Are you doing the “right thing”? Lessons and dilemmas of an early employee.
As I was closing the chapter on 2017, I realized that I am about to turn 26 next year. Oh, I panicked. I panicked at the thought of turning 30 in the next four and a half years, and the worry about what legacy I will leave by then. I have done all the right Indian things so far in life — I became an NTSE scholar (the only girl from the city that year), was the district topper in class 12 for Commerce, went to the best arts college in the country, joined a Harvard MPA-IDs led development consulting firm, and am working at the best social-data-tech startup in the country. Could I ask for more? And, all this, along a very supportive family that only pushes me to do more “right things” and lets me dream as I wish.
But, I have just 4 and a half years until I turn 30. I will probably need to get married during this time and “settle in”, you see. I probably won’t have a chance to sit for the Civil Services exams if not now, and if I don’t do it, I will shatter my grandfathers‘ dreams. And I probably won’t ever do a Masters in my life, if I don’t do it now. Am I out of right things to do? I, of course, asked myself:
Am I making the right choice to live it up as the Resident Entrepreneur, SocialCops?
This post is about my learnings at SocialCops, reflections on my two and a half years, and how I made peace with what I am doing. To begin this quest, I looked up a lot of life stories of early-stage employees at startups (in India and elsewhere) to compare their journeys and find the “right thing” for me. No success. So I asked myself hard questions and concluded that there is no right answer, but there can be checkpoints that can reassure you. I thought I should write down these checkpoints for any other struggling soul still deciding on how to zero down on the “right things” for you in your late 20s.
- Experience all aspects of a business — content, marketing, sales, project management.
At SocialCops, I have been quite lucky to evolve my journey along with the company. I started running a course for NGOs (Data for Impact), moved on to do “consultative sales” for the company, did project management (and took care of some of the biggest government projects for the company), introduced field management, started a fellowship (again, “Data for Impact”), led the company’s Research & Analysis team, helped organize company trips, made chai during all-nighters, sat through days and nights to brainstorm with folks, reported bugs, wrote proposals, coded webpages, did content checks, represented SocialCops in conferences, interviewed hundreds of candidates, and much more! That is just the last two and a half years.
Yet I still feel there is so much to learn at SocialCops: how to grow newer teams, expand company operations, streamline processes, taste scale, build products, and become a better mentor! All my earlier experience only makes it easier to try out these new things and work with diverse people.
More diverse experience? Check.
2. If you can grow as a leader, there’s nothing better to spend your 20s on.
Here are some of the things that I have learnt about leadership so far:
- You can only focus on helping 1–2 people to become newer and better leaders. Don’t lead someone if you can’t give them time. You should check in regularly (even informally for 10 minutes) once every week; it will only help them do their job better.
- Leading isn’t about “monitoring your team” and making them do things. It’s about transferring the way you think to the next bunch — only then they can make decisions without you.
- Leadership is like parenting — a full-time job. You have to care selflessly, and help someone overcome not just their professional hurdles, but sometimes their personal hurdles too. You need to be an honest parent — give feedback whenever you have to, not when it’s easy or convenient. You have to be ruthless, but also be supportive. Caring doesn’t mean being emotional. If you truly care about someone, you will only think of their best interest, not how they feel or react to what you say. It’s not about you, it’s about them.
- Lead different kind of people — introverts, extroverts, emotional ones, not-so-emotional ones, excited ones, not-so-excited ones. You’ll learn how to help diverse people reach their best potential.
Have I led enough? Am I good at leading all types of people? Leadership is an exercise in patience. And, I want to try my hand with all kinds of people.
More leadership opportunities? Check.
3. If you can make decisions on behalf of your organization, stay in that organization.
If your founders trust you with introducing new products, trying out new projects, letting you lead teams, and deciding a vision for your team and the organization, then there is no better place. Why? Because in your 20s, not everyone will trust you with holding big responsibilities or doing that crazy thing that you think you can do. Whether you’re at the best consulting firm, the biggest tech giant, or the coolest data startup, if you only execute at this age and are not pushed to think beyond your project, you will waste your 30s learning about how to think at a “company level”, and you probably won’t lead organizations until your 40s.
How can you think at a company level? How can you make the best choice for the company? Here’s the secret sauce by my co-founder, Prukalpa:
“Ask yourself, is this the best thing for the company? Your gut will guide you.”
It works for everything, even for your own growth. If you truly believe in your organization’s mission and if you can link your growth with your organization’s, you will make both better. Just answering that for myself has helped me set the right vision for my team, hire the right team members (and reject over thousands in the process), take on the right projects, and even on a day-to-day level, spend my time on the right things. In this process, I learnt to be a hiring manager, a client manager, a better salesperson, and a team lead, all in a year. Did I chalk that out in the beginning? No. I just did what was needed of me for growing the company.
Though, one word of caution — as you dream for the company and yourself, be realistic. Not everyone will run at the same pace, and not everyone will have the same priorities, so be patient — either you will get there or people will. Pick your battles wisely, and growth shall follow.
4. People over projects and products. Any day.
You end up spending two-thirds of your life at your workplace, so you might as well do it with people who inspire rather than conspire. Projects and products happen not because of the tech or data behind them, but because of the constant effort from the people behind them.
Be with a team that pushes you to be better, that gives you objective feedback, that stands by you at all times. Surround yourself with smart people who question you, who make you want to do your job better every time. Hire people whom you can learn from, and work with people who inspire you to take on complex projects at the most crunched time of the year because it’s worth it. This December, my team and I decided to take on a massive project to learn how to create customized Gram Panchayat development plans for hundreds of villages in record time. It would make our lives crazy for a month, but we knew it would make future gram panchayat-level deployments much faster. As my colleague explained, “We’re already driving in a Mercedes, but let’s make it a Ferrari.”
People? Enough said.
5. Most importantly, either go “all in” or “fold”.
If you have an inch of doubt whether to do what you do, don’t do it. Because, believe it or not, if you’re in doubt, you will end up giving your second-best performance. The time you could have utilized for making it your best, you were busy second-guessing yourself. If you choose to do something, go “all in” and you will make the most of it for the company and for yourself. Else, “fold” and find the thing or place that will make you go all in.
Here’s to learning more and growing SocialCops in 2018 — one person and team at a time. :)