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Shyamal Majumdar: Learn to admit mistakes

Flipkart's Sachin Bansal deserves credit for his frankness

Shyamal Majumdar  |  New Delhi 

Shyamal Majumdar

Flipkart’s co-founder Sachin Bansal deserves a big pat on his back for having the courage to say something few of his peers in other companies would ever do. Speaking at a town hall meeting last week, Bansal said he was replaced as chief executive because of performance. “Look at the top level around you. Everyone has changed. In fact, even I am gone. Some of our targets have been missed and everyone, including the top management, has paid the price,” Bansal is reported to have said.

Bansal’s comments have been interpreted in many ways — some say it was a super smart move to diffuse tension in the company, which had to go through staff reductions following a series of valuation markdowns. Others say he was just trying to make a virtue out of necessity by sending out a message that “perform or perish” is a way of life in corporate India and no one is spared — not even the co-founder and high-profile executives.

No one knows his real motive, but it might not have been easy for a co-founder to be candid enough on the real reason for his exit as CEO. In January, Bansal was replaced as CEO and made executive chairman after eight years at the helm.

And this was not the first time that the Bansals (Sachin and Binny, who is now the CEO) have apologised for their mistake — the last time was in 2014, a day after the Big Billion Day sale because of the glitches that the Flipkart site encountered as it struggled to keep up with the heavy traffic.

There are many global leaders who think admitting mistakes is no big deal. Take Adidas’ long-serving CEO Herbert Hainer. Following criticism after the German sportswear company lost ground to US rival Nike, Hainer admitted he had made mistakes, such as rolling out too many new golf products just as the market was contracting, He said he would make sure the company goes forward soon. That blunted the criticism from investors, allowing Hainer to walk his talk.

Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella also didn’t mind admitting the “one big mistake” the company made was to think the personal computer will reign supreme forever and failing to anticipate the technological transformation of the mobile phone.

General Motors CEO Mary Barra did the same. After GM recalled over 800,000 of its small cars due to faulty ignition switches in 2014, Barra admitted a series of mistakes were made which led to the cause of the faulty ignition switch.

In contrast, there are very few examples of CEOs in India having the humility and the ability to admit error. They will do everything — blame the team, the ecosystem, other stakeholders — everything except owning up to their own mistakes. This is unfortunate as being a leader doesn’t mean that you are always right or that you won’t err. You simply have to have the confidence to own the mistakes and admit when you are wrong. That is when you earn the respect of their colleagues.

One possible reason for this behaviour could be the perception that humble leaders are seen to be meek or timid and that admitting error is a sign of weakness. Many management consultants also keep harping that leaders, especially the aspiring ones, should perfect the art of hiding weakness and mistakes. That view is flawed. But the more dangerous part is that some leaders try to fake it in order to get some brownie points, without realising that their team members would soon see through it and take them as signs that you don’t mean what you’re saying.

Many say leaders should embrace mistakes, not only for themselves but for their team as well. The journey, of course, doesn’t end with admitting mistakes; team members would respect them if the leader takes them through a process of what he learned and what he should have done differently. That’s a great learning experience.

Companies need courageous leaders in order to feel there is someone to make the tough calls and to take responsibility for them — they need to know that the buck truly does stop with the leader.

And in any case it’s much better than to keep kicking the can down the road.

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First Published: Thu, August 25 2016. 21:48 IST
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