In February, as India braced for the full impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, Lithium Urban Technologies was preoccupied with its own paradigm shift. Its CEO and co-founder Sanjay Krishnan, who led the electric vehicle (EV)-only cab startup since its inception in 2014, was stepping into a non-executive role. Ashwin Mahesh, the other co-founder, and so far, a somewhat distant, strategic thought leader in the company, would take up day-to-day operations instead. 

Publicly, Krishnan was stepping back due to “personal reasons”. However, according to information sourced by The Ken, the leadership shuffle also came on the back of a company-wide audit conducted by multinational audit firm Ernst & Young. In December 2019 and February 2020, the company had two CXO-level exits—chief operating officer Priyanshu Singh and head of HR Edward Francis Paul. 

The audit brought out a series of complaints about Krishnan’s “abrasive” leadership style and the autocratic nature of decision-making under him, all of which culminated in a “toxic” working culture. 

The shift to Mahesh as CEO was a relief to a number of former employees The Ken spoke with. Despite being at the receiving end of the pandemic, Lithium’s former employees said that the mood was upbeat under Mahesh’s leadership, with a clear roadmap to recovery, and a salary increment in April to boot. 

Under the interim leadership, Lithium set in motion a series of initiatives to mitigate the pandemic’s impact. Re-distribution of the fleet, a spot-rental model with Uber, and even a gradual transition into a freight business were to take a different but more resilient Lithium into a post-pandemic future. 

More crucially, say former employees, the culture changed from “closed and top-down” to “open and empowered” under Mahesh’s leadership. He was assisted by Vignesh Nandakumar, then a partner with Lightstone Aspada and its representative on the board.

The change was short-lived. 

In mid-October, Mahesh quit his position as interim CEO, citing “differences” with the company’s board and management. Former employees said they could sense a power tussle between Mahesh and Krishnan while the latter was still in a non-executive role. Lithium is now experiencing its second leadership transition in under eight months, with Krishnan set to take the wheel again.

Krishnan’s imminent return to an active leadership role has triggered an exodus of employees at different levels of the organisation. In addition to Mahesh, the chief technology officer, head of business development, and nearly a dozen mid-management employees who worked at the corporate team have put in their papers.

Lithium began began The Ken Five-year-old Lithium boasts of big names like Google, Wipro, and Barclays among its clients. Despite the success, India’s largest EV fleet operator hasn’t reached its full potential Read more with a simple premise—to provide a cheap, efficient, and affordable office commute.