A Study in Contrast

About three years ago, in one of our Goal setting sessions, I heard one of our new recruits talk about his goals. The goal setting sessions are ones where people decide what they want to achieve in the year, personally and professionally. People end up learning new languages, learn to cook or play the guitar, take two trips to the mountains, read 40 books, bike to Leh…you get the drift.

I doubt anyone was inspired listening to this youngster that day. I certainly wasn’t. He got some cursory feedback from the rest of the team. I was asked to give mine. I said, I think he needs to get authentic. Some nods and murmurs. And the next person came to talk about her goals.

When I said that statement, I had hoped, he would come up to me and ask me what I meant. To my delight, he did. And till today we continue conversations on being authentic. In fact he became so authentic that he left the company to find and pursue his passion, but is still is a part of our company. And inspiring others.

What really drives me to be an entrepreneur is this vision to create an awesome, authentic, purposeful workplace. Where people get to be the best versions of themselves, and often this means they first have to find their true self. And that can come as a shock to many. Those who just can’t bear to look at themselves, often end up leaving our company. Because we are being disarmingly honest in general. Yes, we tend to keep some bad feelings under wraps, but largely it is out there. Or at least our attempt is to get it out there, so it gets addressed and we can move to the next big thing.

We have a culture of freedom and accountability. You are free to do your work as you like, as long as you take ownership of the deliverables. Ask for help, learn, fail fast, get back into the zone. That’s largely who we are.

Of course, sometimes people who join us think they can abuse this freedom. And they learn quickly, they can’t. They get fired on the spot if they are caught lying about their work. Two months ago, an intern had to leave for this very reason. And it was not the first time we had fired anyone for that reason. I am happier to hear, “I didn’t work on it, I was stuck,” than a lie that goes like, “I have been working on it but I haven’t completed it.” There are timestamps, people. There are ways to know!

All this arises from the core of who we are as a company. And such conversations are a natural thing at our workplace.

Now for the contrast. Sometime this week, this happened. I could hear one of my teams on a call with a client’s team. I could hear the client person drone on for what seemed like a lifetime. When the call got over, I checked with the team what the discussion was about, and why it took so long. Effectively, it was a call that should have lasted 10-15 minutes, but took an hour. Why? Because the client team was simply not being authentic. They came from a deep need to establish superiority over us (after all, they are paying us!), and never, ever miss a chance to raise the blame finger at us. And where two words would suffice, they had to use 2000, to fill up the emptiness of their words.

The contrast hit so hard. Here I am telling my people to take ownership of who they are, fail and take ownership of that too. And then they have to go out and service people who can’t take ownership, and are scared to fail (they may lose their jobs, or just don’t want to lose the next promotion), and only end up sounding pompous and vacuous.

Of course this is my point of view. The client team will have their own point of view. That we are stupid, or incompetent or something. But that’s not the point here.

The point is there are these vast multitudes of people who are simply going through the motions of their jobs, not creating value and impeding any value being created. They live in fear – what will the boss say, what if I get fired, what if I don’t get promoted. They lead “unexamined lives”. And are in places of power. Trumping the rest of the people with a will to be different (yes, the word ‘trump’ was intentional).

My co-founders says it’s a big company thing. Where “Save my Ass” (SMA) is the culture code, and not what emerges of fancy terms like Integrity, Sincerity, Values and other big words pasted on the walls. Well, I am sure many big companies are not like that. And I am also sure many small companies are certainly like that.

What about a startup being incubated inside a large company? A startup is meant to be quick, and usually has no time for time wasting conversations, and the focus is on do, experiment, fail, improve, do…and so on. But if it’s incubated by a big company where the culture has become SMA, what happens? Chew on that. Maybe you’ll think twice before taking that funding from the big company’s investment arm. That is, if authenticity, agility, ownership and accountability are important to you.

All this year, all that I have read, all the videos I have watched, all the talks in an event I attended told me to be who you are, step into your uniqueness, be authentic. And I get all pumped up. And I step into more of myself, encourage my team to do so as well.

But then I also have to deal with this reality of people leading unexamined lives, because some of them pay my bills. What a dichotomy!

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