Interview with Sunitha Lal, Head of HR at Ather Energy.
One of the things I love about interviewing start-ups is how they look at things differently. If you are going to beat an incumbent, with all their advantages of existing market share, client base, brand equity, distribution network, etc., you cannot just go in and do the same as everyone else. Per definition, you have to be different.
And when it is in your DNA to be different in what you deliver, it very easily also becomes part of your DNA to be different in how you run your own business.
Ather Energy is a perfect example of this.
Ather is an India based electric mobility company that has taken on the bold vision of designing and manufacturing electric scooters – from scratch and from the bottom up – in India. A seven-year-old start-up is taking on some giants in the motorcycle industry. And like all bold start-ups, they try to question not only the product they make but how to organise themselves around making that product. And that is Sunitha Lal’s role as their Head of HR.
When the company grew – and it has grown quickly – they realised that they needed to add some structure to the organisation, but they wanted to be creative in how structure was added so it would not become hierarchical. The origin of the word structure hints at what it should do: it should support something solid. But Ather wanted to build something solid without having walls that divided the people. Call it “open structure”.
For example: When they wanted to define the values of the company, instead of having a few senior leaders define them, they organised focus groups where hundreds of people discussed “What is our company?”
These ‘Culture Conversations’ as they call it, helped create a culture of everyone having a voice. Of adding structure without adding status.
This idea of a structure without status is so strong in the company that when Ather opened up a new sales office in Chennai, 50 customers (!) volunteered to take their own scooters to Chennai and help spread the word around the electric dream and future. In a way, it had created its own sales organisation! When customers volunteer to talk to future prospective customers about your product – and to do that by taking your product to a different city – then you know you have a strong DNA built around doing something great.
Another unusual but brilliant – I think – practice that they have at Ather is what they call “The Boring Conference.”
The Boring Conference is an internal, TED talk-style forum where Ather team members share their knowledge about some obscure topic that they are passionate about outside of their work. It could be waste management. Or the fauna of the Himalayas. Anything. This forum even attracted external speakers wanting to talk to Ather team members about equally unusual topics. The idea is to eventually open the participation for people outside of the organisation as well.
The topics might sound irrelevant, strange – and yes, boring – but that is the point. To get people to listen to presentations that they know nothing about and that they are not interested in, in order to widen their perspectives.
After all “bored” is just another word for “currently ignorant due to uninterest”. Every topic can be interesting when we activate our curiosity.
Ather knows that they will not change the two-wheeler industry (that has frankly not changed very much in the last 100 years or so) by doing the same thing as everyone else. And you will not change your industry either by more same-o same-o. So take a page from the Ather playbook and do not just challenge what you do – but also how you do it.
Don’t just know your “what” and your “why” – but also your “how?”
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