Business Insights

This is the lie we tell ourselves about leadership – Go-Jek CEO Nadiem Makarim

Nadiem Makarim is not one to shy away from leadership.

As the co-founder and CEO of Go-Jek — Indonesia’s answer to the ride-hailing phenomenon — the 33-year-old is responsible for a business spanning five countries and a growing fleet of more than a million drivers.

However, the eight-year journey that got him there was not always a smooth one, and it taught him an important managerial lesson along the way.

“As a founder, you feel like you know what’s right, and it’s a natural instinct to have,” Makarim told CNBC’s “Managing Asia.

But, according to the young entrepreneur, it can be a confidence trick — and a dangerous one at that.

“That’s kind of the thing that we lie to ourselves about as leaders,” noted Makarim, who said he quickly learned he had to loosen the reigns or face the consequences.

“The higher you go and the bigger your company gets, people also become less reluctant to tell you what they actually think,” he told host Christine Tan.

“Part of my personal learnings were understanding that if you don’t evolve your leadership style for where your company is at the moment, then you will render yourself useless very quickly.”

It’s a fate that has befallen many leaders, including the CEO of Uber, one of Go-Jek’s competitors, who resigned amid a wave of leadership criticisms.

Now, Makarim said he actively encourages collaborative discussions and wants those who are closest to the ground to help with decision-making. That could be in anything from Go-Jek’s motorcycle taxi business — its flagship offering — to one of its other business arms, which range from food delivery to financing and beauty services.

“Having a lot of people with very different ways on how to achieve that vision is extremely beneficial, so surrounding yourselves with people that say no or say there’s a different way is so critical,” said Makarim.

Diversity of thought and ambitiousness is also important for driving a business forward, explained Makarim, who said he now sees it as his role to draw that out of his staff.

“To do that, sometimes you have to stretch their imagination first and stretch their effort and then at the end of that cycle they realize ‘Oh my god, look at what I achieved, I never thought I could achieve that,’ and that gives them the confidence to then go on and build on their own,” said Makarim.

That kind of delegation is only going to get more important as Go-Jek sets about its expansion across Southeast Asia.

Currently, the $5 billion platform is just active in Indonesia, with additional offices in Singapore and Bangalore. But Go-Jek announced last month that it’s set to launch in Vietnam and Thailand from August as part of its plans to compete with the likes of Grab and other regional players.

The two businesses, which will run under the names Go-Viet and Get, respectively, will run independently but will receive backing and mentorship from Go-Jek, as well as and local partners.

“We are mentoring them on what we’ve learned to be successful, and what we’ve learned that doesn’t work in Indonesia,” said Makarim.

“We guide heavily upfront, but the hope is that over time they will be able to actually craft a unique market-led strategy both in terms of selecting which products to launch, the sequence of how to launch, and how they want to do it,” he added.

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