Talk to Venture Capitalist Krishna ‘Kittu’ Kolluri about his career, and you can see the quintessential Silicon Valley dream unfold in front of your eyes. Kittu is, today, where every immigrant engineer who sets foot in this land of hope & promise dreams to be! An engineer from India, Kittu lands in freezing Buffalo, NY to do his Masters, and quickly heads to the SF Bay Area to pursue his American dream. Starting off as an engineer at the iconic Silicon Graphics, Kittu goes on to help start two iconic companies (Healtheon & Neoteris) himself, and progresses to lead multi-billion dollar technology businesses in Silicon Valley. At the very threshold of potentially succeeding the legendary Scott Kriens of Juniper, Kittu Kolluri decides to become a Venture Capitalist instead, and becomes a General Partner at the storied NEA! Now, after more than 10 years at NEA, and investing in and working with a host of exciting tech startups, Kittu is all set to go out and start anew!
And if you thought that his dream career was well planned, think again. Kittu says “If you had asked me in the mid 80s if I had envisioned that I would one day be an entrepreneur or CEO or a VC, it would have been a big No! Even as recently as 2004, I had no idea I would become a Venture Capitalist!” So, we, at AnuPartha, decided to ask Kittu to walk us through his career journey and to share with us some of his key takeaways. And this is his instructive and exciting story….
Kittu Kolluri sees one common thread running through his career, and his life in general- Learning. He has focused himself always on the task at hand, given it all he has got, and learnt a mighty lot along the way. He says he has learnt from ‘being a small fish in a big pond’ – learnt from experiences of mentors around him, learnt to grow, and learnt to operate at scale. And he has learnt from ‘being a big fish in a small pond’ – learnt to be responsible, and experiment & learn from oneself. He says he has learnt from successes & failures, and on balance, he has learnt a lot more from failures. Both success & failure are influenced by luck & timing….are they obverse sides of the same coin?
As an Engineer, Kittu believes, one is focused on personal excellence, on learning to be the best one can be, and to shine as an individual. While at Silicon Graphics, Kittu says he developed the crucial insight that it is so much more powerful if you can help others perform at their best, than merely excelling as an individual. And that required interpersonal skills – of getting along with others and collaborating – skills he had never valued earlier! Kittu believes that this skill has helped him the most through his entire career, both as an entrepreneur/CEO & as a venture capitalist.
And Interpersonal skills make all the difference, whether in connecting with the entrepreneur, adding value as a Board Member, or being the entrepreneur CEO’s Coach & Friend!
Through his operating career, Kittu learnt that it is one thing to be a Manager, but something quite different, and an order of magnitude more important yet difficult, to also be a Leader.
Kittu says, “Management is about efficiency & controls, and making the trains run on time,” whereas “Leadership is about enabling & driving change, disruption, and paradigm shifts.” Importantly, Kittu learnt that Leadership is about exercising Influence, and not about having Control. You cannot lead by determining & dictating what each person on your team has to do. You have to lead by leveraging the creativity, imagination & individuality of each member of your team. In order to channel all the creative energy in the right direction, you as a leader need to provide a framework that helps everyone take all the micro decisions. This framework is what some call the core Culture & Value System of the company.
And building this Culture is often a key determinant of success or failure of a Leader. In Kittu’s opinion, a good team culture is one where a member feels psychologically safe when working within the team. “Money and compensation are necessary but not sufficient conditions for one to fall in love with the company.” Culture makes that happen. And a good leader understands that having a good culture is more than half the battle won in building a successful company. But culture of an organization is not a top-down diktat; instead it needs to be evolved with the team.
Kittu learnt, again early-on, that Communication is the other critical C of Leadership (the first C being Culture, of course!). He learnt that it is not enough if you merely practice what you believe are the right forms and modes of behavior within the team. It is extremely important that you constantly talk about it, and visibly communicate the desired and practiced behavior, values and culture repeatedly, and at every available opportunity. This preaching & evangelization of the Culture & Values that the organization holds dear to itself, is extremely important, and is what brings it to the surface from within, and maintains it at the level of consciousness on a continual basis.
The other thing about Communication, Kittu understood, is that it is so critical that it needs to be well thought-through by the leader, and needs to happen at different levels. Kittu believes that Communication needs to be formally structured, planned and practiced at three important levels – one-to-many, many-to-many, and one-to-one. Each form of communication has a clear purpose & value, and a leader needs to consciously use and enable all three modes of communication within the company.
Talking with Kittu, one senses that he sees Leadership almost like a technology product – a framework comprising soft elements and hard elements, and one that is carefully thought-through, designed, and implemented meticulously!
Kittu learnt that having the right team leaders in place can make all the difference between success & failure of a company. And that it is important to learn to diagnose when a person is ready to don the leadership role and when he is not. It is also imperative to be brutally honest with the person, if you believe he is good but not yet ready to play the leader’s role. It is important that you do what is best for the overall company goal, and you learn that the individual is often understanding of, and appreciative of, a good decision taken & communicated transparently.
Having said that, Kittu learnt over time that this issue is quite nuanced and it is not always as black-and-white as it seems.
Kittu learnt the hard way that it is often impossible to get the exact right person for each role.. More often than not, you need to possess the ability & talent to diagnose a person’s ability, today and projected-into-the-future. You need to be able to map a person on two axes – the Motivation Axis and the Competence Axis – and then to develop, guide & mentor the person to perform, using the principles of Situational Leadership as proposed by Kenneth & Blanchard. A person can be developed on the Competence Axis, in particular, by adopting successively different styles of leadership & engagement. Kittu explains the Principle of Situational Leadership as below:
When you have someone high on motivation, but in the learning phase, you need to use a Directive Style of Leadership for a short period of time, often telling them exactly what to do until they get more competent. When a person is competent but somewhat overwhelmed by the job at hand, and so a little low on motivation, you need to employ a Supportive Style, where you still make the decisions but closely involve the person so that they feel more empowered and grow in confidence. Once the person reaches a level of competence, you switch roles, by getting the person to make all the decisions and you consult to offer opinions & advice.. This is the Consultative Style. And finally, when the person is positively off the charts on motivation & competence you need to switch to a Delegative Style, where the person doesn’t need you anymore, and desires to be left alone to perform well entirely on his own. The key to this entire process is to focus on and build the person’s confidence, to make him believe that he is good.
Kittu explains the journey you go through, in a folksy way:
At the pinnacle of his career, Kittu Kolluri is now set start all over again! After 10 years, five funds and nearly four dozen investments at NEA, Kittu has recently stepped down as General Partner of NEA, to start his own small, Venture Fund that will enable him to pursue his passion of spotting and backing early stage technology ventures. “I am an Entrepreneur at heart, at the end of the day”, says Kittu. “And like any entrepreneur, I too have a passionate rage against the status-quo. I would like to change the world a little in my own way, and, I feel, my new Fund will help me do this.”
Kittu Kolluri has shown time and again that he walks his talk, talks his walk and lives his values. It will be exciting to see how his next innings will unfold. The Silicon Valley Dream Continues. It is Alive and Kicking!
Get instant blog updates by email
We would love to hear your feedback...
As also suggestions on who you would like to see profiled here