 2010, the then-sports minister compared the event to an Indian wedding, saying that while preparations go on until the last minute, everything comes together on the day. I am reminded of that as I watch the stories coming out of India since the sudden demonetisation of two major currency notes on November the 8th, 2016.

The reasons why the move was made were unclear, and what one could and could not withdraw or deposit changed often. The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) refused an RTI (right to information) request asking about the reasons, and with its response to another RTI request, managed to create an impression that the RBI had no idea how many Rs 2000 bank notes it had printed. RBI is the Indian analogue of the Bank of England in the UK or the Federal Reserve (“the Fed”) in the US. These are not confidence enhancing moves, for citizens or for investors. To cite economist John Maynard Keynes: “There is no subtler, no surer means of overturning the existing basis of society than to debauch the currency.”

That is not the point of this monograph.

With my governance hat on, it is clear that no regulatory impact assessment was carried out before the demonetisation was announced. After all, the lives of so many publics – citizens, small and big businesses, state owned banks, private and multinational banks – were to be upended. If there had been such an exercise, RBI would have been more prepared rather than the ominous silence to which it treated the citizens before the Governor finally spoke nearly 2.5 weeks after demonetisation. (An alternative possibility, simultaneously more benign and more sinister, is that such an assessment was carried out but summarily ignored in favour of an “Indian wedding” type approach, and reliance on calls to nationalism and patriotism.)

Save for a top-down diktat, where was the country’s preparedness for such a massive transformation?

Does the “leadership” have experience of massive transformations involving both businesses and citizens? The committee to oversee it was announced nearly three weeks after the demonetisation. Other than Chandrababu Naidu, and possibly BCG’s Janmejaya Sinha, it is difficult to feel confident about the execution experience of the rest. Not least because the expensive failures presided over by some on the committee  are not easy to ignore.

What is the objective for this transformation? No, not the ones that changed daily, one increasingly jingoistic than the next! Minimising the black money in circulation? Reducing corruption? Making India a digital, cashless society?

For the sake of this argument, let’s assume a “digital, cashless India” was the goal.

Did anyone ask who will pay for the infrastructural investments needed? The National Payments Council of India’s (NPCI) Unified Payments Interface (UPI) is in the news but there is understandable confusion especially as different banks put out their own branded apps and the government adds to the confusion by launching its own app BHIM. The consumer-side apps are not the only solution needed. The government has asked banks to roll out 1 million POS terminals. No, nobody yet asking who will pay and how it will dent their profitability. Meanwhile, surcharges on the use of card payments have been introduced and withdrawn hastily.

(I am reminded of a friend’s wedding where a last minute Pashmina shawl purchase was made for over Rs 35,000 in 1996 money. Her mother told me, at weddings, expenses aren’t questioned. The “Indian wedding” analogy is still holding.)

Who thought ahead about the hundreds of millions of illiterate users who now not only need smart phones but also the magical ability to work their way through these apps to access and spend their own money? Apps to serve an illiterate user base will need inclusive design thinking, which is absent in the Indian public discourse, as I have written elsewhere.

What is the short and medium term impact on quality of life of citizens? Where is the mitigation for their loss of income or business? I am struggling to find any proof these questions were even asked.

There is no discussion whatsoever of who is benefiting the most at whose cost. My brief monograph on that question has remained on fire since it was published, suggesting I touched a nerve.

There is no evidence that the demonetisation was a considered policy move. There is plenty evidence that this is a case study for poor governance no matter how one looks at it. There was no clear goal, no plan. The leadership has no experience of delivering large transformations. Nobody has done any cost analysis or indeed asked who will pay. Citizens’ docility is assumed.

Governance is joined-up thinking. Absent that, it is just another “Indian wedding”.

[PS: About that Brexit thing ahead of us here in the UK, I am still looking for a culturally apt metaphor. Meanwhile, let’s go with “a giant omnishambles”.]

The governance we need: a reflection

I have had both shared and personal reasons to have spent much of the last year reflecting on the nature of governance around us.

It was a year marked by sharp separation between opposing factions. This cleavage had long been in the making. The divide between the haves and the have-nots was growing with an empathy deficit. The difference between correct and manufactured reportage was lost. The political outcomes of both the EU referendum and the US presidential elections are being seen as a revolt against the soi disant elites, disconnected from the reality of the lives of many.

This is however not just an issue of national politics. A friend of mine informed me that today, January the 4th, the second working day of 2017, is “Fat Cat Wednesday.” Today the FTSE 100 CEO has apparently already earned the average annual salary of an average UK worker, a sum of £28,200.  The UK is one of the most unequal countries in the developed world. Even though the link between CEO pay and performance is “negligible” according to research, with 80% rise in pay delivering only 1% improvement in performance, the pay gap persists and is demotivating to over half the workforce. If we have learnt anything from the political seismic shocks of the year that just turned, we know this is an unsustainable state of affairs.

We are at an historical inflection point whichever way we look.

If governance is all about building stable organisations – whether national entities, for-profit businesses or non-profits, educational institutions or anything else – it is self-evident that we need a different kind of governance.

We need governance that reaches across the aisles and engages, to heal and possibly to collaborate – whether it is Hillary Clinton gracefully attending Donald Trump’s inauguration despite the bitter and personal campaign both fought, or business people such as PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi agreeing to serve on the economic advisory council in the Trump administration despite her criticism of the language used for women and minorities.

We need governance to listen and to understand one another’s concerns, which may necessitate learning how the other side uses the same words in the same language to mean different things.

We need governance that may seek efficiency but not at the cost of efficacy, because organisations are not dumb legal entities but living breathing ones, working within the ambit of their wider societal contracts.

We need governance to be anti-fragile, both in its intentions and its recognition of consequentiality of various choices, over time and not just in the immediate quarter that follows.

We need governance that is true, inclusive, collaborative stewardship for all.

If the last line reminds you of Edmund Burke’s view of social contracts, let’s not forget his words which may as well be about the governance we now need: “All that is necessary for evil to succeed is that good men do nothing.”

(Disclaimer: These are my own views and do not reflect the views of the boards of either JP Morgan US Smaller Co.s Investment Trust or BeyondMe, where I serve as a non-exec director.)