Coverage by Bhat Dittakavi of Variance.AI on “The Leadership Debate” moderated by Vani Kola of Kalaari Capital on 12th December 2020 at TiE Global Summit 2020

Founders evolve in their leadership. It is a continuous process. The nature-nurture conflict is bound to happen. This session is an interesting discussion on how the founders have evolved through organic and inorganic journeys over the period of time. What are the lessons learned?

The Leadership Debate


Rajan Anandan, MD, Sequoia Capital

Mukesh Bansal, Co-founder & CEO,

Varun Khaitan, Co-founder, Urban Company

Vani Kola, Founder & MD, Kalaari Capital

Vani) As a leader, why should anyone be led by you? What is your leadership mantra?

Mukesh) I am a good listener. I take time and weigh in. Then I decide and then I will be transparent about that decision. The team will have the full context. they understand the thought process. They know it is very collaborative process.

Rajan) Firstly, clarity of purpose. Where you are trying to go and why you are trying to go? Next is quarterly or annual goals. Make sure you have the right set of goals. Third is to make massively accountable for those goals. If the goals are not meant, the consequences have to be clear. This way we can build high performance goals. Empowerment and accountability go hand in hand. Be there and unleash the battle necks.

Varun) We make others believe in and own whatever it is. This is a mission and being part of the mission is win-win. I look for individual value creation.

Vani) You are part of a successful company called Urban. Did you make any mistakes as a leader?

Varun) I started Urban a age 25. I had 4 years of work experience before. I was extremely hands-on with the business from day and I haven been deeply involved in execution. Later on it has become a bottleneck, as I was too attached with the way things get done. It took 2 years for me to change my leadership style. This helped me steer things in the right direction.

Vani) I know Mukesh personally over a decade now. Most entrepreneurs are dedicated into the mission and purpose. How did you develop your personal leadership playbook?

Mukesh) When you start, you don’t come from leadership experience. When the startup takes off, have advisors who can help you think through the blind spots. Create a space with team of equals. This lets you know what you are not doing right. Bring humility and say “I don’t know” and it lets you grow significantly.

Vani) How do you mentor management team as leaders?

Rajan) Most of our founders don’t have that experience. Engineers don’t know the business people and vice versa. At the early stages, founders don’t do right hires as they don’t know probably how to find some. Then once you bring the right people, you have to lead them. Daily scrums on engineering happens. A lot of startups find it hard to letting it go and empowering. We do literally a two hour session of “how not to be a nightmare manager?”. The only way we do better is by learning from a mistake.

Vani) There is a question on whether this is a nature versus nurture?

Rajan) Some become amazing leader and CEOs. Some are self aware. It boils down to self aware.

Mukesh) I am strongly in the nurture camp. We are resilient and learning machines. Leadership is skill. People grow up in a different environment. Share values that everyone believes in are the key. Open disagreements are fine. Never question fundamental alignment. If you have a high caliber engineer is also a CTO who is a micro manager, then you are probably in trouble. Don’t project too much of the present into the future.

Varun) Most qualities of the leadership can be nurtured. We figure out what it means to improve. We know how to barter and collaborate as species. We hire people with high ambition with ability to learn. Consulting folks don’t bring functional experience. But they can mold themselves to be leaders of different functions. There are 100+ folks at Urban spent last 5 years. They never imagined they could certain things but they did. Knowing what is expected as a leader in a certain role helps. We create open conversations and 360 degree feedback in the company.

Vani) In an org culture and leadership are intertwined. There is one culture that is good or bad. It is the strategy of knowing what it is or who you are. What is your leadership archetype? Gandhi? Jobs?

Rajan) Everyone is a leader of his own style. Get employee NPS checked out.

Mukesh) History i a great teacher. Choose what you want to emulate yourself.

Vani) You wrote “the art and science of high performance.” What do you say?

Mukesh) Some level of introspection is necessary. Things happen around you. Choose the mechanism of introspection that works for you. Many solved potential similar problems and get inspiration form them but apply to your own context. Method can be suited to your personality. You can’t afford to not to have the think space.

Rapid Fire

Vani) Cofounder?

Varun) Like in a marriage! Immense amount of trust and respect for each other. 1+1+1 = 30 synergy

Vani) Who makes a great team member for you?

Rajan) Deep alignment with culture and values for the company. Deeply committed and massively motivated.

Vani) One leadership value?

Mukesh) I admire people who think very very big and outrageously large.

Vani) How does all this change in a remote-first world?

Mukesh) It won’t change. Leadership principles won’t change. Tools might.

Rajan) Communication is the key. People want to hear from you. Be an empathetic leader. If you haven’t called that team member who is hit with COVID at least twice, remember that the virtual world makes you not to see the people physically, you are not a great leader.

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