My unlearning of being Steve Jobs

I founded Moolya Testing in December 2010, headquartered in Bangalore, India, aimed at solving testing problems at scale for deep tech and product savvy customers. 

Over the last 10 years, while remaining bootstrapped, we have grown from 2 testers at the start to 200+ testers serving more than 200+ global customers across industries . What we do in Moolya is simple. We build great teams. Most organisations think if they hire talent and bring those people together and call them a “team” – magic happens.

At Moolya, we understand that hiring people and putting them together is NOT building a team. Setting a culture where humans thrive, continuing to invest in their learning, supporting them in their failures, giving them a vision and tools to succeed is what creates great teams. Let me also add one more factor – time. It takes time for a set of talented people to form strong bonds and become a team.

We do this in a disciplined and a highly repeatable way. We have very good customer and employee retention rates.

Reputation is a double edged sword

However, the first few years weren’t anything like what you just read. In 2010, I was 30 years old, no money in hand, had a vision for a world class testing organisation, lots of courage, high dose of aggression, a pressure to make ends meet for the company I founded and family. I had to operate as a solo founder absorbing all the pressure. The reputation I had built with my blog, speaking engagements and community activities was helping bring customers to the table.

The cost of failure looked very scary. If we screw up with the work we had got, I would lose my reputation and most importantly – my only source of money to pay my employees.

There were great people who had joined me at the start and they took huge pay-cuts to be a part of the vision of Moolya. I was committed to pay them a minimum guaranteed compensation. If I failed to do that it becomes harder for them to be committed to the vision and that would be a huge loss for me too. I was also highly passionate about everything I do and hence emotional. 

Turning myself into Steve Jobs

The combination of passion, pressure to pay people, pressure to uphold reputation, pressure to continue to give hope to family when there is no money to take home and the pressure to succeed made this 30 years old to be aggressive. I became super authoritative. It was my way or highway.

A lot of people are inspired by what Steve Jobs did. The media, for their benefit, write stories about Steve Jobs firing people in an elevator when people could not answer a question of, “What are you doing here?”. As a kid, I thought it was fantastic and turned Steve Jobs into my hero. 

I take a bet that most of the people who like Steve Jobs (based on what they have read about him) will end up hating him if they had an opportunity to work with him. I had become Steve Jobs in the way I fire people and fire at people. My assumed job was to keep the quality bar very high of the people we hire and train. It meant I became the gatekeeper of quality. For every 10 people hired, I would fire 8. It did work (or at least I thought so). The 2 people whom I did not fire were top class. Our customers loved the quality bar we maintained.

We became the top choice for any customer who had worked with us. I had the hatred of 8 people and fear of 2 people for the sake of love from the customer towards the brand I was building. 

Being bootstrapped we hit a million dollar in revenues in less than 3 years since inception. That is phenomenal. However, it wasn’t scale-able. I had to keep exerting power and authority to get things moving.

It was a lot of personal energy to be spent plus there was no reward. An org that grew from zero to a million dollars in less than 3 years had its own cash flow needs. I neither benefited emotionally or financially. I could not make ends meet for home but the ends met at work when I applied enough pressure to the system. 

It was more stressful than it was at the start. I knew at this rate, I would end up like Steve Jobs as the company grew. Plenty of prolonged periods of stress, a hero to the outer world, a lot of hatred from people who were fired and a lot of fear from people who don’t know if they would be fired and some occasional love from customers. Added to that I would have picked up permanent health issues due to prolonged periods of stress had I continued the way I was. 

At the edge of the cliff 

I was close to giving up. I had made up my mind that it was not worth it. The reason why people fear failure and defeat is because they end up facing themselves. It is very hard to face ourselves. No one knows about us as much as we do and hence we end up asking ourselves some tough questions. I was on the edge of the cliff and the only person I had to face and answer was me. 

At the edge of the cliff, I discovered that I was not the person whom I had become. I wanted to help my people succeed. I wanted to help customers succeed. Intent was good but the pressure turned me into being a heroic and authoritative person who exerts power and pressure on others to move things.

I had 2 choices, as I always had, to give up or go back and fix myself. Realizing is one and putting it to action is another. Realizing is useful only if we are able to act. Making the act happen is hard.

A lot of people who know that smoking is not good for them and want to quit the habit are unable to put their realization into action. There are no brownie points in this world for realization. It only exists if people can convert something to an action.

Action takes time. I hadn’t become Steve Jobs in one day. It took me years. I know that unlearning to be Steve Jobs and finding Pradeep would take time, maybe more time than I think it will take. 

A story of influence from the past

We are traveling so fast in our lives that we don’t have time to stand and observe the beautiful things that have happened in our lives. The edge of the cliff is a nice spot to reflect. 

In my first job as a contractor, I was signing at the visitor register everyday. All contractors in the company signed at the visitors register. Employees had a different register. Everyday we walked in – we felt we didn’t belong there. We were just a visitor. Among the contractors, this talk of having to sign in a visitor’s register everyday came up but people were hesitant to talk about it to their managers because they thought it could go against them and they could lose the “visitorship” access that was feeding them.

6 months after working there and having built a good credibility as a workhorse, I had set up a one on one with my manager. I asked him if I should treat myself equal to anyone in the company? He replied, “Oh yes, you are. We don’t see the difference at all”. I told him that I could do better with a few small changes beginning from the entrance and where we sign everyday.

He smiled and said, “Let me get that done”. Next Monday, I came into the office, and as a routine picked up the visitor register and I heard the security say, “You need to sign in this register from today” and handed over the employee register. 

I walked into the office that day with a high sense of pride that I could influence this change. I had no power and I exerted no authority to influence the change. I was polite, requestful, calm and talked about the value of the change. I also reflected the culture the management wanted to imbibe and helped them uncover the blindspots. 

In my own company, when I had the power and authority, I could not influence change with ease. I always had to deal with resistance or fear and it always ended up being my way or highway. 

At the edge of the cliff, I realized I wanted to build a company like the first company I worked for and want to be the leader like my manager was and is. Supportive, listening, removing blockers for the team, solving problems and having fun with the team while serving them. 

At the edge of the cliff, I discovered the way I wanted to grow and be peaceful was by being a Servant Leader. 

The woman who changed my work life

I turned back from the cliff. I decided to go fix myself. I went to the office and didn’t know where to start. I had to go and search for a starting point. Just like anyone who is struggling to quit smoking, every cigarette looks like the last one to them. They find it hard to let go. 

I started finding answers to some questions I had, in spirituality and in humanity. I had thought having skills is everything that is required to succeed. I was oblivious to the environment that is required for skilled people to succeed. Without the environment – skills also get diminished. 

I decided to build that environment. An environment where people can thrive. An environment that is empathetic. An environment that helps people succeed. An environment where people grow holistically. 

How do I get there? Where do I begin from?

One day during my deep thinking time, I received an email from a customer where they had some issues that were not getting addressed by our people. The mail pointed to a woman employee who was in charge of the project. This particular women employee was the same one whom I wanted to let go in the past and had thankfully escaped my list of people to let go several times because other priorities came up. I had no hope about her. I thought letting her go will do more good than letting her continue. 

I decided to use this situation as my starting point to become a servant leader. I called her for a meeting. She came to the meeting with a fear, with an explanation and with a doubt on continuing in the org. She was sure what she was going to hear from me. I prepared myself for the meeting. Wrote some ground rules and decided to be helpful. 

I welcomed her to the room, asked her to take a seat, had a smile on my face and started by asking her, “How are you doing today?”. Instead of answering that question she started explaining to me about the project and why whatever she did was the right thing to do. 

It took a couple of minutes for her to understand that I really wanted to know how she was doing that day. I first tried to create a calm atmosphere. I let her speak and show me things she had done. 

I took time to review, spoke less, spoke politely, spoke with a calmness and no judgement in the voice. I told her that everything she and the team had done was what I would have done too. I helped her to see the difference between perception issues and real issues and how to address each of them. Wished her the best and told her that I would reply to the customer’s email and handle the issue and she can continue to do what she was doing.

On that day, she must have left the meeting room thinking something was wrong with me. I guess that was the first day that she saw me as a leader and by my past behavior, that was unexpected. Over the next couple of months, I replicated this and practiced this with several people in several tough contexts. I was learning how to absorb escalations and letting the team do what they are good at. 

In the meanwhile, she started doing something phenomenal. She was leading a team and her team had zero attrition of all in that financial year. Her team was energetic, had very few sick leaves, and was supportive across the organization. She was leading the team in great ways. Helping them enjoy solving problems, taking them away from any noise, refining their focus towards customers and keeping them healthy. The customer renewed the contract – doubled the team size – and even appreciated us for consistent good work.

She was fantastic. She made me look so good with employees and customers. She grew from there to be a great leader. She worked across projects instilling confidence in customers and employees. Slowly, she became my leader and I am proud to be her servant. 

She is the person I wanted to let go. So many times. It is easy to give up on people. It is very tough to help them succeed. The joy in seeing them succeed outweighs anything else. Not just her, there are many people like that in Moolya that I have the pleasure of serving. 

We have had a leader who was thought to be very tough to work with. I treated him with great respect while he was aware that there were people raising concerns, it gave him the time, space and example to transform himself to a building the Moolya culture into him. The people who raised concerns told me that he is the best person to work with. I feel great for him and equally it requires a big heart for people who had raised red flags to come up and say what they said about him after his transformation. 

This beautiful place I am living in is giving me a lot of peace. Co-incidentally, our business has also grown multifold without me having to exert any power or authority. 

Becoming a mother at work

My most favorite part of going to a shopping mall is to find a book store. I have the habit of browsing through new releases and read a few pages, for free, I must admit. During my transition from being Steve Jobs to a Servant Leader, I chanced upon a book – Shakti Leadership – Embracing Feminine and Masculine Power authored by Nilima Bhat and Raj Sisodia

This book helped me see the good traits of a man and a woman AND how the society and the environment they are in can bring the beast side of them out. This book helped me embrace the woman thinking in my leadership. As they say, the universe was conspiring to help me, this book and a conversation I had with my mentor Sridhar Krishnamurthy helped me become a mother and a father at work.

Being a father came me to me naturally by the virtue of being a man. The missing pieces in my leadership was to learn how to be a better father and how to become a mother.

The book on Shakti Leadership was pivotal in helping me become a mother. A mother is the first leader a child encounters. She is caring, loving and also highly disciplined. A child respects, fears and loves the mother equally. This rare co-existence of opposite emotions is what creates the wonder of a mother. The Father brings the opportunities on the table and facilitates but without the Mother, the Father would collapse. Successful people are born out of great Father – Mother relationship. The Father in me at work was struggling because there was no Mother.

Today, my leadership style has the Father – Mother partnership to facilitate and help the children (my reportees) grow to good citizens.

With the influence this book had on me, I started gifting this book to many men and women I worked with. I encountered a woman entrepreneur who was fighting hard in a male dominated space behaving like the bad men she had to work with and turning herself into a beast. I felt very sorry for her because that wasn’t her true nature. I sent the book as a surprise gift to her office and she acknowledged the importance of what even just the title of the book meant.

There are more people unlearning to be Steve Jobs

I was speaking to an entrepreneur recently who had moved from the Bay Area in US to Bangalore. He founded a B2B SaaS product and their business is doing well. They also secured funding to grow to the next level. He had previously worked with a unicorn back in the Bay Area. We were talking about the challenges in being an entrepreneur in India and he mentioned to me that he struggled to give feedback to people here in India.

He mentioned – the culture of the company he worked previously was in a way that people told things on the face – and instead of taking it emotionally – people would find what needs to be fixed and will. However, here in India, he noticed that people would spend time nursing their emotional wound and not immediately get back to solving problems.

I believe the culture there was to be oblivious to any emotional wounds and treat people based on their performance. That said, I have heard from a few leaders in the US that the culture of telling things on people’s face and being oblivious to how people felt did not help the company succeed. Instead, the companies that pivoted or built a more inclusive culture succeeded far better over the long run.

I believe we find it easy to learn to work with computers than with people.

Talented people don’t actually leave their managers. They leave the culture the manager enjoys living in.

A Servant’s Note

It is not that I don’t fail these days. I do. One difference though is, I am conscious of it and recover from my failure quickly. I apologize to people very quickly and tell them the background of why I think I failed and what I learned from it. I seek help in correcting myself. I thank them for the opportunity they have given me to serve them.

I am not Steve Jobs. He has done something great. He was also not perfect, like all of us. He did created a valuable company that has employed millions of people today. I admire that. I want to do that, without being Steve Jobs.

I am Pradeep Soundararajan. Chief Servant at Moolya. In others success is mine. I invest in People. Ubuntu is not just a word. It is a way of life. It is my life. Let’s see how far this takes me.

In Sep 2020 and Oct 2020, I got these cards from people in Moolya who are on the ground making Moolya happen. It humbles me that they wrote this during our peer recognition days. The culture of a startup is the culture a founder sets, facilitates and rewards.

I am glad these people today recognize being calm, helpful and influential without exercising authority as leadership. I am glad we as a culture are facilitating servant leadership. There are better people than me in Moolya and the world.

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