Learning is a journey that begins from the realization that you have to scale yourself first in order to help everybody else scale-up
If as a company we think alike, our strategy and our thought processes are similar, the culture automatically gets built all across
Amarjit Singh Batra joined OLX in 2009 and has played a founding role in the establishment of OLX India and the horizontal free online classifieds industry in the country. Under Amarjit’s leadership, OLX emerged as the number one online classified site and a household brand in a short span of time. He has also been responsible for spearheading the company’s growth in other emerging markets of South Asia. Prior to joining OLX, Amarjit worked with Baazee/eBay India, where he was a part of the senior management team.
How did OLX start its operations in India?
OLX started operations in India seven years ago as a horizontal classifieds site, which was a familiar concept in the western markets but was relatively new and untested in India. Many companies had tried to execute similar models in India before OLX, but they did not succeed very much because the market for Consumer-to-Consumer trade (C2C) did not exist at that time in the country. OLX too went through a similar phase in the initial couple of years as there was no established offline behavior for C2C selling to replicate from. In USA, for instance, there was an existing culture of garage sales, and in the UK people were familiar with car-boot sales; but such things were not present in India. Despite these challenges, OLX decided to embark on a journey to create a platform for online classifieds market in the country. It was a bold move considering the way classifieds worked in India. But we realized that either you can shift to some other model or you can create a model. We chose the latter.
It was also a time when Internet was getting mainstreamed in India primarily because of the popular social networking sites such as Orkut and Facebook, and there was an increase in user-generated content. This played in our favor. We would not have succeeded 10 or 15 years earlier because the market penetration at that time was around 3-4 percent as compared to 15-20 percent six years ago.
What was your people strategy for the organization during the early years? When did you realize that L&D is critical to your line of business?
During the early years itself, we decided to create a lean but a scalable team. As we developed the business, we realized that more than hiring people from outside, it was imperative for us to build and cultivate people from within. It was important for us to provide them with the right learning and development opportunities so that our core team was equipped to handle challenges. This proved to be instrumental in strengthening the DNA of our organization.
Learning is a journey that begins from the realization that you have to scale yourself first in order to help everybody else scale-up. Also, the e-commerce environment is so disruptive that you cannot survive if you don’t continuously learn and evolve. As OLX grew, I knew that L&D would be crucial to the organization, and that it needed to be an integral part of our culture. However, it is important to remember that you cannot just hire a learning professional and change the culture overnight. It is better to start early and invest in L&D because learning takes time to show outcomes.
As a CEO, what were the things you did which helped in creating a learning culture?
Leaders don’t always have the time to go for leadership programs, so it’s important to make a conscious commitment to learning. I personally started reading a lot back in 2007 and there has been a fundamental change in my life since then. I was quite keen to give everyone at OLX an opportunity to become a reader, and that’s the reason we started a library in our office, initially with books on self-development and management but gradually expanding to more genres. We have regular reading sessions, and also encourage employees to send us their book-reviews. This not only keeps employees involved but also inspires others to read. We have been very successful with this program, and while everyone might not be reading, we are slowly forming a culture of learning.
Another important thing was to form the L&D department that took care of the learning needs of our employees. Today, whenever an induction happens, there is a discussion on the traits and the qualities that we look for. Our value and beliefs in continuous learning are discussed at this stage, and all employees are encouraged to learn and apply those learnings to the business and the organization. If they make mistakes in the process, we are fine with it as one learns through mistakes. It is also important to take time to understand the employees. It’s not possible to meet a person and instantly conclude about his/her learning needs. Great learning happens when people themselves introspect to figure out what learning means to them.
As a CEO, what are your expectations from L&D programs and how do you evaluate their success?
We did not set up huge expectations when we started off because in the initial stages we did not know what was best or what targets should be set. For an L&D program to be effective, it is important to first know the organization, its problems, its challenge areas, and identify the competencies that people are either lacking or need skills for. It is not enough to mention the number of programs that one runs for the sake of putting it on KPIs and KRAs. The best way to measure it is by evaluating the changes the L&D program brings about in the organization, and particularly by looking at how employees have excelled over a period of time because of it.
OLX is in about 40 different countries. How do you make sure that the culture is cohesive all across?
I believe that if the people who are leading the organization in different countries are aligned to the overall culture and founding values of the organization, it makes it easier for the culture to trickle down to the employees. At the end of the day, culture is very closely attached to strategy. If as a company we think alike, our strategy and our thought processes are similar, then the culture automatically gets built across countries. Strategy and leadership are the foundation stones, and after that comes the fundamental fabric on which culture is built. An interesting exercise we did internally was to ask each OLX country to come up with its own set of values, and then we put all those values together to decide on the core values of the company as a whole. This exercise enabled us to come up with six values that we believe are fundamentally right for the future of our company and its people. These values are‘Be fast’, ‘Be innovative’, ‘Be empowered’, ‘Live-it’,’Be Open’, and ‘Be Curious’. All leaders across OLX countries are aligned to these values.