Chapter 7 The Follower – Department of Startup


The Follower


On a cold Friday morning of January 20, 1961, at the eastern portico of the United States Capitol, in Washington, America swore in her youngest and one the most charismatic leader she has ever seen—President John F. Kennedy. Following a narrow victory over Richard Nixon, an 8-year incumbent Vice President, Kennedy, a war hero and a Pulitzer Prize winner delivered an inauguration speech of hope, strength, compassion and the belief in the power of Americans working together.

The crowd lauded Kennedy when he threw the challenge to his fellow Americans to a lifetime commitment toward public service for the greater good. Americans, young and old, harkened to Kennedy when he said, “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.” Those words inspired a whole generation of young Americans to embrace the idea of self-sacrifice and to volunteer to help the more impoverished populations in America and the world. Many joined the Peace Corps, a volunteer program initiated by President Kennedy himself to bring about social and economic development abroad in Third World countries while promoting a mutual understanding between America and the country served. Peace Corps produced many renown alumni, and in the startup and technology world, Reed Hastings, the co-founder of ­Netflix would need no further introduction.

Reed Hastings volunteered in 1983 to 1985, teaching mathematics in Swaziland, Africa and he chose Peace Corps “out of a combination of service and adventure” ( 2005). Hastings attributed his entrepreneurial skills development, especially the appetite for risk-taking, to his time spent there. In an interview with Matthew Boyle of Fortune in 2007, Hastings had this to say, “But once you have hitchhiked across Africa with 10 bucks in your pocket, starting a business doesn’t seem too intimidating” (CNN Money 2007). With the seed planted in Africa, Hasting founded his first company Pure Software in 1991, bringing it public in 4 years before it was acquired.

Spotting an opportunity when he had an overdue fee for the “Apollo 13” video cassette which he had misplaced, Hastings started ­Netflix, fully admitting that he wasn’t sure if the customers would come. Netflix changed the way we view television and home movies. It brought about a culture of on-demand movies whereby you can choose to watch your favorite movie, anytime, anywhere. In 2013, Hastings took another risky plunge by getting Netflix to produce its very own television series, “House of Cards” starring Kevin Spacey which went on to win 3 Emmy awards. Today, Netflix has a market capitalization of US $152 billion as of May 2018, with 125 million subscribers in more than 190 countries ­(Fortune 2018), streaming movies, drama, cartoons to all computers, laptops, smartphones and more. Hasting himself, has a personal net worth of US $3.7 billion (Fortune 2018) and true to his humility, he had attributed it all to serendipity.

Through service to others and self-sacrifice, one is poised to reap the seeds that one has sown and in abundance. One of that seed is self-discovery. The process of self-discovery will open one’s heart to what is important to him, what he is capable of and what is his “self-actualization” need is. Reed Hastings has in his volunteering role, discovered that he has the risk appetite to be an entrepreneur and doing business was something that is important to him. That changed Hastings, who holds a Masters in Computer Science from the University of Stanford, from choosing a path as a computer scientist to a startup entrepreneur.

Lao Tzu, an ancient Chinese philosopher, and writer of the 4th Century B.C. once said, “He who knows others is wise; he who knows himself is enlightened.” Hastings is the best example of an enlightened soul and where it took him still surprises him till today.

Startup employees who are willing to put in the extra hour, the new initiative, the enthusiasm to learn from mistakes would be likely to find his “enlightened self,” who he is, his potential and his competencies. Accordingly, it is of utmost importance for Fortune 500 with active ­Corporate Social Responsibility (SCR) program, to be more deliberate in helping employees who volunteered to begin the process of self-discovery. The benefits are tremendous especially when employees are able to discover their “self-actualization” needs or their true vocation while serving others. Here, self-actualization could be something that one is passionate about. Passion is most often found in something that one is competent in or potentially competent in. Motivated, purpose-driven and passionate employees will do wonders in their work.

Vice versa, employees or followers must take an active role in the process of self-discovery while volunteering their time. Volunteering can be within the company’s CSR program or with selected Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO), Foundations or Charities of their choosing. The choice of a cause to volunteer or in what capacity should one be involved in is not as critical as getting started and participating actively in one. Because it is while doing the volunteering work, one would begin the discovery process.

However, one should take the initiative to be mindful of what stirs his heart while performing these services. Some of the key questions that one could pose to themselves are:

  • What are the joys that I can draw from volunteering?
  • Do I feel peaceful and loved while I am working in this capacity?
  • What are the elements of this servanthood that brings about kindness and goodness in me?
  • Where have I found the patience and faithfulness in me to carry on the work when it began to look insurmountable?
  • How often have I been able to be gentle and to exercise self-control while volunteering when in a normal situation at work, I would have reacted differently?

Being deliberate and truthful in one’s answers to the previous questions not only would help tremendously in the discovery of one’s passion, but above all, one’s real potential or vocation. In Frederick Buechner’s own words, “Vocation is where your greatest passion meets the world’s greatest need.”

Trust to Be Trusted

The current employer-employee relationship is one bound by contract, a transactional one. For a certain amount of time of the day or a ­certain amount of labor, the employee would be remunerated in an agreeable amount of reward. As much as such arrangement has brought about ­significant protection to the employee and also to the employer, it has however damaged the mutual trust among the two parties.

In the words of controversial labor lawyer Sir Otto Kahn-Freund,

The relation between an employer and an isolated employee or worker is typically a relation between a bearer of power and one who is not a bearer of power. In its inception it is an act of submission, in its operation, it is a condition of subordination.

In Otto Kahn-Freund’s argument, he views the need for the State to be one of the elements in the tripartite industrial relations with Employer and Employee, albeit as an abstentionist. Interference from the State is only as a last resort.

It is of little wonder that trusting their employer is of little value to employees. In a global survey conducted by KarynTwaronite of Ernst & Young in 2016, fewer than half of the surveyed professionals have high trust in their companies. A further 15 percent of the surveyed 9,800 employees, age 19 to 68 from Brazil, China, Germany, India, Mexico, Japan, the UK, and the U.S. reported “very little trust” or “no trust at all”. And with today’s practice of “hiring and firing”, a norm in the employment market, Kahn-Freund’s rather negative taking on the trust level between these two parties still hold water today. Trust is found wanting to the point that he sees a need for the introduction of labor law albeit adopting more of a “laissez-faire” attitude.

Albeit against the backdrop of such unequal relationship, it is however still in the best interest of employees and followers to first give their employers their trust. Ernest Hemingway put it best when he said, “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” Nevertheless, by first taking the first step toward trusting one’s employer or leader, one is not only creating an opportunity for a transformational relationship but also satisfying his Maslow’s need for security and safety. Once the need for security has been met, one can then work toward creating an emotional relationship to build a sense of belonging and social security within the organization.

The trust which in its essence is a form of confidence, bold and secure or action based on that security, forms the crux of any relationship. Hence, by first extending trust to others, one is taking the first step in a relationship, and allowing the other party to know you better. And by building on that relationship, mutual trust can be established. One has to give out trust to earn trust.

Trusting others is a matter of mindset while trustworthiness is a ­product of behaviors. In other words, when someone chooses to trust, he or she would likely to have a change of heart which would lead to actions or behaviors that would build on that relationship. These behaviors, stemming from a trusting heart would then be seen and acknowledged as trustworthiness.

Most startup employees, especially for startups in their infancy, adopt a trust first policy when they choose to join the startup founder instead of a more stable career with a Fortune 500. Many of their peers might have thought they had chosen to do in blind faith, but in actual fact they had decided to trust not only the founder but also what the startup stands for and how both the founder and the startup are aligned to their self-belief system.

Craig Silverstein was Google Employee Number 3, after the ­co-founders, Larry Page, and Sergey Brin. He was the first person employed by Page and Brin after having studied together with them at Stanford University for his PhD. Silverstein’s contribution to the building blocks of Google is legendary amongst Google. In Page’s own words, ­Silverstein’s codes were instrumental in the success of Google today. A Harvard graduate as well, he was also admitted to the Phi Beta Kappa, the oldest and most prestigious honor society in America, honoring outstanding liberal arts and science students. He had plenty of choices to work with the top 1 percent of the Fortune 500, but instead, he chose to trust his fellow students, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and Google.

What drove Silverstein to put his trust in Google and its founders so early in the startup phase? Google then was just an idea in a dorm room in the halls of Stanford.

The answer was crystal clear in Silverstein’s goodbye e-mail to the staff in Google when he left in the year 2012 to join Khan Academy. Silverstein had this to say for his 13 years in Google,

While a lot has changed at Google over the years, I think we’ve done a remarkable job of staying true to our core mission of ­making the world a better place by making information more accessible and useful. I am looking forward to pursuing that same mission, though in a slightly different way, at Khan.

Craig Silverstein had trusted Google, Larry Page, and Sergey Brin that their belief system matches that of his; to make the world a better place by making information accessible and useful. Google and its founder had reciprocated that trust and stayed true to their values and belief system. In his final parting words, Silverstein again emphasized how Google’s belief system had affected him to choose Google, and he wrote “When I write my massive 4-volume autobiography, “Craig Silverstein: the Man Behind the Legend,” I will devote an entire volume to my years at Google. I can’t emphasize enough how meaningful my time at Google has been, and how meaningful all of you have been to it.”

Throughout his time with Google, Silverstein was trusted, and is seen by many, as the third founder. His reward was not only in recognition but also monetarily. From his tenure with Google, his only employer to date, Silverstein had amassed a total of US $950 million in remuneration.

Trust to be trusted is a truth that is as old as the hills, and those hills stretch all the way back to the time of Lao Tzu in the 4th century B.C. in one of his famous quote, “He who does not trust enough will not be trusted.”

Be Teachable and Learn

As we approach the cusp of the 4th Industrial Revolution, skills acquired in the previous century or even those that are just 10 years ago could have been obsolete. Technology, automation, artificial intelligence, big data, and smart machines had continuously changed the landscape of the job market and at a rate that is unprecedented. Some had even challenged the relevance of traditional universities especially in the field of technology. In 2013, Dr. Carl Benedikt Frey and Professor Michael Osborne of the Oxford Martin School published their seminal paper, “The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation,” whereby they predicted that 47 percent of jobs in the U.S. are at risk of automation. Their study is based on the argument that one can predict the future of jobs by just observing what the computers or technology are capable of doing. And in their estimates, they had examined the susceptibility of 702 occupations which comprise 97 percent of the U.S. workforce and compared that to emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and automation. The conclusion Frey and Osborne had, was a sobering one, they had been somewhat conservative with the 47 percent prediction, and the world of work is changing again and at a faster pace. We, the society as a whole, from leaders to educators and ourselves need to respond appropriately.

American philosopher, author, and teacher of spiritual, psychological growth, Vernon Howard said,

It is a mistake for anyone to think he has lived too long in his old, unsatisfactory ways to make the great change. If you switch on the light in a dark room, it makes no difference how long it was dark because the light will still shine. Be teachable. That is the whole secret.

Howard had in so little words described both the nascent predicament and its solution for the 21st century careerist. The answer lies in being teachable. Are you teachable? Are you humble enough to be taught? Would you be willing to accept that learning will be lifelong as technology continues to evolve? Would you be willing to allow someone half your age to teach you?

Disruption to skills and jobs in the 21st century is no longer a hypothesis but a reality. Jenny Soffel, Digital Lead from the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, World Economic Forum, mentioned emphatically that “the gap between the skills people learn and the skills people need is becoming obvious, as traditional learning falls short of equipping students with the knowledge they need to thrive”. She further alluded that for job candidates to thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, they would need to be able to collaborate, communicate and solve problems, skills developed through what is known as social and emotional learning (SEL). Although traditional skills are still necessary, it is imperative for the 21st-century careerist to be proficient socially and emotionally.

The clear and present message is that lifelong learning is the new norm. One could not, and must not, end their learning once they have earned their degrees or even post-graduate degrees. The evolution of the digital economy is disrupting even the most traditional industry such as business and finance. Monzo became the first United Kingdom online-only bank to obtain a full banking license since its inception in 2015. In a short span of just three years, it had attracted already 500,000 customers with all transactions done online or via an app. The United Kingdom Financial Services Compensation Scheme (FSCS) had already agreed to cover deposits up to the amount of £85,000. The new dawn is here.

As the argument for the need is laid to rest, the toughest yet is the question of how can one adopt a teachable mentality. What are the challenges or the obstacles from making one teachable?

Elizabeth Bennet, the protagonist in Jane Austen’s best selling romantic novel, “Pride and Prejudice,” almost forfeited her true love when her prejudice swayed her away from Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy while Mr. Darcy himself was guilty of the same due to his pride.

While prejudice has a preconceived opinion that is not based on actual reality, pride is having too high an opinion of what is real of oneself. Both are stumbling block to a teachable heart.

Pride, if left unchecked, would lead to a “know-it-all” mentality with no room for new learning, as one may say that, you can’t add more to an already filled cup. In this rapid digital advancement age, it is very likely “teachers” would be the Millennials (those born in the 80s) and the ­Generation Z (born 1995 onwards) who are digital natives. To be taught or to learn from a younger generation requires one to humble oneself and to keep an open mind to learn. There must be a renewal of mind that “teachers” of the 21st century may not come with long years of research work or titles of a well-read university academician.

Reverse mentoring, a concept first popularized by ex-GE Chairman Jack Welsh, whereby more senior executives are mentored by younger employees who are digital natives in areas of technology and social media, is increasingly becoming a critical part of Fortune 500 developmental needs. The benefits are astronomical as Fortune 500 would be able to use resources which are hired at the entry level to bring employees and leadership team up to speed in the technology trend with curated content. Also, the pace of change is so fast that traditional training especially classroom type of training are rendered ineffective. Alan Webber, the co-founder of Fast Company, put it best when he explains about reverse mentoring,

It’s a situation where the old fogies in an organization realize that by the time you’re in your forties and fifties, you’re not in touch with the future the same way the young 20-somethings. They come with fresh eyes, open minds and instant links to the technology of our future (Forbes 2011).

Prejudice, on the other hand, would breed the “nothing-to-learn” mentality. Being judgmental rob ones of the opportunity to learn, as it had stifled the sense of curiosity. Nothing is worthy of learning. It may also lead to stereotyping whereby one uses mental “files” to process new information by comparing them to past knowledge and experiences. The biggest problem with that is the knowledge from even just a year ago may already be obsolete in the fast-changing digital economy.

Mumbai Dabbawalas (lunchbox delivery men) is a 5,000 strong force with an average class 8 literacy, elementary school education in Indian standard delivers over 130,000 lunch boxes throughout Mumbai in a day, bringing home-cooked food to the customers and returning the empty dabbas (metal lunch box) the same day. Stefan Tomke from Harvard Business Review estimated that,

Every working day they transport more than 130,000 lunch boxes throughout Mumbai, the world’s fourth-most-populous city. That entails conducting upwards of 260,000 transactions in six hours each day, six days a week, 52 weeks a year (minus holidays) but mistakes are sporadic.

The speed and accuracy of the Dabbawalas were made even more impressive with the fact that they didn’t employ any form of technology, not even a cell phone.

These semi-illiterate individuals had impressed Harvard Business School not only to publish a case study on them but also to give them a “Six Sigma” grading which means that the Dabbawalas made less than 3.4 mistakes per million transactions (BBC 2017). Naturally, Fortune 500 such as FedEx and Sir Richard Branson of Virgin Airlines are some of the notable companies who had spent time learning from them.

Lastly, the top 10 skills in 2020 identified by the World Economic Forum in its Future of Jobs Report, are:

  • Complex Problem Solving
  • Critical Thinking
  • Creativity
  • People Management
  • Coordinating with Others
  • Emotional Intelligence
  • Judgment and Decision Making
  • Service Orientation
  • Negotiation
  • Cognitive Flexibility

One can deduce from the prior list that being prideful or prejudicial would hinder the acquisition of most of the skills which are paramount to being successful in the 21st century.

Find Your Destiny

Dwight David Eisenhower, or popularly known amongst his fighting men as “Ike,” was the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II. In post-war America, Eisenhower was elected to be the 34th President of the United States of America. One of his famous quotes was the one mentioned in the TIME magazine on October 6th 1952, “Neither a wise man or a brave man lies down the tracks of history to wait for the train of the future to run over him”.

One’s destiny lies within his or her own free will, and it is one’s prerogative to make the best possible decision for oneself.

Netflix was forefront in putting Ike’s words to practice as an organization as a whole, with emphasis on freedom and responsibility as one of its core culture. Netflix describes this rare responsible person as someone who embodies the following behaviors:

  • Self-motivating
  • Self-aware
  • Self-disciplined
  • Self-improving
  • Acts like a leader
  • Doesn’t wait to be told what to do
  • Picks up the trash lying on the floor

And it’s Netflix firm believe that by giving and increasing this freedom, it will continue to attract and nourish innovative people to help the business sustain successes in the rapidly changing economy.

In the same breath, this “rare” employee is expected to be responsible for his or her career path including pay and promotion. Netflix even allows their employees to compare what they are being paid to the global market. True to its words, Netflix shuns the traditional and formalized development program but instead creates the necessary environment and opportunities for high performing employee to self-develop, by “self-­improving through experience, observation, introspection, reading and discussion” ( 2018). Career management is a personal responsibility and not “planned” by the company.

Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of President D. Roosevelt, also the longest-serving First Lady of the United States of America, has this to say about freedom,

Freedom makes a huge requirement of every human being. With freedom comes responsibility. For the person who is unwilling to grow up, the person who does not want to carry his own weight, this is a frightening prospect.

Now if one has been weighed and found to be adequate, what’s then the best path to discover one’s destiny or vocation. How does one discover his or her destiny? Where can the discovery process begin? The pathway perhaps lies in not searching for a particular job or career, but to search for a position and the impact it will have on society.

It may be easier for startup employees to define and relate to the said position as the startup has the advantage of starting from the very beginning, which is describing the good it wants to do in the society. In the case of Google, the good for the society is freeing the reign on information, making it accessible and useful to the masses. The impact of any positions within Google to the society can be easily defined as it is about empowerment from politics, health to finding your way with the Google map during your holidays.

However, if one is to seek a position within a Fortune 500, the same thought process must take place although it might take a little more effort to recognize it due to the complexity of a Fortune 500 business. All in all the position must provide both extrinsic values in terms of remuneration and its intrinsic value: it is good in itself. The work that comes from the position must be intrinsically good first to self, loved ones, society and the world in general.

Ultimately, the position should lead to one’s destiny or vocation, and it should fulfill three dimensions outlined by Greg Ogden:

  • The individual experience an inner oughtness
  • It is bigger than the individual
  • It brings great satisfaction and joy to the individual