Edited by Daniel Katzenberger
It was an exciting winter morning, which would mark my first day of work at my family’s business. Prior to this day, I worked for a year in investment banking at JP Morgan Chase. My father was excited for me to begin work at the family business for two reasons. First, I would be continuing the legacy of my family’s business, which was established in 1955 by my grandfather. It started as a small radio repair shop and over the years had grown into one of the leading distributors of electronics in the Panchmahal region of Gujarat, India. Second, since I was the first person in three generations to go to college and to work for a global corporation, my father was excited to see what insights I would bring to the business. When I decided to move to my family’s business, I was assigned to lead the company’s innovation and modernization. I was as excited as a kid in a candy shop. I showed up early at the office on my first day wearing professional attire. However, things did not go as I had planned.
As soon as I showed up at the office, my dad remarked that I was overdressed for my job. I was confused. I asked my dad what he meant by overdressed. Without any explanation, he insisted that I change into clothes that I wouldn’t mind getting dirty. Although I was puzzled, I obliged at my father’s insistence. I changed into a relatively casual attire. As soon as I returned, my dad handed me a bottle of glass cleaner and a mop. My dad explained that my job for the day was to clean the windows and mop the floor. I was flabbergasted! I laughed in disbelief. My dad, however, kept insisting that I get on with my job quickly. I told him that I just finished a job with JP Morgan where I dealt with international bankers on a daily basis. He said that I could happily go back to my job at JP Morgan. I explained that given my skillset, I could be better utilized for more strategic functions. He didn’t budge. He gave me an ultimatum: either I was to start mopping the floor and cleaning windows or my job offer at my family business would be void.
Reluctantly, I began the cleaning process. This is not how I had imagined my first day would be at my family’s business. Nonetheless, I did not want to have an argument with my dad, who was also my supervisor, on the first day. Thinking that it was only for a day, I finished the cleaning process. I was very confused the entire day. I could not come up with a logical explanation for my father’s behavior. The next day, I show up dressed professionally again. To my shock, the same story was repeated the next day. My dad still wanted me to clean the windows and mop the floor. I asked him how long was I supposed to continue doing this? He didn’t reply. To my dismay, it went on for a week. At the end of the week, my dad said that I could resume my normal duties and was given a team to handle finance operations. I demanded an explanation for my dad’s behavior. He said that he would answer my question the next day.
The next day, a shipment of refrigerators arrived from one of our suppliers. We were short on daily wage laborers who would help with unloading the stock. Instead of returning the shipment or paying for extra labor, I saw my dad unloading those heavy refrigerators by carrying them on his back with the help of other laborers. My dad, at the age of 48, with a big fat belly began sweating and became short of breath after unloading just three refrigerators. Yet, he did not stop until he had unloaded all 15 refrigerators. That incident left a very powerful impression on me. My dad could have easily afforded extra laborers yet he chose to unload the stock himself. My dad explained me that to become a true leader, you need to lead by example. He told me that he knew that he could afford more laborers, but it would not have set a good example for the other employees to follow. Seeing him struggle with, and yet accomplish, the task at hand became my biggest motivation to undertake challenging tasks going forward.
My dad explained that he made me mop the floor and clean the windows for two reasons. One, he knew that since I came from a more educated and sophisticated work experience, it would have been very easy for me to be a rude and bossy manager. Also, the fact that I am the son of the owner would have made it difficult for me to shift my thinking later on. He wanted me to be humble and considerate towards the workers even at the lowest level of the pyramid. This could have been achieved only by going through the struggles that these workers go through. Second, he wanted me to understand that even the most basic things such as moping the floor and cleaning the windows add immense value to the business. The ambience and cleanliness become key factors in a business where the majority of sales are dependent upon the look and feel of the electronics. He wanted me not to underestimate the value of these basic functions and to have the same level of respect for co-workers at every level of employment.
His words changed something within me. Since that day, I have never been complacent about taking appropriate responsibility and have always sought to lead by example. I vividly remember that when I was volunteering for Y2Y, a homeless shelter in Harvard Square, I made tuna melt sandwiches for homeless people. Even though I am a vegetarian and feel uncomfortable with the smell of meat and fish, my dad’s words kept me going, and my discomfort didn’t stop me from serving food and setting a good example for other volunteers. Moreover, to drive innovation and leadership at my startup, I would first acquire skills such as editing movies, designing marketing materials, and writing scripts so that I could lead my co-workers to accomplish a certain vision and help them grow professionally. Even though these skills have a steep learning curve and take a lot of practice to become efficient in, the idea of leading by example and having a positive impact keeps me going.
About the author:
I’m an entrepreneur based in Mumbai. I have co-founded 2 startups since November 2014. One is in Media Production and the other is in Micro-finance. I recently completed HBX Disruptive Strategy. I’m currently pursuing Economics of Emerging Economies and Judgement & Decision Making at Harvard University.