Startups May Rain Leaders of the Future

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Kenneth Oswin Lean
Kenneth is Vice-President and Exec. Coach at Mercuri Urval, a global, independent firm that has unrivalled experience in predicting and developing the potential and performance of people in their business.

A drought does not surface overnight; amidst this sizzling heat, even the leadership pipelines have gone dry. Reminds us also of a drought in leadership indeed. India has been the world’s back office for over two decades now. This created loads of delivery managers who were more inclined to delivering what was told to them than anything else; consequently, this ensured that leadership pipelines were running dry. Recently, while I was in one of the back office hubs in Bengaluru, something caught my attention as I looked down from the ninth floor; during lunch, I saw thousands of youngsters streaming out for a break from their terminals – what a pity!

They resembled the sheep that had no other way than what the master showed them. From where I stood, it seemed like another way of killing talent. How? you may ask. Well, if you ask an IT back office employee what’s her/his career goal, the answer would popularly be – Team Leader, Ops Manager, and one fine day a VP – the final reward for the number of years of service – a crowned King with no powers. The core industry has to bear the blame here. Their hesitation in hiring young engineers, MBAs and leaders to invest in the future, leads these youngsters to the doors of call centres and other support function thresholds. There has however been an interesting pattern in the innovative curation of leaders. The traces of these patterns lead straight to the sudden sprout of start-ups that have reversed this trend, turning the dry leadership pipelines into watersheds of opportunities for the next generation of leaders. Let us examine this.

Founders of these start-ups have dynamic entrepreneurial skills. Consequently, they have attracted similar people who would gleefully swing past the dud shadow of their managers who, in many cases are blocks to any innovative practices. These young leaders quit their roles to join start-ups due to environments that aggressively deprive them of advancement and challenges. On the other hand, start-ups aggressively give opportunities for these leaders to express themselves within their sphere of knowledge and beyond. Close knit teams gave these start-up individuals to see business from very close quarters. These start-ups don’t require a HR team to motivate or pamper them. They have enough of it organically in their day to day jobs.


A young start-up leader whom I am currently coaching was a technocrat in a Fortune 100 company; she quit her cushy job and started her own enterprise. Listen to what she had to say:

“It gave me the idea that I could do much more than the goals that were set for me in my corporate job. I never knew I could do sales; today, after striking some good business deals I’m very confident about my sales ability. My decision making capacity not only improved, but has also evolved to be more critical. I became aware that certain decisions can even break down the company. Strategy was just a word to me before this start-up experience, now I know how to make it come alive in the company by making sense through integrated plans.”

India needs huge leadership pipelines to support its projected growth. What happens generally is that money is not spent on the development of young graduates, rather more money is spent on the senior managers’ leadership programmes. Start-ups have really stepped in here by giving open opportunities to working entrepreneurs. It is more like, they throw open an unconditional invitation for young people to think differently. While flying, I once encountered an employee of a start-up who had chucked his job with one of the largest global FMCG companies to join an eleven member start-up organisation. He so passionately described his organisation and the impact it is going to have on the market. In the same breath he also told me about the possible challenges it would face in the coming days. He enthusiastically added that everyone in his organisation could present the company to any investor; each one of them had a complete knowledge of the business and its vision. How I wished half the leaders in large corporations had half the passion of this young maverick.

Which is why I say, thank God for start-ups! The next  generation of leaders have arrived. These leaders will have no fear to think differently and will surely take over the vacuum left for them by the average back office leaders. The one question is how long can these start-ups stay nimble and away from the great structures of bureaucracy? In the same stride let me make it clear that in no way am I suggesting that all start-ups will succeed; however, from these failures we will have stronger women and men who will make the world sit up and inevitably take notice.

It is most heartening to learn that many of these start-up leaders, are being supported efficiently well by successful industry leaders and investor organisations who coach and mentor them. This I hope will give relief to the leadership drought and will create a season of bloom in the leadership landscape. I’m still left to wonder however, if the scale is sufficient.



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