Employee Speak: Phanindra Sama, CEO, redBus ;V4 Issue 2


About Phanindra Sama and redBus: Phanindra Sama “Phani” is a Founder and the CEO of redBus.in, India’s largest bus ticketing company. Founded in August 2006, redBus today has operations across 15 states and offers services for 5000+ routes and has built a robust distribution of over 75000 outlets! redBus is amongst Forbes top 5 start-ups to watch in 2010.

Phani has been ranked No. 3 amongst India’s Most Promising Entrepreneurs by Business World. He was awarded Star Entrepreneur of the year at 3i summit, Mumbai and BITSAA 30 under 30 award. He has also been selected as Endeavor Entrepreneur (www.endeavor.org) and TiE Entrepreneur (www.tie.org). Phani, a State ranker in Intermediate examination, Andhra Pradesh Sr. Secondary Board, graduated with distinction from BITS-Pilani, and worked with Texas Instruments, Bangalore before co-founding redBus.

1. redBus closed 2009 with a bang by featuring in Forbes India year end edition as one of the top 5 hottest start-ups to watch in 2010. What are your focus areas for the coming year?

We are scaling up. We have just crossed 200 employees. We will be adding another 75 people. To sustain the past growth rates we will need to be organised differently. So we are restructuring the organisation. We have a good set of people and a desired culture is already in place. So right now I am not as panicked about the quality of people as I was in the earlier days. I believe the current team and our culture will ensure we get in quality people. Now, how we architect the system or how we use each manager’s talent is important. I am trying to implement a matrix organisation with an innovation. There will be only solid line reporting. Functional Mangers will have no reportees. There are a lot of talented people who are on top of state of art technology etc, but they fall flat when they need to manage people and processes. So in our new organisation structure such people will be the functional experts whose entrepreneurial skills company will leverage. Only staff managers will have reportees.

2. Would you agree that the managers have a big role to play in an organisation’s success? Considering the phenomenal success redBus has had in the recent years, which characteristics of high performing Managers do redBus Managers display?

Yes I do. The entrepreneurial characteristics of redBus Managers have contributed to our company’s growth and success. By entrepreneurial I mean the ability to be creative, think out of box, not taking lack of resources as a hindrance but as a challenge. Our managers are quite mature. They roll up their sleeves and are quite hands on at work.

3. Before founding redBus what kind of Managers did you consider as effective Managers and now that you are the CEO has your perspective changed?

Before founding redBus I was a reportee and I thought a manager who was considerate, who would help me learn and grow is an effective manager. Now when I am on the other side, I appreciate those managers who can get things done. In our office we have a photo of JRD TATA with a quote that says “We have to manage people as people ….” Effective Managers are Managers who can influence teams to results and drive performance without losing human touch.

4. Is it necessary for Managers in a start up to have a different set of skill sets as compared to Mangers in an established company, to be effective in their roles?

Yes, certainly. While in mature organisations one has to be good at handling complexity, entrepreneurial skills is what is necessary in a start up.

5. How can Managers who have not been trained in mature organizations build their career and credibility in growing companies? Also, what do Managers of that profile find attractive in working for start ups?

The only way to build a career and credibility, regardless of whether you are working for a start-up or not, is by working sincerely. It is more so in a start-up as the Senior Management has very clear visibility into people’s performance. Managers in start-up find this visibility attractive in working for start-ups.

6. Please share your thoughts on how can small and medium sized organisations groom and grow their Managers?

Start ups can’t afford to invest a lot in formal training. However there are other ways to develop managers. Communication is one such tool. We communicate a lot. CEOs should take every opportunity to talk about and give examples of the management style they would want to build in the company. Even naming a conference room as JRD TATA room, affects the way one behaves when one is in that room. I read a lot of management books. In my one-on-one meeting with my managers, I give them copies of the pages of the message I want to give them. This I find is more effective than giving books. I also believe that people react to mails. People come to office in the morning with a blank mind. So I send a mail in the morning which can influence their behaviour for the day.

One should try and discover good training institutes that charge very nominal fees. They are the ones with no frills, but provide good value for the money one pays. Then there are the networks that technology teams can be part of. These are groups such as Bar Camps, Head start, Open Coffee Club, AMC etc., who interact on the internet and meet up also to exchange ideas. Participation is absolutely free. For instance there is a mobile Monday focusing on mobile Technology, geek night outs that discuss latest software technology on Friday etc. I don’t actually need to participate in these networks since I am not directly dealing with technology but I make it a point to pull my team members along to such meets. Another thing we do at redBus is that every 2nd Saturday we invite people to talk about their favourite topic. My schoolmate spoke about Google maps and earth last week and it opened up new thought processes. Every CEO would know at least 24 talk worthy people and that would take care of topics for 2 years at least. Next Saturday we are having a person talk on software testing and quality.

7. What do you feel are some of the measures, which organisations and leaders in small and medium sized organisations, can take to support and ensure effectiveness among Managers?

I would say stretch as much as possible in terms of paying Managers salaries to get good guys in. Cut down somewhere else, maybe air conditioning, marketing etc. Earlier I made a mistake by saying “This is my budget and I can’t afford to pay more”. I used to spend more on real estate etc. But good people deserve good money. Also, I would say making Managers effective is a lot to do with the CEO’s behaviour. The CEO’s behaviour is mirrored in the company culture and employee behaviour. Hence it is important for CEOs to behave in a way they would like their teams to behave. And do give them all the possible freedom.