Chief Optimism Officer: So, what is really under your control?

By Amrutash Misra|2nd Sep 2011
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This is a guest column by Amrutash Misra, the co-founder at Life Online which runs The ilovereadin’ Library. Before that, he worked at Hindustan Unilever. And before that, he was a student at IIT Madras. For Amrut, the glass is never half empty. It's always half full.When new employees join us, we often ask them this:

Assume that you are absolutely brilliant at your job. You’ve exceeded all your targets for 8 quarters in a row. You are being fast-tracked to a greater management role. Not only that, everyone loves you. Your peers love you, your bosses love you and your juniors love you. Now, assume that your area is flooded and you are stuck at home. Further, your net connection is not working. You are effectively forced to take leave and stay at home. Now, which of the following is more likely to happen?

a) Your team misses you a lot; they call you often. With your superior understanding of the business, you are able to answer every query. You save the day, despite all the constraints.

b) Your team has just forgotten about you and doesn’t even realise that you were missing. Towards the end of the day, they call to check if you are all right.

While you think about those choices, here’s a quick question - do you remember Avnish Bajaj? Currently the MD of Matrix Partners India, Bajaj was the founder of Baazee.com, which he sold to Ebay for $55m in 2004. But that is of lesser concern to us. What is of concern is that in December 2004, a DPS Delhi student filmed his girlfriend on his cell phone in what is now a fairly famous video (to the point that it was cross-referenced in the movie Dev D). The male student then sent the video to his friends and soon, it viral-ed on the internet. Ravi Raj, a 4th year student at IIT Kharagpur, put up that video for sale on Ebay. It sold 8 times in 2 days and in the general chaos that followed, Avnish Bajaj was put in jail. He was subsequently released, with eminent lawyers like Arun Jaitely and Sidharth Luthra arguing on his behalf. Here’s a quick summary of the case on Akosha.

Does the name Warren Anderson ring a bell? Anderson (who incidentally is senile and deaf currently) was the CEO of Union Carbide when UC’s almost-defunct Bhopal plant blew up in what is still regarded as one of the worst industrial disasters to have ever occurred across the world. The plant was badly maintained. Had it been well maintained, disaster might have been prevented. The exact cause of the accident is still under debate.

I am not defending Anderson or Bajaj here. I am merely pointing out something important – the lack of real “control”. What is common between Bajaj, Anderson, you and me is that we really don’t have “full control” over everything that happens in our organisations.

We don’t do everything we are responsible for, all by ourselves. We get it done. We delegate. And then we hope and pray that nothing goes wrong. We put checks and balances in place so that things work. We build systems and processes and standard operating procedures. We demonstrate “demonstrable behaviour” and we evaluate our balance scorecards.

In a company of repute, this is well understood. Which is why, in a good company, most successful managers will pick option B when asked to respond to the question posed at the beginning of this article.

If your team doesn’t realise that you were missing for a day, it only goes to say that you’ve put good systems in place and they don’t need you on an everyday basis. It must be said here that if your team doesn’t realise your absence for, let’s say, a month, then there is something definitely wrong.

And here’s the truth. If you picked option A to the question at the start of this post, it will only go to show that you have a superhero-ego, i.e., you need to “save the day”, everyday.

However, in a startup, things are different. Startups are young, dynamic and everybody has to contribute. Systems are not in place and even if they are, they don’t work perfectly. The team HAS to be in control. If you are missing from office and not available on call, then you might be accused of “a lack of commitment.” Startups need people who pick option A. They need people who can “do the job”.

Or do they?

I think that at startups, one of the biggest mistakes that we commit, is to do everything ourselves. At iloveread.in, we did this everyday till we almost shut shop. As small units, we are poor at delegating work. We huddle on the smallest pretext. Three people end up doing things that one person could do or perhaps, it could even be outsourced. This is partly because we are forced to. But one tends to think that it’s more so because we love the feeling of doing everything to the last detail ourselves. We love being “super-heroes”. Isn’t that partly why we started up in the first place?

Here’s my point. If you are in a startup and you think that everything you are doing is under your control, then you are going to remain a startup. At best, you’ll graduate into a small company.

And here’s what we’ve learnt. In order to grow, we have to let go the feeling of “full control”. The COO of a company, the man who is supposed to be responsible for the operations of a company, is really the Chief Optimism Officer. The best use of his/her time would be to create brilliant (control) systems, hire awesome people, delegate all the work and then, pray and ensure that everything works.

The glass for him, after all, is always half full.

Find yourself agreeing with Amrutash’s views about control? Have a counterpoint? Tell us about your thoughts on this post by writing to us at feedback@yourstory.in.

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