[Matrix Moments] COVID-19 is wartime, and you see different leaders reacting differently, says Avnish Bajaj

In this episode of Matrix Moments, Rajinder Balaraman, Director, Matrix Partners India; and Avnish Bajaj, Founder and Managing Director, Matrix Partners, talk about the concept of wartime and peacetime CEO, and what startups need to do in times of crisis.

One thing most founders and founding teams are asked to do now is - preserve cash. The coronavirus pandemic has pushed everyone to rethink the way they do business and operations. The startup ecosystem believes it is wartime, and many founders are being asked to change their leadership roles accordingly. 

The reference to wartime and peacetime CEO is from the book The Hard about Hard Things by noted Silicon Valley entrepreneur, investor, and mentor - Ben Horowitz. 

In a conversation with Rajinder Balaraman, Director, Matrix Partners India; Avnish Bajaj, Founder and Managing Partner, Matrix Partners India, says, 

“COVID is wartime and you can see how different leaders are reacting differently.” 

But when you go back to the stages a company goes through, there is zero to one, one to ten, and 10 to infinity. And each of these stages needs different kinds of leadership patterns. 

Avnish Bajaj, Founder and Managing Director, Matrix India.

Different stages, different needs 

Avnish says, zero to one is like you’re hacking your way through a jungle. From one to 10, maybe you’re going on a highway in a bus or an SUV, or maybe even a dirt road, and 10 to infinity is when you are taking-off in an airplane. 

“The guy who’s hacking through the jungle, is he the guy who’s also flying the plane? I don't know. Can the guy flying the plane also be the guy who hacks through the jungle? I don't know. That is why the question of wartime and peacetime CEO comes,” explains Avnish. 

The wartime person is someone who’s really hustling hard, and often, former Apple CEO Steve Jobs is seen as a wartime person, and current CEO Tim Cook would be very much a peacetime person. 

Distinctly different personality types 

But what is the difference between ‘wartime’ and ‘peacetime’ in business? As mentioned in the book The Hard Thing About Hard Things, peacetime in business means the company can focus on expanding the market and reinforcing the company’s strengths. In wartime, a company is fending off an imminent existential threat. Such a threat can come from a wide range of sources – one being a dramatic macroeconomic change. 

MicrosoftCEO Satya Nadella is celebrated in the world as probably one of the best peacetime CEOs. 

However, both situations need drastically different management styles. “The company’s survival in wartime depends upon strict adherence and alignment to the mission,” quotes Ben Horowitz in his book. 

“As a founder, you need to think deep if you are cut out to be both. AmazonFounder and CEO Jeff Bezos has taken charge of day-to-day activities again in times of crisis. I think he can do both, but wartime and peacetime need very different personality types. You can't always be at war. I think if you are always at war, people will burn out. Ultimately, it's a combination, short spurts of war and long spurts of peace in startup world,” says Avnish.

Listen to the podcast here.

Edited by Megha Reddy


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