Cut the crap & jar­gon: lessons from the start-up trenches

The Smart Manager - - Reading Room - By shradha sharma and t n hari

‘Ex­cel­lence is an art won by train­ing and ha­bit­u­a­tion. We do not act rightly be­cause we have virtue or ex­cel­lence, but we rather have those be­cause we have acted rightly. We are what we re­peat­edly do. Ex­cel­lence, then, is not an act but a habit.’

O—Aris­to­tle

ne of us started his or her ca­reer at a large steel com­pany where at one point I worked as an ex­ec­u­tive as­sis­tant to one of the vice pres­i­dents (VPs). The ex­ec­u­tive team met ev­ery fort­night to dis­cuss im­por­tant is­sues. For one of the meet­ings, the ex­ec­u­tive as­sis­tant of the CEO wasn’t present and I was asked to sub­sti­tute. The meet­ings were held in the board­room where the CEO would be seated at the head of the long ta­ble and the VPs (six of them) would be seated on ei­ther side. The two most se­nior VPs, as al­ways, were seated to the left and the right of the CEO. There was never any con­fu­sion on who sat where! The peck­ing or­der was un­am­bigu­ous. I had to sit in the sec­ond row of chairs, be­hind the main row, and take notes. At one point when the dis­cus­sion was about the sale ofa divi­sion, one of the VPs dif­fered with the CEO and there was some ar­gu­ment (but ar­gu­ments with the CEO never got heated). What he (the VP) was say­ing made a lot of sense to me, but there was no sup­port forth­com­ing from any­one else. Dur­ing the bio­break, I over­heard one of the other VPs telling this VP, ‘What you were say­ing was right. I wish the boss had un­der­stood.’ My thought was, if this was so ob­vi­ous to you (as it was to me), why didn’t you speak up in the meet­ing? Maybe if you had spo­ken up, some­one else would also have done the same and maybe the de­ci­sion would have been dif­fer­ent. It was proved some years later that the de­ci­sion taken that day was wrong.

From this large com­pany, which moved with the speed of an oil tanker, where I was ac­cus­tomed to lis­ten­ing to the boss rather than hav­ing a two-way con­ver­sa­tion, I moved to a start-up with the agility of a fighter jet. In my first one-on-one with the CEO, I was in my stan­dard mode—a notepad and pen in hand, lis­ten­ing. In less than two min­utes, the CEO asked me curtly, ‘Will this mono­logue con­tinue or will we have a di­a­logue?’

The first habit for be­ing suc­cess­ful in a start-up is as­sertive­ness. In his book Out­liers, Mal­colm Glad­well as­signs the blame for some plane

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