Leadership: Resilience versus Adaptability – Which is Better?

I struggled with this question. For many years I thought that adaptability was everything. Behold the chameleon that blended in or Charles Darwin’s theory of survival – “It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive, but those who can best manage change.” But the more I researched firms as they responded to crisis I found highly adaptable firms lost their way – they were like a leaf swaying in the wind, tossed and turned and directionless. People were exactly the same, and if they did not have a grounding, they dissipated with the vagrancies of life. So adaptable was great, but as I looked at startups and leaders, I felt too much adaptability was a liability. You got lost because you had no direction.

For startups, being adaptable may mean making sure what you think is a solution to a problem is actually the right solution the customer wants. Incremental modifications based on feedback. I love the idea of the smoke test that Idealabs promotes, however, the Lean Startup approach of “validated learning” and “build-measure-learn” according to Daniel McGinn may mean that none of them have enough passion “to change the world (or, significantly, employ many people); instead of being “built to last,” these firms seem “built to be acquired by Google.” Adaptability is great for survival – but what if I want more?

What about resilience? I never liked the thought of being resilient because it meant you had to take the punches to be tough and then recover from them quickly enough. What was quick enough? How much could you take before you broke? These are important questions the USA military is spending money on in terms of psychological training.

From an ecosystem perspective, Walker defines resilience as “the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing change so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity, and feedbacks” (Walker et al. 2004:4). This definition I like (excuse the minor modifications):

  1. Know what you won’t compromise on
  2. Adapt to manage the blows and spread the shock
  3. Learn, Learn, Learn!
  1. What you won’t compromise on

So what are your values and the ethos you won’t compromise on? As a leader you sometimes need to park ideas on the side. You need to be clear that these are ideas and not values. I think it is important to understand the difference. Values spring form your belief system – how should my decisions be morally guided, how do I treat people, what is wrong and right? But ideas are thoughts or representations of thoughts and not necessarily values. I remember many years back giving up a job offer I had because I disagreed with the cultural values of the organization. This was a highly competitive culture with no trust. Many years later I could recognize a bit of Enron in the company. It was a great job – prestigious, high paying but after six months it was hard to think two managers would sit three desks from each other and not talk to one another because they were worried if the other would steal their idea. I could not see myself looking over my shoulder for the rest of my life.

Knowing what you will not compromise on means having a goal post, especially if it is a positive one. Marano, Editor-at-Large for Psychology Today, in her article “The Art of Resilience” wrote, “”At the heart of resilience is a belief in oneself—yet also a belief in something larger than oneself. Resilient people do not let adversity define them. They find resilience by moving towards a goal beyond themselves, transcending pain and grief by perceiving bad times as a temporary state of affairs… It’s possible to strengthen your inner self and your belief in yourself, to define yourself as capable and competent. It’s possible to fortify your psyche. It’s possible to develop a sense of mastery.” You must have a goal beyond yourself to give you strength – so it is not all about you!

  1. Adapt to manage the blows and spread the shock

Life has its ups and downs. It has a funny way of hitting you with a sledgehammer when you are least unprepared. Resilience is the ability to “bounce back”, to recover quickly from difficulties. Is that better than adaptability? This ability to bounce back from the setbacks of life has a lot to do with positive emotions according to many studies. Positive emotions, optimism or the ability to see failure as a form of helpful feedback have been shown to play a crucial role in enhancing coping resources and health in the face of negative events. You have to adapt to cope and then manage the feelings and outcomes of the set-back. Easier said than done. I have seen two people from similar troubled backgrounds, one coped with a “half full outlook” and the other with “half empty”. Both were very highly successful. Both coped and perhaps were adaptable but not fully resilient. And this brings me to the last point. Coping is not enough to be resilient.

  1. Learn! Learn! Learn!

You have to learn from setbacks to become more adaptable and you have to push yourself to recover to be more resilient. Part of learning according to Juliana Breines, PhD, is being kind to yourself; shifting focus on the impact this had from yourself to others, working on changeable behaviors and focusing on external factors that can be influenced – you need all of them. Part of learning is getting over the “grief” process. And depending on how “involved” you were – you may go through the stages of Kübler-Ross model: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Acceptance is that feeling that things have happened and you prepare for the future. It does not mean defeat. A friend asked how long can you take? I think you should take as much time as you need but if it affects decisions in your professional and personal life, seeing a counselor or getting support is not a bad idea. It is very tempting to retreat to a safe place and “lick your wounds”….but the world outside changes and worse it begins speculating so you have to get the courage to show yourself. Friends are a great resource but can get weary too.

So what do I choose? I think resilience, since it also embeds adaptability. I choose to be resilient. And face the future knowing that tomorrow is another day where great things can happen. Hope is a great motivator inspiring people to reach for internal resources they never knew they had.

Hope sees the invisible, Feels the intangible, and Achieves the impossible – Unknown.

Posted in Crisis Management, Entrepreneurship, failure, leadership, PEOPLE MANAGEMENT, purpose | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Leadership: Facing the Storm and taking Responsibility

Taking responsibility for failures is very hard – especially when you don’t feel responsible or when you feel you were equally hurt as all the people impacted by the situation or the issue. But this is the job description of a leader. He/she leads (even though the path is not clear) and must “face the music” when things go wrong and similarly he/she gets to bask in the glory when things go right. How can you take responsibility for failure?

  1. Find a safe place to vent

Bottling up all the stress of the situation is not all in is not healthy. It can impact your health (heart disease, blood pressure among other things), cause depression or even lead to inappropriate behaviours like uncontrollable rage and high risk activities. This can damage current and potential relationships. So do not bottle it in, find a safe place to vent where you are “off the record”. A clinical psychologist Christina G. Hibbert, recommends the following: to deal with stress TEARS – “Talking, Exercising, Artistic expression, Recording or writing experiences, and Sobbing”

  1. Acknowledge you are human.

You are only human and we all make judgement calls. Even with the best of technology and brains things can go wrong. I was in Nagoya shortly after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. The 9.0 magnitude earthquake, the 14 metre tsunami wave and the Fukushima Nuclear Accident were all very low probability events and the chances of them all happening at the same time were close to zero. But close to zero probability is not zero probability, a renowned academic said with grief in voice as he addressed us. It was a complex megadisaster. In a large organisation – feuding employees, a culture of distrust, a hostile takeover, wrong advice, a product crisis, currency fluctuations, country crises are other examples. In  life things don’t always have to  be so large in scale – for an entrepreneur – a bounced check, one late payment, a feuding partner, a lost consignment, an angry customer, a vicious media attack or even a personal situation are enough to derail a business. So first, you must acknowledge that you were human, you could not possibly control for everything. Second, acknowledge that you were hurt by what happened and third, more importantly also acknowledge that you are hurt by how the situation hurt others.

  1. Reach out to the people impacted

When people are hurt they lash out differently, some feel betrayed, others hurt in privacy and some want revenge. While you cannot control how others feel, you need at this point  to take on the difficult role of the leader and acknowledge the fact that there was something that went out of your control. It helps when they know that you care about what happened and how they were impacted.Empathy and compassion are never wasted. Maybe they also just want to vent and they would feel better if they could vent to you. Wouldn’t you prefer that than if they went to the media, other potential investors or your key stakeholders?. Alfred Brendel says, “The word ‘listen’ contains the same letters as the word ‘silent’.” This means you need to allocate time and I would suggest take a partner with you to show them that it is the company reaching out. Distance the situation from a person even if you are a figurehead for the company. You need to keep your composure so preferably you have already vented enough to manage this. No matter how you feel, you need to get up,  dress up and show yourself  -projecting an image like you will succeed and never give up. Don’t confuse listening with emotional decisions by the way. Don’t make promises you can’t keep or that will overwhelm you. Obviously the larger is your impact continuum, the more work that needs to be done.

  1. Be objective when dealing with the situation

You need to be able to look at the situation objectively as an outsider to figure the way forwards. Emotions cloud judgement. There are three steps to being objective 1. Be neutral 2. Use a third person perspective and 3. Remove emotions. If necessary hand over the stewardship of the company to a trusted advisory team. An interpersonal issue is perhaps one of the most difficult issues at an emotional level as it may mean losing a relationship. However, if it is handled objectively perhaps you can salvage the relationship. A good guide is the reframing context by Bolman & Deal. They say there are four types of decision problems – Human Resource, Structural, Symbolic or Political and they do give a large number of insights on how to handle each. You need to let people know what you have planned. People look up to leaders because when things seem hopeless the leader seems to have it in control. For more reading here are some excellent article by Forbes.

  1. Take this as a learning experience in the journey of life.

Setbacks or if you have to use the word “failure” is a fact of life. Embrace it and don’t hide it. People will respect you more for acknowledging the fact even if you worry they are laughing behind your back. The truth is you have more courage to embrace the fact than most other people in the world. The experience will teach you many things – what are your strengths, who your friends are and your support systems and more importantly what you need to learn from life. Don’t let the situation defeat you rather leverage this to move forwards in life. If you are an entrepreneur or a leader or an intrapreneur or just a person finding yourself – it is an emotional experience especially if you care about what you do. Read about others – you are not alone. The best way to learn – is from others. You don’t have to repeat all the mistakes. I was fortunate in my life to document how the Tata group handled the 26/11 Taj Mahal Palace & Tower Hotel terrorist attack. This maybe an interesting read for some of you. Though this paper looks at brand burn – it as an exemplary story of people management and corporate values. So if you never have a code of practice, or values to guide your organization – now maybe the time. We are all have bravery inside of us. Courage is not loud; it is the quiet voice inside of us that despite the fear makes us go out of our comfort zone to do the right thing. It make us face reality and acknowledge we could have done better as a leader. It is the strength we draw on to continue the difficult path rather than give us and take the easy way out. These journeys take time and for many people healing is not days, it is years. Get help and heal yourself – you can’t help or lead others effectively if you aren’t able to depend on yourself the most. By the way the picture below is one of my favourites as many times I do feel I am the only one walking in a storm but we all have to lead…our children, our companies or our own destiny.

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Bridging Failures: Being a Successful Entrepreneur

Failure sucks and the hardest part is getting over the experience. Too often it binds us in chains of fear and prevents us from taking the next step forward. Here are some tips to help you on your journey forwards. Some suggestions are based on my personal life and others are from the vicarious living of other’s stories.

Rule 1: Don’t always take failure to be a final assessment of your abilities

Successful entrepreneurs will tell you that to succeed, you need more than skill. You need the business potential, the prototype, the right resources (yes funding!!!) and you need a little bit of luck. True you can make your luck but it helps if it does suddenly appear!

Failure is just a set-back. It helps you buy time to learn, relearn and retry. Look at all those inventions that “failed”! They were stepping stones to the future and even lessons on “don’t go down this way again”. Thomas Edison said, “Negative results are just what I want. They’re just as valuable to me as positive results. I can never find the thing that does the job best until I find the ones that don’t.”

If you take failure as a final assessment of your ability– you will never take another risk. Your ability is this amazing hidden potential which you can never exploit until you explore it further. Love the Johari window concept here. More you share about yourself to others and the more others know about you, the more you learn about yourself!

Richard Branson is dyslexic, yet one of the most outrageously successful entrepreneurs around. Benjamin Franklin, one of America’s Founding Fathers dropped out of school at age ten! Jay-Z couldn’t get a record deal in his early career and so created his own. Huffington Post wrote a nice article on this if you need more inspiration. Richard Branson says the first step to overcoming fear is to figure out what you are afraid of. Perhaps what you need to understand is that failure is not the end of the road…just one stop in a journey. Believe in yourself – why should anyone else do the same if you don’t?

Rule 2: You got to let go of the Past to bridge to the Future

Army generals were known to burn the bridges their army crossed over to prevent retreat. It ensured you gave a 100% to going forwards as you couldn’t go back. A bridge is anchored at two points: your past and your future. To cross to the future you need to let go of the past. If you want to succeed in the future, you can’t stay lost in the past. Those people caught in-between are rooted in one place with regret. Embracing the past and acknowledging that it contributed to who you are is very different from drowning in self-pity.

Regret of what could have been is a waste of time – learn and move on. Most angel investors I know all say the same thing – “I’d like to know he/she failed and learnt and more importantly got up and succeeded”. Everyone fails but if you let this fact defeat you, you will never make it forward to succeed. Regret is common. You will make judgement mistakes (why did you trust that partner, how did you not mange to instil your values into the business, why didn’t you say yes or no); you will loose customers/capital or even your company and worse you will loose time that you could have spent with a loved one (click here for more). I don’t know one successful person who did not give up something valuable, but it is an individual learning experience. Don’t take the journey if you are not willing to make the sacrifice. It is a roller coaster ride and depression is a liability. But to grow, you have to let go of the past.

Rule 3: Leverage on your strengths, a lifetime is not enough to focus on all your weaknesses

Too many times I see people trying to fix all their faults. You know the secret of success is to leverage your strengths. Embrace yourself. Discovering who you are is part of the journey. Everyone is unique and it is important to find your uniqueness because it is what will help you stand out. Those experiences you face make you – you. Find your pivot or your leverage point. Yaro writes about this in his blog “What is Leverage?”. You don’t have to do something crazy new – as Fadi Ghandour says “Copy, Paste, Innovate”.

There are rags to riches stories – Oprah Winfrey, Do Won Chang (Forever 21 Founders), Ralph Lauren and Dhirubhai Ambani, which are some people from around the world who did it against the odds. There are the entrepreneurs who lost their millions and never let it keep them down but built a business all over again – Thor Bjorgolfsson (Iceland), Sam King (Sierra Leone), Walt Disney (USA), Donald Trump (USA) are some examples…(Kiplinger has some nice slides).

Entrepreneurship means believing in yourself when no one else will. Doing things against all odds. Do not let failure defeat you. Don’t get me wrong – self doubt is common, failure is painful but don’t let it keep you down. Incidentally age is not a barrier (Chris Anderson has a nice article on teenage entrepreneurs who are now worth millions)

Rule 4: Even when you feel you are alone – You are never alone:

It is lonely on the top especially when things are going wrong. Look for support. A mistake a lot of entrepreneurs do is that they give up hobbies and concentrate friends to one area of work. Join groups, find mentors and mentor and (can’t stress this enough) – get support. There is a difference between taking time to be alone and being lonely. Love this blog on virgin that talks about not needing to be lonely. Govindh Jayaraman says , “The reality is that we all have baggage – as leaders and entrepreneurs we NEED to find people to help us unpack”. Also you do have to understand that what you are facing is what others have faced before you too. I hope this blog helps you in your journey. Happy people have goals that are larger than making money…they want to create impact. In a world drowning with problems, I am sure when you can create a business that touches people’s lives positively, this will  help you get a inner strength to help overcome the obstacles that are part of the journey. More importantly, we are all human, there is nothing wrong in asking for help.

Posted in alone, depression, don't give up, failure, johari window, leadership, leverage, loneliness, strengths, success | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Failure is a Leap of Faith

I hear a lot about the fear of failure, like it is a big thing…a taboo topic or a hidden disease. Failure is an integral part of learning, it is like breathing. Show me a person who has never failed and I will show you a person who never tried, succeeded or created change. Everyone fails. The question is really – did they learn from failure and how quickly were they able to recover – emotionally, mentally, physically, socially and financially.

A child learns through failure to test their boundaries. Boundaries made of their own capabilities and of their constraining environment. I was telling a friend about captive baby elephants. Baby elephants are chained and they learn no matter how much they pull their chains, even if their feet bleed, that they cannot escape the strength of those iron chains. Later, even when they grow up to be elephants weighing six tons, the trauma of their failure in childhood is so high, they refuse to pull their chains thinking it is futile. Hence they spend the rest of their lives in captivity. They failed because of the constraints in their mind. They had the capability. The  environment was no longer a barrier like in their childhood, but they still remained chained – prisoned by their mind.

So the first important lesson about failure is you fail only if you allow it to chain you to your past. To break free, you need to take the leap of faith. What is this leap of faith? The Collins dictionary defines it as a “belief in something uncertain”. To be successful, you have to visualize a goal and take the leap of faith that you will reach your goal, even if you don’t know exactly how. This takes great courage especially when you know the path is not going to be easy. Youth is lucky, they can take the leap of faith in blissful ignorance but the courage lies in getting up and trying again, knowing you failed your previous attempt. Wise people learn from their previous mistakes and modify their approach! This is symbolically depicted as a coming of age ritual for the Vanuatu tribe in the Pacific. Young men climb up 30 foot perches they build themselves and throw themselves over the edge held by the safety of vines they cut and tie on their ankles. These are public events so you do get over the fear of failure.

There is this debate, are entrepreneurs made or created. I do believe they are a product of their environment. If in their childhood they are discouraged from taking risks, they will grow up and do the same thing because they have lost their ability to take the leap of faith. They have lost their ability to believe in their own capabilities. They have learnt to stop taking responsibility for their actions and they blame their environment. Taking a leap of faith begins with the individual. Believing you can succeed – even when you have failed.

When you believe in yourself, you can disrupt a system and innovate! A wonderful must-read article is by Stuart Hart and Clay Christensen (2002). There are four billion people at the bottom of the pyramid. Our world is facing political unrest, there are health and pollution issues that are larger than the control of a few countries or a few people – we need more individuals who can take the leap of faith. Not just to change their lives but the lives of others to make this world a better place.

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When Doing Good is Doing Harm: Responsible Intentions

Kenya Recently I had the privilege to visit Kenya and interact with some amazing school children. I firmly believe the strength of a nation is its youth and I was pleasantly surprised by my experience. It is a fact that the resilience of human beings is one of those reasons why we as humans have survived with our indomitable spirit. But there were two things that upset me. The first was that this part of Kenya was very poor – almost a subsistence economy though it had fertile land and abundant water. In the 1980s cotton was a leading industry and then the “Do Good” people arrived with charity. Used clothes, donated clothes were “dumped” (it is called mitumba) and since they were cheaper than the locally made clothes, local Kenyan people bought these and the retails industry closed down, the factories closed down and the farmers lost their livelihood. This was a good example when doing good was actually doing harm. We are all guilty of “charity” and here is an important part of “responsible charity” – don’t create dependency!! While this was the beginning, later the local industries could not compete with cheaper imports!

The second thing that upset me was the educational textbooks. It frustrates me that globally we are forgetting that every culture has in its past educational value that cannot only be captured by a “western-based curriculum”. Whether it is acupuncture, ayurveda, or other skills like husbandry or fishing. In fact older civilisations compete with western civilisations for discoveries like flight (Abbas Ibn Firnas), surgery (Sushruta) and astronomy (may be credited to the Sumerians who invented the oldest form of writing)! I met many kids – the most thought provoking one was  a  boy and girl in a remote island village on the banks of Lake Victoria who besides asking me to compare Darwin’s theory with the Bible asked me why they had to give up their culture to copy those who came from outside. A good question because no one should feel ashamed of where they came from and their culture. Again an interesting question from children exposed to many aid workers. For me Africa is and will always be one of those amazing cradles of civilisation and I think there is so much we can learn from the people of Africa only if we are willing to look at them as equals!!!

“Doing Harm by doing Good” is not uncommon. More than ten years ago, I was approached by a wife of a Fortune 500 senior leadership team member. She brought to me this unique problem where a wife of a newly immigrated Pakistani employee was being denied her “rights” as she had to cook before her husband came home, was not allowed to wear western dresses and he objected when she was greeted with a hug and kiss from male members of the company. The western women were encouraging her to fight for her rights. What did I think, she asked – especially since I had lived in USA. I asked her three questions – (1) were they investing in her further education? – she said no. (2) Where they planning to find a job for her – she said no. (3) Were they going to help her get American citizenship – she said no. So I asked her what she thought she had achieved? She had possibly destroyed a marriage (if she understood this was  a normal part of Muslim culture perhaps she would have approached it differently), she had probably got the girl to loose custody of her kids and worse she would have to return to Pakistan maybe in disgrace (since citizenship was not an option) as divorce was not looked upon favourably in most conservative asian cultures.

The third example I wish to share is that of Haiti. When Haiti had the big earthquake in 2010, UN workers were sent to help. Unfortunately some of the aid workers brought with them a dose of cholera that spread like an epidemic and even till today the situation is unresolved. While these are unfortunate consequences in a catastrophe – what was appalling was that the UN refused to take responsibility. They had moved on to another crisis and either did not have the funds or the responsible intensions to do good. Now the UN is facing a ground breaking class action law suit in USA. Unfortunately USA is involved too as the U.S. government, is responsible for 22 percent of the United Nations’ overall budget. While charity, aid, good intensions are all great – if they are not responsible – they may not have the positive impact we need.

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Start-Ups: Second Chances – are opportunities to overcome failure by learning from the past

I think we need to re-look the mind-set of failure and convert it into one of second chances. Too often we get stuck in the past. The chains of our mistakes don’t let us overcome pessimism to grab the future, which is within reach. When you are wallowing in self-pity, reproach and in losses, you won’t have the energy to move forwards. For example there is a conference called “FailCon” that is dedicated to “embracing failure.” Failure is more prevalent in certain industries types but the most common reasons for failure according to Entrepreneur Weekly were incompetence (48%) and experience (41%)! According to a Wall Street Journal article, it is estimated that 3 out of 4 VC backed startups fail.

Let us be honest, life is about being human and making mistakes. There are no guarantees for success, no magic wands and no fairy angel investors (or VC godfathers). Be realistic, what can YOU do that will revolutionise your world? It’s simple – begin with what is controllable – the baby steps. What are you good at (skills)? What do you know about market, product, technology, or the customer? Can you leverage these to make money? I am all for one on focusing on how to leverage your strengths! Too many of my students get lost in their areas of non-competitive advantages and they forget they are good in something others aren’t.

Don’t forget that generalists are better strategist than specialists. In a study conducted by Arizona State University and led by Claudia Custodio, CEOs who were generalists earned 19% more than their specialized counterparts! Elizabeth Holmes, the world’s youngest female billionaire dropped out of University at 19 with a passion for an idea and enough knowledge about how to make it work (key operative word is enough knowledge). So learn and learn (you don’t need a degree). In today’s internet knowledge market, you have information at your fingertips. The challenges will be getting the right technology to the market at the right time and getting the right people who contribute to your team to scale up.

So here was an interesting discussion I had with an entrepreneur – he said he thought in his initial career it was enough to delegate but he quickly realised that if it was his business and he did not know what and why he was delegating, he had lost control of the business! He realised that he had to have at least a rudimentary knowledge of most areas of his business – at least till he was generating enough revenues to hire the best people. The children of a second-generation family business recently recounted how their father made them work their way up in the organisation. While initially they were upset they realised later that this gave them a power – they understood the business and no one could tell them they did not understand every aspect and its importance. So learning is key to success – when you fail or reach a roadblock, pick yourself up, learn from the failure and move forward!!!

Unfortunately, funding won’t be available unless there is a clear purpose and a potential for returns (this may not be money in social entrepreneurship ventures). If you can’t quantify impact and future potential and you have no idea of how to get to future potential, you are going to find the entire entrepreneurial journey uphill. Here is another thought: if you have a clear goal, you will find the most cost-effective way to get there. India’s mission to Mars proved that – not that India is lacking in talent. India’s Mars mission was another feat of frugal engineering (technology is great but a means to an end). So even if you got some great funding, don’t waste it – save it for a rainy day!
In the life of a small business, you find every start-up reaches a point where they need to scale and this unfortunately means another learning curve! Daniel Isenberg and Fernando Fabre have written an interesting HBR blog on this topic and the impact on an economy. They think scale-up is critical for economies to grow! Managing cash flow is enough to survive; to grow you need huge infusions of cash and this means capital. Where does this come from? The Global Attitude Survey conducted by PEW Research in a survey of 44 countries among 48,643 respondents from March 17 to June 5, 2014, found that a good education and hard work were perceived as the most important key success drivers (60% and 50%) followed by networking (37%). Some recent research findings of mine show that good education also gives you access to networks. So doing a short course in Harvard may lead to connections. Join the World Economic Forum, go to high profile conference and develop networks as they give you access to free advice, support structure and business contacts. Who knows you may make some great friends!

So second chances are not always about the failure itself. It is about the learning. In this crisis filled world, very few things are controllable. But you know yourself the best, and people respond to people. Data is rational – people are not, and this surprises me. In business we try and rationalise everything to numbers. Numbers have their place, but insights are what will give you the edge. I have been told that VCs and AIs invest in the person or the team behind the idea because ideas are a dime a dozen. Don’t get me wrong – you do need to know numbers, financial literacy is critical in managing a business, managing growth and quantifying market size and expenses is critical to understand working capital….without this, you are sinking your own ship. And here is something you should know – news is about doom and gloom – be positive. The Global Attitude Survey by PEW Research found that emerging and developing countries were more optimistic about their future than developed countries. The financial centre of the world according to the Economist and Christopher M Schroeder  (author of Startup Rising) is moving eastwards! Make the most of this!

Posted in Entrepreneurship, failure, leveraging competencies; competitive advantage, purpose, scaling, start-ups | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Passion and Purpose – A two-edged sword for any entrepreneur

Entrepreneurs fascinate me as they are a breed of risk takers. Some people find circumstances lead them to the edge and they have no choice but to flap those wings and survive. Others are adventurous, experimenting and constantly learning to perfect their technique and become the heroes we admire today. They have an inner drive to be in control, to change the world or to make a mark in history.

I saw a great gathering of this entrepreneurial breed in 2010 when the Abraaj Group organized a three day conference called the “Celebration of Entrepreneurship”. Approximately 2400 people attended this event and it was happening and full of energy. I, being an opportunistic researcher, thought it was a great place to start collecting data to understand what made these people “tick”.

There were two themes I kept hearing again and again– passion and fear of failure (more about this in another post).  I stopped Arif Naqvi, , Rabea Ataya, and Jim Hornthal in the corridors of the event and all asked them the same question, “What were traits of successful start-ups and what did this mean when investors were looking for people with passion?” Not because I did not understand, but because I wanted to contextualize it and  more importantly as an educator, I wanted to know if it was something you could teach. I spoke to incubators, investors, trainers and successful entrepreneurs. I attended talks by HE  Sheikha Lubna Al Qassimi,   Thomas Lundgren,  Christopher Schroeder,  Bobby Sagar and Fadi Ghandour and these are just a few. I spoke to students, wanna-be entrepreneurs, entrepreneurs who gave up, and successful ones.

I was struck by how difficult passion is to articulate. The best  explanation many successful investors could give me about identifying this trait was that it was “gut instinct” and “the look in the eyes”. I got caught by one successful venture capitalist who said, “What are you waiting for Melodena – you have the look!  Go – create something new”. So while it was flattering I have the “look” and I do create new things and very successfully, I still did not know if I had the answer to my research question!

Over the years I have been able to decipher that passion is a code word for willpower and commitment. It is the enthusiasm you have for your project that must be contagious.  It is the confidence you have that you will get it done, no matter what. Most investors were very clear – change is inevitable. Even the best business plans will constantly have to evolve so an entrepreneur must believe in his idea to make it work. Arif said, “A great entrepreneur, is a risk-minimiser.” So it’s not so much about the big scary idea but the details on how you will make it work and minimize the risk associated with the big scary idea. You need to project that you can be in control of the situation because you have played various scenarios in your head and you know the market and the way it is evolving! Passion is not brashness, it is not empty words, it is directed. Being an entrepreneur means having the courage to take the plunge and not look back. There is no time for second guessing. Ideas are a dime a dozen and the market is quick to replicate. Passion is being able to communicate why you are the only one who can make it happen! A entrepreneur despite fear of failure, despite failure, will find a niche, and claw his way up and succeed.

Hence I come to the other side of the entrepreneurial sword. Purpose. Purpose gives energy and momentum. Too many entrepreneurs get stuck on the idea, which is vague and difficult to articulate and they refuse to test it by going back to basics – which is  ‘Who will buy it and will I sell enough to be profitable’. Purpose is needed with passion as being an entrepreneur is not a 9 to 5 job! It is chaotic and all the legends in this field will tell you of the sleepless nights they had trying to manage cash flow even though on paper, revenues were flowing in. They will tell you stories of founder partners fall outs, of capital shortage that stunted growth potential and hours spent pitching and networking to get more money (not much family time)! Of competitors who came out of the woodwork and threatened their core business making them obsolete, about the nightmare decision to sell or dilute or worse needing to delegate and give up control or retain control and drown with the work! Success comes at a price, so the more a want-to-be start-up understands this, the better it is for the journey. While an idea is important, it is the person behind the idea who has a purpose who will make it succeed as he has focus.

So to quote a very successful billionaire “It’s the look in the person’s eye, you know, the passion in their heart, their ability to see right from wrong, their ability to focus on hard work, their commitment to make it happen”. On the question, ‘Can entrepreneurship be taught?’, I’m holding my reservations. I think you can enhance a skill; you can reduce the risk associated with entrepreneurship; and as wise people learn from other’s mistakes……isn’t that what education is about?

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