The Startup CEO Aka The Chief Everything Officer

The Startup CEO Aka The Chief Everything Officer

The author notes how, when you are a startup CEO, charisma takes a backseat to authentic leadership. He goes on to share some key learnings’ from his stint at AirAsia

Mittu Chandilya

Recently, I was speaking at the wonderful & historic city of Mysore , when someone asked me, ‘’what are the traits of a great start-up CEO? ’’ It was a great question. One that got me thinking and reflecting.

The truth is that, a CEO irrespective of the maturity of an organisation, plays an extremely challenging role. A CEO sets the direction and steers the fate of an organisation and is the decision maker, the leader, manager, executor and also the communicator. Having said that, the role of a startup CEO is much more challenging, as, such a CEO must establish and nurture an industry transforming organisation. Charisma takes a backseat to authentic leadership in a startup.

In my opinion, a good startup CEO must be like a coach; helping the team set goals, planning for the future and realigning the team whenever they deviate off course. As the coach you must ensure the team moves alongside you, dynamically converting challenges into immediate and long term opportunities.

As someone who thoroughly enjoys startups, I find venturing into the unknown, establishing and implementing a vision; all very exciting. While every startup faces challenges such as time constraints, no safety net of a large and established budget, impatient shareholders and more, no two startups are the same. Every startup comes with its own set of unique challenges and it is crucial that the CEO is able to chart the organisation accordingly. Below, I have highlighted some of my key learnings through my experiences in various startups

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Leading by action is key in any organisation and more so in a startup. It has a huge impact on moulding the culture and setting the standard for your team and organisation. Leading by your actions will earn you respect, credibility, and loyalty, all of which is critical as your organisation expands.

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger

As a leader and CEO, you should be able to function under stress. Or, to put it more bluntly, you need to revel and be happy to wallow in it. The path to success is strewn with stress and chaos and as the CEO you have to be extremely comfortable dealing with the abstract and be able to create a vision and charter from that abstract. Your vision must inspire, motivate and allow your team to feel a deep sense of ownership.

I have seen some leaders that do have a great and clear vision but avoid conflicts at work for a consensus; however such a strategy could result in slowing down the execution and decision-making process and accountability, and even stop creativity. Tension and in particular, creative tension is positive. Great startup leaders are like swans in water; calm and collected on the surface, directing traffic perfectly under the most stormy or chaotic conditions, but under the water, their feet is moving at over 18 miles an hour.

Of, for and by the People

It is always about the people! In every organisation, my employees are always my first priority. It is them who will make or break an organisation. As the CEO of a startup, you will have to work relentlessly and be successful in attracting and motivating key hires that will move the needle across all key functional areas.

Startup leaders must know how to sell their vision and inspire their people with energy and the belief to do more than they thought possible. Being a leader means inspiring everyone in your organisation, every single day; to have the same passion as you, to achieve the vision you have. Get your team to visualise and genuinely believe the end game as well as today’s task. The energy you build will be phenomenal. A startup CEO must be able to create deep relationships. This is so critical and not something that can be faked. As the leader you must engage with everyone in your team, inspire them and even carry them on your shoulders if required. Some of the worst behaviours arise from having incompatible or unengaged people trying to work together. In order to be effective and drive effective behaviour, you need to connect with your entire team. Personal engagement and belief is critical and it means that you engage them, coach them and inspire them, knowing what is important to them.

The Weakest Link

I strongly believe that a good startup CEO must be exceptionally good at two basic things – hiring and firing. You need the ability to read people quickly and have a natural knack for hiring great talent and cultural fits. Similarly you must be good at firing people. In startups, it is always about cohesive energies, teamwork and belief in the mission. You don’t have the luxury of time to procrastinate, it is your job as the leader to motivate your team but if you have reached a point of no return with a team member, it is time to make the call. I firmly believe that good CEO’s do not compromise and are great at hiring A class talent, but are also equally good at getting rid of misfits or wrong hires.

Give a little, Live a lot

As a startup CEO, I take it upon myself to understand every aspect of the business. I like knowing the details and understanding all the pieces involved in running a well-oiled machine and the knowledge allows me to get involved if I need to. However, with that being said; I empower my team to make and own their decisions. I delegate authority when I feel that someone is ready. This I believe is essential and directly correlated to their motivation, growth and the level of engagement in the company’s mission.

Coming into the Airline sector, I was not an Engineer or a Pilot. However I did and I continue to invest a lot of time in learning and knowing as much about operations (safety, engineering, maintenance, crewing, flight operations, ground services and security); their routines, their challenges and other technical aspects of their roles. This is not only confined to reading each of their operating manuals and knowing their SOPs cold but also about spending time with them on the job. I enjoy strapping my overalls and rushing off to the airside to spend half the day loading and unloading bags, spending time with my engineers or just shadowing operations. Contrary to some traditional schools of thought, I don’t agree with the view that if a CEO asks questions, it is a sign of weakness. I am always asking questions such as – How much does this part cost? What is its life span? Where and how long does it take for us to procure it? And more.

Need for Speed

I make it a point to coach my sons (American) football. During quarterback drills, I always tell them: set fast, set early, make your reads, get the ball out, own the play, and take the yards, do it again. Quick. Win win!”

Being an excellent decision-maker seems almost too obvious to state but from my perspective it is the differentiator and a critical aspect of a good startup CEO. As the captain in the cockpit, a professional athlete or the frontline general you must train yourself with enough repetition and practice to make split second decisions, own them and communicate them crisply to your team.

Evel Knievel

As a startup CEO, you need to be comfortable taking large risks. There is no time for second guesses. Make decisions, own those decisions and keep moving. You have to execute, execute and keep moving. ‘Talk’ if you must, but ‘do’ and keep doing more.

In reality you won’t necessarily have the time to scroll through pages of excel sheets and data points; you are racing to capture potential opportunities with a first mover advantage while ensuring that capital spent for that day and even every hour has a return. The key for me is speed. Equally important for me is to clearly declare my views, own the decision and communicate the direction clearly. This, if done well, from my perspective, has an extremely positive ripple effect. It builds and inspires confidence in the team. I have learnt that nothing can deflate morale, momentum and confidence like lack of clarity does, and competing group or personal goals.

Yoda, one must be

The best startup CEOs keep learning every day. This allows them to be extremely adaptable, nimble and agile. When I was in school, I was not motivated by scoring the highest in class; I was more interested in understanding the practicality of everything we were learning. I loved sciences because I could test what I had learnt. I was fascinated by history and saw a lot of real learnings in them. Finance and economics came easier as they were straightforward and rational.

In my University I was on the Dean’s list for a couple of semesters and held a 4.0 GPA for my first couple of years. It honestly did not mean much to me. In my breaks I would work in my father’s car shop, office and tug boats. I decided I was going to maximise my undergraduate experience and decided to do a triple major. It was taxing and I was overloading on an average of 22 to 24 credits every semester. These experiences geared me to become an entrepreneur. I had a thirst to move fast, learn, deploy and do as much as I could in any given situation. As a startup CEO, I strongly believe that being street smart is more important than being book smart. Similarly, the end is often more important than the process. You need to be fine with things not going accordingly to plan or being perfect. How you deal with imperfections or disruptions is much more important. Having a sense of urgency is also critical and if you are used to multi-tasking, stress, chaos and frustrations, you learn to internalize all that and show the calm, collected and rational decision-maker  side when things go off plan or haywire. Getting out and talking to my customers, competitors and team members was always more important to me than tons of analytical data and computer research. In my current role over the last three years, at one of my most tasking moments I have held five critical roles myself, working nights and weekends to help my team members. As a leader you are the pace maker and you work to set the vision, quick wins, discipline, culture and ethics.

Hotline BLING!

In a startup, it is crucial that you are accessible to your team and are able to schedule regular one-on-one sessions with every single person. As the head coach of the organisation, remember that you cannot coach a player without understanding their skills, goals, challenges and concerns.

Pied Piper of Hamlyn

Every start-up CEO has to be a natural salesman. This is especially true with entrepreneur & founder CEOs. People join the venture for you and your vision. If you cannot sell your vision or sell your service/product, you probably cannot start your own business. You need to be able to convince not one but a large team of people to join you in your venture.

Feel the Pulse

As a leader, you are expected to know and understand the fast changing environment that you are operating in. Technology is constantly advancing and as unreasonable as it sounds, you must always remain two steps ahead of the industry. A clear vision that is communicated well will inspire your team. It is also important to be realistic; pace your wins and achievements and thus make even the challenging goals very achievable. As the leader, you must chart the course and re-navigate as and when required. The smallest error could mean a loss of market share and profits and in some cases, even extinction. In my opinion, a mistake is usually a learning opportunity; however a mistake caused due to a poor understanding of your working environment is not tolerable.

I have a Dream

Everyone in today’s world must have the courage and ability to take risks. This is an absolute must for startup CEOs. You need to be comfortable in taking massive risks and staying undeterred even when the whole world calls you crazy, inexperienced or an amateur. Believe in yourself and there will be no stopping you.

It is OK, in fact necessary, to be different and unconventional. A startup is all about creating something new while challenging status quo and going against the tide. This needs fortitude and bravado and also persistence. All in all, you are going to have failures. That is a given. It’s not an “if” but “when” and “how much”. For me, some of my best learnings have been due to failures and how I pick myself up and turn it into learnings.

Have the courage to dream big, and even more courage to take the plunge to make the dream happen; no matter what conventional wisdom says. Be special, be different and ultimately, be extraordinary.


About the author:  Mittu Chandilya is the Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director of AirAsia India. He is a passionate & energetic global business leader specialized in people leadership, strategic marketing (Finance & Marketing) & General Management.

Prem Sivakumaran is co-founder & CEO of Growth Mechanics, a leadership and entrepreneurship-focused business content company in India. Growth Mechanics publishes The Smart CEO, a publication focused on enabling peer-to-peer knowledge exchange among C-level executives and board members. The platform reaches over 1.2 lakh CXOs across its website, app, print publication & CEO Round Tables, and has featured on the cover India’s leading business leaders/founders from Infosys, Mindtree, Tata Sons, ICICI Bank, Biocon, Yes Bank and several others. In addition of Smart CEO, Growth Mechanics also organises the Startup50 Conference & Awards, an annual event to recognize India’s top 50 startups every year. Startup50 Alumni include Freshdesk, Oyo Rooms, Urban Ladder, Capital Float, Paperboat Beverages, among others. Growth Mechanics’ primary business model revolves around linking CXOs and Brands around engaging content and has worked with India’s leading companies including Mahindra Group, Godrej & Boyce, BASF, Airtel, Tata Docomo, Fiat, IDA Ireland, Yes Bank, Prestige Estates, Frederique Constant, Indian Terrain

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