Why every company needs to risk chaos

founders-mentality-blog-chaos-220x207How do growing companies build a professional management structure that can handle their increasing size, without simultaneously pushing their CEO or founders further and further from the front line, and without the galvanizing voice and vision of the founders becoming increasingly distant and quiet?

This issue is not new. The ancient Greeks described this as the tension of the gods Chronos and Kairos. And as I learned in my meetings with company founders in Bangalore, similar tensions exist in the Hindu concept of the Trimurti.

Let’s start with the Greeks. Chronos is the god of time. A Chronos-inspired CEO is governed by time and watches the clock. A Chronos CEO will stop a meeting about customers on the hour and shift the discussion to IT investments because that’s what’s on the meeting agenda.

Kairos is the god of supreme moments—unplanned and spontaneous. A Kairos-inspired CEO will drop everything—agenda be damned—to create a supreme moment, to teach a lesson, to inspire. A Kairos-inspired CEO would tear up the meeting agenda and focus on one customer complaint for eight hours if he or she felt it would focus the leadership team on what really matters.

Kairos is not far from the goddess Chaos—and you can see why: The poor managers who were next on the agenda would wait outside for five hours and then catch the last flight home, frustrated that Chronos abandoned them. (I am not the first to observe the concepts of kairos and chronos at work in corporate life). A company can’t be run by Kairos alone: Chaos would quickly join in and take over. But the CEO who becomes a prisoner of Chronos makes the company susceptible to forces that cause it to drift further from the Founder’s MentalitySM described above. It is Kairos who helps CEOs signal to the organization the few things that really matter.

Among the founder-led companies I visited in Bangalore was Mindtree, a 14-year old software company. (Update July 28: See Mindtree’s latest financial results.) Its chairman, Subroto Bagchi, is the bestselling author of four business books, and a fifth, The Elephant Catchers, is soon to be published. Subroto explained to me that a tension similar to the one between Chronos and Kairos also exists in Hinduism. The Hindu Trimurti is the concept of how the top three gods work together: Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the transformer—who might also be considered the god of reengineering. Subroto says that organizations require different forms of leadership depending on where they are in their lifecycle.

Any one leader is unlikely to have all three traits—in theory, one will dominate—so Subroto suggests that founders have a responsibility to change the leadership when necessary. At certain times, that may even mean that they themselves have to step away from the daily management tasks of running the organization and bring in a leader who has the traits required at that point.

Subroto argues that Brahma the creator would have a hard time sustaining a company. “He would be so overwhelmed by the enormity of the task that he would simply call it a day; he is the start-up guy. His job is to spawn.” Likewise, he says, “If Vishnu had to sit in on a performance review, he would have a hard time weeding out the bottom 5% or deciding which business to close down.”

And, says Subroto, Shiva would be disastrous at either role. “The guy has a tiger skin wardrobe, a live snake for a necklace, covers his body in ash, rides a bull, and hangs out atop the Himalayas. Don’t ever hire him as the CEO of a Fortune 500 company.” But, he adds, “When you need to change the existing order, he is your go-to guy. He is the purveyor of all reengineering and creative destruction. Without him, creation hits its own limits.”

In the Hindu pantheon, the three gods perform their roles seamlessly and don’t confuse their purpose. “But company founders don’t quite understand the difference,” Subroto observes. “They try to be all three with the inevitable consequence: Creation stalls.”

In our research, we have found that the best founding teams have leaders with the capacity to create new products and business models, the ability to sustain the organization and the skills to transform the company over time through continuous adaptation. Each has its moment—but all are essential. For example, founders themselves are often too close to Kairos and, at a certain point in the company’s growth, they need to bring in a CEO governed more by Chronos to establish order.

To maintain the Founder’s Mentality as their companies grow, however, CEOs have to be careful that the ruthless focus on what really matters isn’t lost in wave after wave of professionalization. Chronos is seductive precisely because he brings order, he regulates and balances, he seeks to preserve and expand on the company’s success. But that can quickly turn a company from a challenger into a defender of the status quo. It can lull a company into a false sense of security even as the very traits that made it great slowly bleed away. The CEO should occasionally be governed by Kairos—or Shiva. Let disorder prevail—at times—to remind the company what really matters.

This entry was posted in Death of the nobler mission, The paths to Great Repeatable Models by James Allen. Bookmark the permalink.

About James Allen

James Allen is a senior partner in Bain & Company's London office and recognized as a leading expert in developing global corporate and business unit strategy. He is co-head of Bain’s Global Strategy practice and a member of Bain & Company's European Consumer Products practice. He is co-author, with Chris Zook, of Repeatability (HBR Press, March 2012) and Profit from the Core (HBR Press, 2001 and 2010).

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