Founding / Running a company vs. an academic institute. Some ramblings, inspired after reading a book!

Thanks to amazing students who gift me books, each of it is a treasure! Last 6 weeks has been a gift season in terms of students gifting me books. Books I received were: 0. 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene, 1. The Hard Thing about Hard Thing: Building a Business When There are No Easy Answers by Ben Horowitz, 2. Billionaire Boy  by George Beahm, 3. Super Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. Students who gifted the four books were AnupamaSamarth and Kanika. You can see how students influence my thinking with these kinds of books 🙂

Usually, I try to write a blog after reading a book capturing all my notes from the book, but, this time, I am making a twist in this. I just finished reading “Hard Thing: Building a Business When There are No Easy Answers”, the book is a wonderful read, I couldn’t put the book the down! The book talks about a CEO, his qualities, his team, his aspirations, etc. Half way through the book, I thought, these are great things Ben is talking about, but, these can also be looked at from an Academician’s point of view. So, in addition to my notes (not arranged in any particular order), I am going to pose questions / reactions about how the thoughts from the book can be applied in an academic scene in India, if at all. If anyone (CEO / Academic Administrator / Director / Student) has any reactions to it, please leave a comment, I will be happy to hear your thoughts.

P xi: “There is no recipe for building a high-tech company; there’s no recipe for leading a group of people out of trouble; there’s no recipe for making a series of hit songs;”

PK: Would it be appropriate to say there is no recipe for building a high-quality top-ranked institute in India and there is no recipe for being the top-ranked institute in India?

In the chapter “Ones and Twos” Ben describes about CEO transitions, and says “CEO transition is hard.”

PK: How does transition in academic institutes happen in India? Are there any processes and procedures that are followed?

In one of the chapters, Ben mentions the strategies to decide on the next CEO, where he describes the way in which 2 companies adopted different ways to replace the CEO. Keeping this in mind, while looking for a Director for an academic institute, how should one make a decision, take somebody from the institute or find somebody from outside or get somebody from one or two levels below in the hierarchy (inside or outside the institute) as General Electric did during Jack Welch’s appointment? What works in India?

P 32: “peacetime CEO to a wartime CEO.”

PK: Are there examples of institute Directors who have played the wartime Chief and gotten the institute out of some trouble and made it big?

P 242: And as they say in the mutual fund prospectuses, “past performance is no guarantee of future results.”

PK: Is this true in academic scenario? I somehow feel that for a faculty, past performance can be a good metric to predict future results.

P 67: “Build a culture that rewards – not punishes – people for getting problems into the open where they can be solved.”

PK: Any academic institution that has tried/does this? Or are there bigger bodies (e.g. UGC, AICTE) who lay down the rules and everyone follows?

In the chapter, “Programming your culture” Ben says that recruiting employees who are aligned with the culture of the company is important.

PK: If I think about it from the academic scenario in India, due to scarcity of good faculty candidates, we tend to recruit faculty who are very good at what they do, but, mostly in our recruitment process, we don’t evaluate the candidate for “alignment with the culture” explicitly. Is there anything done in academic institutes in India to evaluate this alignment of the candidate viz. informal interactions / dinners / lunches etc.?

P 120: “As a result, big company executives tend to be interrupt-driven [and not strategy, planning, fore-sighted-driven].”

PK: Is this true for academic institutes too? i.e. How much time do Directors of large institutes spend on strategy vs day-to-day activities / interrupts?

P 121: “When you run a large organization, you tend to become very good at tasks such as complex decision-making, prioritization, organizational design, process improvement, and organization communication. [When you are building an organization] you have to be very adept at running a high-quality hiring process, have terrific domain expertise (you are personally responsible for quality control), know how to create process from scratch, and be extremely creative about initiating new directions and tasks.”

PK: I can relate to this point so much, seeing Prof. Randy Bryant at CMU (running) during my graduate school life and now Prof. Pankaj Jalote at IIITD (building).

P 150: “As defined by Andy Grove, the right kind of ambition is ambition for the company’s success with the executive’s own success only coming as a by-product of the company’s victory. The wrong kind of ambition is ambition for the executive’s personal success regardless of the company’s outcome.”

PK: I always thought that this is a mutual relationship, i.e. I grow and IIITD grows, IIITD grows, I grow, but Grove’s view is slightly different. Is Grove’s view also true in academic scenario?

P 202: “The only thing that prepares you to run a company is running a company.”

PK: Is this true in the academic world? Or can one prepare himself / herself to run an institute by doing various roles in the institute? If so, what are the roles, qualities to build? Or attend executive MBA programs or courses on higher education management?

Overall, for Directors running institutes in India, I strongly recommend this book, it may give you a different perspective to things. A few chapters that you will definitely like are: “How to minimize politics in your company”, “The right kind of Ambition”, “When smart people are bad employees”, “Programming your culture”, “Ones and Twos” “Peacetime CEO / Wartime CEO”

Some other interesting points from the book:

P 191: “It is much easier to add new people to old processes than new processes to old people.”

P 124: “If you don’t know what you want, the chances that you’ll get it are extremely low.”

P 133: “Management purely by numbers is sort of like painting by numbers – it’s strictly for amateurs.”

P 82: “Ironically, the key to an emotional discussion is to take the emotion out of it.” I only wish, I can implement this well in my life!

P 89: “There is no silver bullet for this, only lead bullets.”

P 207: “Focus on the road, not the wall.”

P 59: “the first principle of the Bushido – the way of the warrior: keep death in mind at all times.”

P 66: I liked this line “In any human interaction, the required amount of communication is inversely proportional to the level of trust.”

P 36: “Gentlemen, I’ve done many deals in my life and through that process, I’ve developed a methodology, a way of doing things, a philosophy if you will. Within that philosophy, I have certain beliefs. I believe in artificial deadlines. I believe in playing one against the other. I believe in doing everything and anything short of illegal or immortal to get the damned deal done.”

P 46: This was completely surprising to read “It turned out that when you accounted for turnover rates and the cost of recruiting and training, Cary, North Carolina, engineers were cheaper to hire than Bangalore, India, engineers.”

P22: “No matter who you are, you need two kind of friends in your life. The first kind is one you can call when something good happens… who will actually be more excited for you than he would be if it had happened to him. The second kind of friend is somebody you can call when things go horribly wrong – when your life is on the line and you only have one phone call.”

I hope you got a glimpse of the book from my summary. Please feel free to react to my questions / thoughts. I look forward to learning.