Privilege and Responsibility

I recently came across an interview with a retired headmaster, who had spent the latter part of his career as principal of one of England’s most prestigious private schools. He was being asked to comment on the changes in cultural norms and behaviours amongst the pupils and their parents and in part, to defend the notion of a privileged education. On the question of privilege he gave a thoughtful answer (which I have been mulling over for the past few weeks) and because it impacts anyone in a leadership position it might bear some reflection here.

He commented that the most significant difference between today’s privileged pupils and more importantly their parents, and those of previous generations, especially the generation that defined his early career in the 1950s and 1960s, was that today, the reciprocal nature of privilege and responsibility had been all but abandoned and that the power of wealth was by and of itself sufficient to purchase the right to privilege. Access to privilege, once paid for, was deemed to be the whole bargain, with no conditions being attached to the privileged, once that access had been procured and paid for. This was an attitude, he opined, that would have been unthinkable in his early career and that the social and cultural norms of those previous generations demanded that principle of responsibility as an inalienable part of the compact made with those whose good fortune, birth or industriousness had put them in positions of privilege.

Responsibility he defined as an ethos of service to the community and to society at large, of stewardship of possessions, the natural environement and the institutions of society and of chivalry, in the sense that Lewis Carroll had in mind, when he refered to the maintainance of a balance between action and reflection, between the ability to fight and the ability to love. In its most practical form, this responsibility requires of the privileged, that they be constantly aware of the gift of their privilege and to be especially circumspect, caring and mindful of those less privileged than themselves. Privilege stripped of its requirement of responsibility, becomes divisive, selfish and brutish.

I find it useful to put these high values into a practical context and I was reminded of that interview, whilst travelling on the plane from Munich to Dublin, a trip I have been taking – in both directions – with distressing frequency over the last two years. The route is irrelevant as the observation of behavioural norms are the same wherever the plane happens to be travelling to and from.

Frequent travellers will know that – aside from the distinctions of class and at least for adults – the aisle seats are the most sought after and the ones that are snapped up first in the online booking and check-in systems.

The reasons for this are obvious:

  • more leg room
  • no fellow passengers to inconvenience should you have to make a trip to the bathroom
  • no-one to have to play elbow-wrestling with, at least on the open flank and
  • the ability to stand up and prepare for disembarkation, as soon as the all-clear has been given from the crew.

My own belief of how the “system works”, is that there is an implicit responsibilty tacked on to the privilege of having an aisle seat, namely the responsibility of ensuring that your row neighbours, or indeed the occupants of the entire row, are given the space to exit their seats, retrieve their baggage from the overhead locker and put on their coats, without having to worry about being trampled to death by the onsurging herd of passengers further up the plane, in their drive to exit as quickly as possible.

If the aisle occupants do not recognise or take on this duty of care, then the middle and window seaters are pretty much left to the mercy of travellers behind them or to random breaks in the flow, when the aisle is blocked further upstream by a hapless passenger struggling with a suitcase, a lost contact lens, or God forbid, small children. The aislemen are the only ones with the power and position to hold up the crush from behind and to create a safe space for their neighbours to disembark free from stress.

There is no rule saying to enforce this responsibility and indeed, my observation is that, mostly, it is ignored. But when an aisleman does step up (or back) and holds the breach for his row, it creates a momentary, but palpable sense of community that is as uplifting to the aisleman (or woman) as it is appreciated by the middle and windowseaters. The bond dissipates almost as soon as it is formed, but its residue lingers for hours afterwards and informs behaviour and responses long after the trip has been completed. Kindness given and kindness accepted has a way of doing that.

Trite as this example may be, it does highlight a simple truth that privilege and its attendant duty of care and responsibility can be found in many situations of everyday life: sometimes we find ourselves in the position of prvilege and sometimes in its opposite. It is especially when we find ourselves dependant on the goodwill or care of another, who, however momentarily or serendipitously, has it in their power to make our lives a little more or a little less comfortable, that our sensitivity to the tacit implications of obligation to privilege is most acute.

My suspicion is that anybody reading this essay will, by and large, be in a position of privilege when compared to the majority of our fellow beings on the planet, not to mention the entirity of the natural environment we inhabit. We do best when we carry both the rights of our privilege and its attendant responsibity in equal measure in all our comings and goings, no matter how irrelevant they may appear to us.

Starting right – Maybe The Most Important Step Of All

In his outstanding book “Creating Innovators”, educational researcher Tony Wagner examines a group of high achievers, all of whom had reached positions of acclaim and honour in their chosen fields, primarily as leaders, by an early age. Most of his selected group were in their thirties when they were selected by him as outstanding examples of innovative, inspiring leaders. The purpose of his study was to determine if there were common characteristics or aspects of their upbringing or education from which he might draw robust inferences about the nurturing of such talent.

Although his reference group came from a large range of family backgrounds – poor, wealthy, immigrant, established, low and high educational focus -, aspects of their life paths and upbringing were significant enough for him to draw reliable conclusions. Specifically these successful, innovative personalities had all shared three very similar aspects to their upbringing as children and young adults, namely:

1. Parents who were encouraging, experimental, highly tolerant of failure, but with a clear set of inviable rules governing behaviour at home, including strong regulation of access to television and social media;

2. At least one teacher at high school or university with an interdisciplinary conviction and infectious enthusiasm, who promoted regular participation in projects that required them to work in groups comprised of students with diverse academic foci;

3. A first boss who nurtured them and immediately gave them significant responsibility to execute meaningful projects, whilst closely monitoring the results, with thoughtful feedback and emotional support.

There are many conclusions and lessons to be drawn from this study, but my focus today is on the last characteristic. It has been a few years – at least four – since I read “Creating Innovators”, but the importance of that last aspect was brought home to me last night, as I read the thoughtful review of Bunny, my eldest daughter’s performance at the end of her five week work experience at the Chicago-based business “Tasty Catering“, by the Founder and self-designated “Chief Culture Officer” Tom Walter.

Now you should know that my daughter is in her 16th year, lives and goes to school close to our home near Dublin, Ireland and had specifically requested that we support her in finding a summer job in the States. We know Tom and Bobbi Walter personally, through our long mutual association in The Small Giants Community and they had been ambushed by Bunny on a recent trip to Ireland, which took them through our home. So she flew off in early June on the cheapest ticket we could find, to stay with a family she didn’t know, in a place she had never been to approx. 8.000 miles from home, to perform her first ever paid work in a company she had only heard of once, some ten days before the trip was planned and booked.

She returned a few days ago, a changed person: more confident, maturer, calmer and enthused with energy and a hunger for work. She had worked – often volontarily and including a couple of 60 hour weeks – both in the kitchen and outside at events, preparing food, venues, equipment, setting up and taking down the event infrastructure and serving guests, all as part of the Tasty Catering team. She had been looked after by a number of supervisors and was regularly checked into by the senior management and by Tom and his wife Bobbi, both of whom are still actively involved in the management of the company. She had received support, encouragement, friendship, challenges and above all acceptance and constructive criticism throughout her short tenure, and all this for a young girl, with no work experience at all, in the middle of the busiest summer season before and after the 4th July celebrations, who the Tasty Catering team knew would be going home again within 6 weeks.

Tom wrote to me last night, describing how he and his team had experienced my daughter and was full of praise for her attitude, sunny disposition and work ethic, all of which made me glow with pride, of course. However, reflecting on his letter with my wife, I had to think back to the “Creating Innovators” criteria and was filled with gratitude and relief that, less by design than by luck, Bunny had had that most critical of experiences, a first workplace that recognised her in the fullness of her still young identity, welcomed her in, given her responsibility as a reward for her enthusiasm, had seen her and reflected on her and voiced that reflection in a respectful and encouraging way.

Her personal experience of how a work environment can be, of how fulfilling working in culturally sound business is, of what it means to work for supervisors and owners who are themselves emotionally well-grounded, present and thoughtful, is now rooted in her mind. She has been seen and accepted outside of her home environment, working shoulder to shoulder with young and not-so-young adults, whose life paths and experiences have been entirely different from her own, far more so than any cultural diversity she may or may not have experienced at school. She has earned her own money and learned that how she shows up for work impacts how she is received and honoured at the workplace. Her bar is now set high in terms of what she expects from her future supervisors, bosses and business owners, because her unspoilt mind has set its own benchmark from five weeks at Tasty Catering. She will now, I guess, chose her next place of work carefully, using her new yardstick and we will encourage her to do just that. She will want to duplicate that experience of being seen, trusted, included, valued and nurtured, knowing that, despite her lack of experience, what she has to give in return by way of service, hard work, smiles, humour and integrity is worth a great deal too.

I know that the percentage of companies that exhibit that depth of culture and values-based leadership is a small fraction of those whose cultural norms are less focused on people and whose environments are harsher, more ex-clusive and who wouldn’t notice or care much about an impressionable young 16 year old,taking her first tentative steps into a strange new world. But the percentage is not zero and it is worth all the effort you can expend in searching for those businesses and learning within them. They can be found in organisations such as the “Small Giants Community – Companies thatchoose to be Great instead of Big”, the “Great Place to Work” organisation and a few others and you can work the scuttlebutt by asking around, reading the business sections of the local newspaper and contacting local business networks.

I am more grateful than I can express to Tom Walter and his family for taking Bunny into their home and their business, but I am deeply in his debt, as is Bunny, although she doesn’t know it yet, for ensuring that her first impressions of working life were joyful, nurturing and inspiring. Getting her off on the right foot is probably going to determine the path she takes and the quality of her future experience, just as much as her home base and her schooling. I wish everybody could be assured of such a good start.

If you are reading this as a parent or guardian of a young person about to take their first steps in the working world, then try, as well as you can, to ensure that their first critical steps are taken in a healthy work environment; if you are a business owner, ask yourself what experience an impressionable young person will take with them after an internship with your business: will they feel nurtured, valued and trusted or will they emerge from the experience bruised, belittled and bewildered? And if you are reading this as prospective intern or job-seeker, then dare to set your standards high:

your first experience in the workplace is far too valuable to be wasted on an environment that neither sees you or cares.

Why I love the Small Giants community

It is a Sunday evening in Greystones, Co Wicklow and the evening is drifting into into dusk after a typical irish early summer Sunday, rainy in the morning, sun in the afternoon and a bit of both in evening. It is cool, quiet and the light is fading over the irish sea, which I can see from my desk as I write this.

I am mildly jetlagged, my circadian rhythm having been shaken up by a week’s travel to the US and back, but my memories of Detroit and my days in the company of the Small Giants Summiteers are fresh enough for them still to be right there at the front of my frontal cortex, where I can see the faces, remember the details, feel the atmosphere and recall the conversations, talks and laughter in detail. This seems like the right moment, with my brain processing what it wants to keep and what it wants to delete, to tell you what it is about this community, that has given it such a very special place in my heart and an unassailable part of my annual calendar.

For those of you reading this, who have never heard of the Small Giants Community, here is a quick thumbnail sketch (or what I have recently heard described as a Twitter profile): “The Small Giants Community is an organisation dedicated to the nuturing and development of values-based leaders of organisations, predominantly businesses.”

The community takes its name from a book, published in December 2005 with the same title and the tagline “Companies that choose to be Great instead of Big.” The author, Bo Burlingham, erstwhile editor in chief of Inc. magazine and an acute observer of america’s evolving entrepreneurship scene since the early 80s, had become intrigued by his encounters with a small number of wholly unconnected small businesses, which seemed to have found a magic formula for creating the thriving, exciting, respectful and nurturing organisational culture that rational economic lore would deem impossible or at best quirky and unsustainable. These businesses, Bo observed, exuded a strength of character which both enchanted and mesmerised those who engaged with them, be they customers, suppliers or employees, an effect he refered to as ‘mojo’. The book portrayed fifteen of these extraordinary businesses and explored the question, whether there were similar aspects of their DNA which might reveal clues as to how this behaviour and performance might be duplicated by others. Were there, he asked, a set of characteristics that defined these mojo-strong companies and if so, what were they? The answer, he concluded, without any attempt at a scientific validation of his hypothesis, was yes, there certainly were and these were to be found primarily in the founders’ and leaders’ own particular answer to the universal challenge of growth.

All of the companies portrayed in his book had at some stage in their trajectory made a deliberate decision to eschew the normal pursuit of expontial growth in order to preserve the delicate and presumably always positive nature of their organisational culture. This culture was itself rooted in a degree of intimacy with and respect for the integrity of their employees and their desire to encourage their employees to develop their fullest potential in service of the organisation’s unique purpose. This did not prevent them from growing, sometimes dramatically, but it did require of them to be deliberate and thoughtful in acceding to the demands of growth and to ensuring that the culture defined the speed and extent of that growth.

I read the book as soon as it was published in January 2006 and devoured it in a weekend. As I read the stories of these extraordinary entrepreneurs and their even more extraordinary businesses, I felt as though a tuning fork had been struck in front of me and placed on my heart, the vibrations chiming perfectly with my own aspirations and being. ‘This,’ I remember thinking, ‘this is exactly the sort of business I aspire to create and lead. This is how I want to be in the world of commerce and enterprise.’ I had had my ‘Bo Burlingham moment’, an experience I would, over the following decade, realise that I shared with many many others whose lives were changed by the realisation that the “Small Giants” way of doing business was exactly what they aspired to and had now been given live examples as reference points and a language with which to describe those aspirations. More importantly, Bo had unwittingly given permission to a new generation of entrepreneurs to develop their businesses in tune with the calling of their hearts and deeply held values, flying in the face of a colder, suspicious, exploitative and less caring accepted cultural business norm.

I couldn’t have been further away from the Small Giants ideal in my own business and as a leader when I put down the book. I was stuck in a partnership that I was finding increasingly draining and frustrating with the culture in my organisation miles away from where I had hoped that it would be. I was starting to feel like a stranger in my own business, which itself was growing rapidly on the back of easy money and risk taking and was surrounded by people I wasn’t even sure liked or respected me very much. My wife had stopped dropping by the office with the children or even by herself sometime the previous year: she just didn’t feel welcome there any more and, as she told me, there was an arrogance in the air, that she couldn’t quite put her finger on, but wasn’t at all comfortable with, so she prefered to stay away. To my eternal shame, I ignored that howling warning siren and carried on, hoping that the relationships, partnership and business would turn out OK in the end.

I have since learned, that if you don’t take those decisions when your heart is telling you to, then it’s fine, because the world will eventually take those decisions for you, only the consequences may not be as pretty or the process as dignified as if you had taken them, bravely and deliberately, yourself. Within 18 months the first tornadoes, in what would become the perfect financial storm from across the Atlantic, had hit my business, sending partners and assorted rats scuttling from the ship and leaving me and a small crew to salvage what we could from the blast. Economics aside, the lack of trust and dedication at the top, the abscence of a culture of mutual caring and even alignment to a core purpose and values, left the ship without the essential glue that might hold it togther under pressure and made it easy for the storm to disintegrate our cleverly constructed mini-empire.

So whilst I was being drawn inexorably into my own entrepreneurial maelstrom, I was cultivating a new friendship with Bo, having reached out to him through his successor, Jane Berentsen, as editor at Inc. magazine in New York. I rang him, he took my call and we talked for several hours, one of many many conversations that Bo would have with readers he had similarly touched with his writing. I was lucky: I read quickly and diligently and acted fast, because for the first time my heart was actively leading me down this particular business avenue. I had no idea why I was so keen to follow up with this author, but I just knew I had to. I invited Bo to visit me in Munich, Germany, where my business was based and we found a date in February of 2007 for him to address a dinner for some 200 business friends and acquaintances, most of whom I had sent a copy of the book to the previous Christmas. Bo and his wife Lisa, came to stay and what started as a phone call quickly morphed into a deep friendship, which we could build on as we toured Germany that week, ending up with his speaking at the annual Family Business Conference at the University of Witten-Herdecke. Bo left with an invitation to me to join him at the Inc. 500 conference in Chicago in September of that year and to attend a dinner that he was organising for a few friends, who were also enthusiastic about his work, at the fringe of that conference. I went – although given the mess the business was in I could scarely afford the time – and met and befriended some of the most inspiring people I had ever had the privilege of encountering in my business career. Seated at that table were Bo’s friends Jack Stack of SRC Holding, Ari Weinzweig of Zingermans, Paul Spiegelman from The Beryl Companies (a newbie who had also reached out to Bo the previous year), Ping Fu from Geomagic, Norm Brodsky from City Storage and a number of others who had either been featured in the book or were entrepreneurs close to Bo in other ways.

As my business was groaning and failing, I was having my eyes opened and being generously inducted into a way of doing business that was nothing short of miraculous and invigorating, by these extraordinary figures. Perhaps because I was an englishman and the only non-US entrepreneur there; perhaps because of my genuine fascination and appetite to learn or perhaps as a financier, who had spent the largest part of his adult life interacting with small and medium-sized enterprises in Europe, I was welcomed into the group and took my place at that table and began an association which over the next years would take me on a journey – literally and metaphorically – across the US from Chicago to Springfield to Crystal Lake, Dallas, New York and a few other locations to meet, observe and learn from the Small Giant leaders and to experience first hand the mojo that they and their partners and associates had created in their organisations. As I observed and reflected, I was processing and comparing, trying to determine exactly what they were doing on a day-to-day basis in order actively to foster and perpetuate that mojo. In other words I was fascinated by the idea that there might be a constant set of behaviours which in combination led to the outcome of a strong organisational culture based on trust, mutual respect and service.

The constraints of this essay will not allow me to expand on those traits and habits here, other than to note that there definitely are specific tools, hacks and processes that the Small Giants companies all apply with varying emphases and degrees, but which inform and define the organisational culture and that these processes can be learned and applied universally. I know this to be true, because I have done it and seen the effects for myself and indeed the business that emerged from my crisis eight years ago – a restructuring holding company that buys broken businesses and attempts to repair them – was founded with the core intention of systematically applying an adapted small giants methodology to the process of rehabilitation. It works.

What started as a group of Bo’s friends meeting for a regular dinner at the fringe of an entrepreneurship conference, evolved into an official community in May 2009 when the ‘Friends of Bo’ convened in the ZingTrain conference room in Ann Arbor for a visioning session under the leadership of Paul Spiegelman, who had generously and, possibly foolishly, allowed his enthusiasm to get the better of him and stepped up to the task of crafting a movement for us. A board was established, which I was invited to join, probably for no better reason than that allowed us to call ourselves the International Small Giants Community and off we set…In 2011 the fledging Community held its first summit in Constance in Germany (almost by accident, but that is a different story for another time) and developed the format of a two day intense immersion in each others’ company, stories and shared experiences, that have come to characterise each gathering of the Community ever since. We had Small Giants from as far a field as Melbourne Austrailia and Vietnam as well as a full representation of the faithful from the US motherland, a community that glowed with enthusiasm, experience and representing the very best of what good business can be.

In the six years that have passed since then the Small Giants Community has grown and matured. As in any marriage or longterm relationship, the community had to find its own purpose and perspective after the initial passion and post-founding excitement had waned. The principals were facing their own challenges and it rapidly became obvious that the challenge of forming a global community before the US home base had been firmly established was too much for the small organisation to handle. We settled into a regular annual summit rhythm – Dallas, San Fransisco, San Diego, Denver and now Detroit – attracting more or less the same crowd of fans and friends in those first years. Last year – 2016 – Paul Speigelman, faced an ‘up or out’ decision and decided to devote his energies and enviable entrepreneurial talent to focusing on creating the very best version of the Small Giants Community that he could. The change in the organisation – its vibrancy, focus and drive – could not be more marked and in the last 12 months, Paul and his team, under the diligent professionalism and infectious enthusiasm of Hamsa Daher and her team in Detroit, have transformed the community. I, and I hope all the beneficiaries of the community, owe a huge debt of gratitude to Paul for his dedication and selflessness in holding and nurturing the space for the Small Giants Community to exist and now to thrive since that first visioning session in 2009.

I love this community and am hardly able to express the gratitude and joy I feel for the friendships I have been offered, the wisdom I have received, the experiences that have been shared with me, the hospitality I have been treated to and the laughter I have been blessed with. The Small Giants Community is quite simply an extraordinary and inspiring community, the logical result of herding so many talented and values-driven leaders of extraordinary and inspiring companies into one tribe. Nowhere have I ever encountered such openness, such readiness to share and to open up, such emotional maturity as in this community. It is baked into its DNA already and ensures that nobody who is seriously committed to building their own values-based culture could fail to learn and be inspired by their involvement.

I love this community and am hardly able to express the gratitude and joy I feel for the friendships I have been offered, the wisdom I have received, the experiences that have been shared with me, the hospitality I have been treated to and the laughter I have been blessed with. The Small Giants Community is quite simply an extraordinary and inspiring community, the logical result of herding so many talented and values-driven leaders of extraordinary and inspiring companies into one tribe. Nowhere have I ever encountered such openness, such readiness to share and to open up, such emotional maturity as in this community. It is baked into its DNA already and ensures that nobody who is seriously committed to building their own values-based culture could fail to learn and be inspired by their involvement.

It is quite impossible to attend a Small Giants Conference as a complete newbie, without leaving with two handsful of friends. Anyone interested in finding out how to engage with the Small Giants need only reach out to Hamsa on any of the usual channels (Twitter | Facebook | Website).

Do it. It will transform your business and your life.

Some Thoughts on Leadership

I am currently struggling with a dilemma. A business that I helped found and fund is run by a charming man of great personal integrity, an astonsihing work ethic (I have never known anyone who works as hard or can manage the weight of the workload he burdens himself with) and off-the-charts intelligence. He has deep, if not encylopaedic knowledge of his specialist subject and is a recognised and published authority in his field.

He is creative and able to combine knowledge across diverse disciplines in order to arrive at innovative solutions to problems that the business faces, in the way that distinguishes mere technical experts from masters. He is also passionate, dedicated, a family man, simple and unassuming in his personal tastes and loyal to his friends. An ideal partner and founder of a dedicated business, you would think. But you would be wrong, for the simple reason that this talented, personable man cannot lead.

As a result, the business, instead of thriving, is writhing in pain, as his style of management, his inability to delegate, his preference for harmony over professional excellence in his personal circle, his absolute conviction that if he wants anything done to his standards, he will end up having to do it himself and his disinterest in those parts of the business process that are not central to his particular set of skills (but of vital importance to the value that business has been set up to deliver) creates stress, chaos, intransparency and, if allowed to continue, will eventually consume and destroy the business itself.

As someone close to the enterprise and the man, I look with amazement at the mess and stress this has produced and ask myself some fundamental questions about the nature of leadership and why a man with such an abundance of talent and personal quality, should find the task of leadership so daunting and probably so impossible to muster. These are my reflections so far:

1. **Your job is not your job anymore**: In his outstanding book on Entrepreneurship “The E-Myth”, Chael E. Gerber makes the critical point that most businesses are started by technically proficient “experts” who feel unable to perform their job properly in their current (employed) position. They are under-appreciated, working for a business that interferes with or deliberately prevents them doing the job they know they excel at and at some point, after months or years of saying “I could do much better than these idiots”, they take the plunge and set themselves up on their own. Now they are free to do their job exactly as they have always wanted to do it. But unfortunately, along side their job, they now also have four or five other jobs that they are not only unqualified to do – accounts, sales, tax, support and, of course, dealing with all those time-consuming people problems – they hate doing them. My friend and business partner is definitely one of those, for whom the business of actually running the business, is a distraction from what he really wants to be doing;

2. **Basing a business on the extraordinary talents of one individual is a recipe for disaster**, unless the core value bringing activities can be broken down into systematic processes that ordinary people can work with and perform. In this case, one man, my friend, is the font of all knowledge, the only one who truly understands how the machine works. He has no comprehension of how complex his work is and cannot understand why, after a very quick and cursory debriefing, the beauty of his creation cannot immediately be comprehended. He gets angry and frustrated when, after only the shortest time of leaving his people alone with his creation, it lies broken on the floor, requiring him and him alone to deal with the repair and fall-out from the accident. I don’t know how many times I have heard him say in pure exasperation “But I told them what to do” and whilst having no comprehension of how little they truly understood of what he had told them and how deeply irresponsible it was of him to leave them alone with his creation, with no supervision and no system of tracking the results.

3. **Very clever people get bored very quickly**. Successful businesses are built on incremental improvements to systems that produce reliable results every time. Clever people don’t like the repetitive, often slow grind of working on systems, particularly when the work in progress has no new challenges to offer them. They are off quicker than a swallow from a barn, looking for new challenges to excite and light up their synapses. Also very clever people can’t understand why other, less brilliant minds, cannot see and understand what is obvious to them. They find explaining basic principles and interdependencies tedious and the process of supervision distressing, as it fills them with impatience. These individuals almost always end up doing the work themselves, as the agony of watching others do it badly, more slowly and less intensely than they would, is literally unbearable.

4. **A good leader has to love his business more than his job**. In fact, almost from day one he has start planning and thinking about how he is going to transfer his job onto other shoulders in order to free himself up for the much greater challenge of running the business. That doesn’t ever mean that the entrepreneur is not allowed to perform the very tasks that she enjoys so much and at which she excels, but it does mean that the decision to turn those skills into an independant business, with employees and a promise to leverage those skills, the entrepreneur is making a commitment that requires her to transfer that knowledge, those skills and the processes that underly them, into the business and to become independant of themselves. This is a huge undertaking and one that often defies the abilities of the cleverest.

5. **A good leader must be able to hire complementary talent that has demonstrated excellence in areas in which he is weak**, but that are critical to the proper functioning of the business. My friend is appalling at this and it is the single root cause of the worst of the trouble in his business. My friend is motivated by approval and recognition. He wants to be appreciated for the technical mastery of his area of expertise. He is also a thoroughly nice guy, who wants a harmonious work environment. As a consequence he tends to hire people he has known for a long time and who are friendly towards him. He is deeply loyal to them, irrespective of their true qualifications or their ability to assist him in leading the business in growth. This error is compounded, when, as a result of their incompetence, things start going wrong (as they did and always do), he refuses to have the tough conversations with them and hold them to account. Instead he complains about the lack of support and the extra workload that he has to assume to rectify their weaknesses. He seems unable to realise that his stress is the direct result of his own inability to define, attract, hire and supervise the right people for the jobs at hand. In fact the whole prospect of designing a system for hiring and inducting the right people is something he finds distressing and he sees it as a major distraction from his “real” job. In my experience as an investor, of nurturing entrepreneurs and businesses, I would put this down as the single most difficult job and the one that is done least well by the overwhelming majority of entrepreneurs. (I have to admit, that I have too little experience of woman entrepreneurs to know whether this trait is the same in both sexes. What little experience I do have in this matter, suggests to me that female entrepreneurs in similar situations will, by and large, make better decisions, but I would love to receive feedback on this hypothesis).

6. A good leader has to fulfill one of two (preferably both) requirements: Firstly, they must be able to articulate a specific, detailed, consistent **vision for success** of the business (for the best way of doing this, read chapters 6,7 and 9 of Ari Weinzweig’s excellent “A lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Building a Better Business” – and / or they must be able to describe precisely the **purpose of the business**, defined as the specific problem(s) that it solves for a very specific group of customers (and why solving that problem is important to them). My experience and deep conviction is, that any leader doing both of these things, has the tools to be outstanding and any one who aspires to lead, but does neither of these things well, will fail.

7. Finally – and possibly controversially – I do not believe that in today’s enlightened, well-educated work environment you can ever be a good leader, let alone an outstanding one, if you don’t like people. If you do like people, if you can see them as individuals, with individual talents and biographies, aspirations and potentials, and if you see your primary function as an entrepreneur as being responsible for developing that potential in the context of your business, you will automatically put them and their needs in the centre or at the heart of your activities. By nurturing them, you will inspire them to fulfill your vision (which is now their’s as well) and to live your business’s purpose.

How To Be Outstanding

“Adjective 1. Exceptionally good: clearly noticeable”. Are you outstanding? Is the business you are running outstanding? Is what you do or what your business does exceptionally good and clearly noticeable? And how do you know if you are or it is?

Can you answer the question, in one simple sentence, of why your business exists? If you can’t, then it is highly unlikely that anybody outside of your business (or family) is going to describe your enterprise as “exceptionally good and clearly noticeable”.

Good enough is good enough, isn’t it? No it isn’t. In a world in which there is an oversupply of almost everything and in which success depends entirely on isolating highly specific areas of demand and serving them exclusively, good enough just isn’t good enough. If you want to win – and you should want to, because the chances of survival off the winners’ podium are slim – then you have to be outstanding, which means, above all, clearly noticeable.

What does ‘clearly noticeable’ mean? It means standing out from the crowd of competitors. It means being highly focused and specialised. It sharper instead of broader; specific instead of general and deeper instead of superficial. Above all it means being able to answer the question “Which pressing problem are you and your organisation set up to solve for precisely which clientele, exactly?”

Most businesses and business owners I encounter can’t answer that question with anyhthing like the degree of precision necessary to qualify them for an ‘outstanding’ label. Many entrepreneurs and business owners actually become quite angry when I ask that question, particularly when I insist on them giving me a precise answer. And when I scan through their websites and read their marketing literature or even their product or service brochures, I rarely find enough information to be able to answer that question myself.

Daniel Pink, in his excellent book “To Sell is Human” notes that the whole process of selling has changed dramatically over the past 10 years and that prospective customers have already researched and compared offerings long before they actually make contact to their prospective suppliers. They are well informed, have screened the market place, have made price comparisons and have already formed opinions and sympathies with certain suppliers before they ever talk to a sales representative or to a senior figure in the business. Who will potential customers look for when they scan the field? Who will they notice?

If you have designed your company to focus on solving a specific, important problem for a specific group of customers (defined as all the relevant people for whom that problem is pressing and real) and can clearly articulate that, then, when anybody from that group starts looking for a way to solve that problem, you will be visible to them. They will see you, because you will stand out – you will be outstanding.

The effect of that focus is that people who do not have that specific problem will, of course, not see you, because they will be looking for something else, specific to them. They might have stumbled across you beforehand, whilst they were combing their way through the sea of interchangeable generalists, who all claim to be able to perform whatever the client wants. But probably not.

When you specialise on a problem, when you become proficient in understanding the real needs of the client, hidden behind and under that problem, then you can you truly be exceptionally good and clearly noticeable, where it counts.

Here is an exercise to test your current level of visibility:

  1. Write down in one short sentence the answer to the question “For whom exactly is my business providing a solution to which problem?”
  2. How many of my current (last twelve months) customers do business with me or my company, specifically to solve the problem I have just defined?
  3. How were they dealing with the problem before they came to my business?
  4. What does solving their problem allow them to do, that they couldn’t do previously?
  5. Is there a bigger problem behind the problem that I am being asked to solve that is even more important? Can I help solve that problem?

I recently watched a wonderful film with Will Smith and the beautiful Rosaria Dawson as Emily, called Seven Pounds. In the film, Emily is suffering from a chronic heart weakness which has rendered her incapable of continuing to work in her little business offering hand-made card and invitation printing. She has two wonderful old handprinting presses in her garage on which she can produce uniquely special invitations and greetings cards. early on in the narrative she receives a call from a potential customer and as she is too weak to take the commission, she tries to suggest an alternative supplier to the customer, who just hangs up in disappointment. I couldn’t help thinking about that exchange, because it illustrated many of the issues relevant to becoming outstanding in the eyes of your customers. That particular customer found Emily because she was outstanding – she had a few unique advantages and was highly specialised in a very small niche area of the card and invitation market. Her machines were old and of high quality and her knowledge of paper and the printing process was equal to her evident love of the process and the product. i would imagine Emily was able to charge a premium price for her handmade cards, certainly more that the Hallmark alternatives.

The customer wanted an exquisite, unique, special and non-standard solution to the problem of inviting her guests to an event, for which, obviously, everything had to be special, even the cards. My presumption is that the underlying need of that customer was aligned to that of most of Emily’s customers, namely of having a much bigger project (invitation, event, celebration), which was so important to them that even the cards announcing the invitation, would need to convey that specialness. The card was just one element in an altogether much more important pressing organisational problem that that client was being challenged by. Emily could have easily (if she hadn’t been so ill) used the reputation and trust that she already had with this prospective client to explore the other challenges that the customer was facing and gain a deeper into the way in which her little commission was connected to a host of other, even larger challenges. By using her specialist product as a doorway into the client’s perspective, she would have been able to discover where the client was truly frightened of failure or concerned with quality issues that would damage her vision of success for the event. Had emily made it her business to do this with all her clients she would have gained great insights into the various motivations, hopes and fears of her customers, just from following the trail back from the simple commission of an invitation to the heart of the project. Through her repeated enquiry she would discover similarities and a hierarchy of concerns (venue, catering, music, technology, organisation, menues, accomodation, flower arrangements, chauffering, staffing, cleaning, post event activities, photographs and a whole host of other activities and services necessary to the success of the event) for which the invitation was simply the first step.

That knowledge alone – based on asking the right questions and seeking to understand her customer’s concerns outside of the narrow context of her little order, would have given her the ability to arrange co-operations with other specialists, on whose quality and attention to detail she could rely and pass business on to them. In this way she could, understanding her customers as she would necessarily do, become a gatekeeper for a range of other services and products, delivering business to her trusted associates and receiving additional income in the process as well as bolstering her reputation and expertise.

Everybody in business, in service, in any organisation can become outstanding and clearly noticeable, if they recognise the opportunity they have to understand the problem they are being asked to solve and committing to that focus.

The Big Secret

What is the secret to success? In a job, for a business? Is the answer complicated or is it easy? What is success? I am thinking about this because answering those questions are at the heart of Good & Prosper’s mission. Let’s start from the end and work backwards.

Success is thriving. Success means growing in strength and developing one’s full potential. Thriving means converting energy into form. A plant thrives when it is able to draw on all the resources available to it and emerge healthy and strong and in balance with the environment in which it is situated. As it grows and absorbs resources – water, light, nutrients from the soil – it changes the delicate balance of its biotope. Grow too big and there are not enough resources for the others, stay too small and it will not receive its share of the resources it requires and will wither and die. True success is growing without creating imbalances; is both using and returning resources, whilst reaching the fullest possible potential. Sunflowers don’t become trees and trees aren’t roses, but you can tell a successful tree, rose or sunflower when you see one.

So is the answer easy or complicated? Do you need to understand every aspect of a plant’s progression from seed to flower in order to understand why it thrives or dies? Probably not. You do need to recognise that the system that produces the plant is highly complex. It is organic, which means it is made up of life itself – the complex interplay of thousands upon thousands of independant organisms from bacteria through worms and soil and other plants and insects and animals, from water quality to air and the components contained in it. Can we understand how they all interplay and connect? How a change in one can and will effect the trajectory and growth of a million others? No, we can’t. So the answer is complicated, right? Yet we know that the impediment to growth can often be found in one very simple variable. When you return from a two week holiday and find your Ficus plant tan-grey and wilting, with its dried leaves scattered like a carpet around the base of its pot, you don’t need a degree in bio-chemistry or an agriculture masters to figure out what the most pressing impediment to its health and growth is. You forgot to water it and so you supply that variable and, if you are lucky, the plant will resume its previously happy, thriving state of growth and hopefully, not hold a grudge against you for the rest of your life together.

The answer, then, is usually simple enough – figure out what the single largest impediment to growth is and deal with that and nothing else. You do not need to take soil samples and air tests and calculate optimal room positions and temperatures for your ficus, if the problem is lack of water. The system in which plants exist is complex, the answer to why they are not thriving, is usually quite simple.

What does thriving mean in a job or business context? And is the plant comparison relevant? Is there anything we can learn from plants that might help us thrive in our jobs and our business ventures. I think there is.

As a business or an individual , you are living in a highly complex, organic system. There are millions of moving parts, some of which you can see and know about, others which are invisible and you may not perceive. For instance, you know the price of fuel and can guess that it has some bearing on your company or job, but you may not recognise the culture or the mood of fear or exuberance, which is affecting the way in which you and people around you, see the world and the decisions you take. Can you tell whether you are thriving? Can you recognise if others are thriving? Can you assess whether you or they are successful in the sense I described above: “growing without creating imbalances, […]both using and returning resources, whilst reaching [their] fullest possible potential.”? Are they stuck, not growing? Are they losing their leaves and drying out? Are they smaller than they should be? Are their leaves green and healthy? Are they flowering and returning to the soil from which they derive their nutrients? Are they in the sun? Are you?

And if they are not, what is the single largest impediment to their thriving? What is the largest impediment to your thriving? Sometimes it is blindingly obvious and you run to fetch the watering can. Sometimes it is neither water nor sunlight, but something else. Maybe a mineral in the soil, maybe the wrong type of soil, maybe it is stuck in the shadow of a larger plant, competing for all the same resources, but being denied access to them, maybe in the wrong part of the garden and so on. The difference between a plant and a business or a job-owner? You can’t ask a plant. You can ask people though. They may not aways be able to tell you exactly what the problem is, but they can describe the symptoms, they can tell you their frustrations and heartaches and desires and pains. They can, sometimes, describe to you their vision of success and tell you what they would be like if they were allowed to bloom and reach their full potential. And when they do, you can figure out what the single largest impediment to their growth is and fetch the watering can, or whatever it takes.

Is there a secret? Yes there is. And it is on plain view everywhere. It is hinted at or explicitly stated in every book on business and strategy and growth that I have ever read. Businesses exist to solve problems. Businesses are there to solve specific problems for specific customers. Customers, from the perspective of the business, are all those who suffer from the problem, it has identified and set out to solve. Businesses exist simply to serve. They are not there to provide you or anybody else with a job, or make profits or pay taxes or create wealth, although they should and do do all of those things. They are there to serve, by removing their customers impediments to growth and helping them to bloom and acheive their fullest potential.

Recognising the call to service and dedicating yourself and your business to solving very specific, relevant imediments to growth is the secret of success.

No News is Good News

I am radically cutting down my news consumption. Over the last thirty years, from high school onwards, I have been a regular and avid reader of broadsheets and weekly news and business publications. As they migrated to digital, I followed them, expanding my reading list in the process.

Until recently, I fostered a nest of newspaper apps on all my devices and maintained a stable of subscriptions, with those small individual amounts leeching out of my account and forming a steady flow from my treasury to those of Mssrs. Murdoch, Pearson and their ilk. I noticed recently that iTunes makes it particularly difficult to find and manage the subscription side, which irked me and led me to suspect that I was being played. That feeling started a process of reviewing my entire digital engagement and asking myself how much of what I engage with is necessary, helpful and of my own free will. The resut is a radical and accelerating cull, a process I began at the end of last year. In particularly in the light of my experience over the last days, in which almost very journal succumbed to the urge to publish its own summary of the Highlights of 2016, all, without exception, rubbish, I am questioning the value and sense of much of my digital news consumption.

Here are my reasons:

1. My head is becoming cluttered with more unnecessary and unprocessed stuff than at any previous time in my life. We neither need nor appreciate the volume of news and opinion that we are confronted with. The best (and probably only) defense is to turn the tap off.

2. If an event doesn’t impact me directly and if I can’t or am not expected to make a contribution to solving the problem, I don’t need to know about it. It’s that simple.

3. I am getting much more comfortable with acknowledging my ignorance on a vast range of topics from global warming via russian foreign policy to the current state of the american political system. I am also unwilling to hear the latest opinions on [pick your subject of the day] simply regurgitated in conversations and hope to avoid any tendency to parrot op-eds by not reading them in the first place. This makes me lousy company in bars, pubs and at certain dining tables, but I can live with that.

4. I am deliberately building a fence around my digital footprint and my digital exposure. We ( I say ‘we’ – I had nothing to with it at all. If it had left to me, we would still be talking through tin cans with string) have built a phenomenal technological platform in the last 15 years and there are very few areas of our lives that remain unaffected by it, such that merely writing that appears to be a cliché. However, for all its benefits, we are also becoming aware of its insidious dangers, not the least of which is the slow frazzling of our brains (and those of our children) and our ability to concentrate and process complex information. Cancelling all my digital news subscriptions seems like a good place to start building the fence.

5. The corollary of my general ignorance, is the ability to drill deep into the areas of my life in which I have a degree of expertise, enthusiasm and an ability to contribute to the solving of specific problems. None of which requires me to consume daily bucketfuls of news. I don’t need to know where the dollar is or was or will be; I don’t need to be terrified or outraged by images of children dying in Aleppo nor do I need to know what the European Central Bank is plotting or which bank they will or will not save this week or indeed anything that is outside my sphere of competence or even influence.

6. So much news is bad news. I don’t mean unpleasant or upsetting. I mean bad, as in incompetent, rotten, fabricated, misappropriated, and simply wrong. Stuffing my head with real facts is bad enough: the thought of allowing unfiltered garbage into my severely limited CPU is terrifying. Better to turn the tap off at source.

7. I don’t want to be manipulated any more than is unavoidably necessary. I also want to think for myself in the areas of my life, I deem worthy of contemplation and in which I wish to form an opinion. In recent days, every newspaper and television channel has found it necessary to produce a catalogue of Highlights of 2016, producing a month-by-month playbook of the year. Every single one I came across, chose to devote over two thirds of their newsworthy items list to murderous attacks by radical islamist terrorists on western cities (no mention of any of the atrocities perpetrated by the same groups in Africa and the Middle East) and to dearly departed singers and thespians, with the rest of the space being divvied up between Mr. Trump and Mr. Brexit. Brain research shows quite clearly what sort of information causes our synapses to light up on an MRI scan and none of it is useful, helpful or uplifting, but it makes for great entertainment and sales. I neither want nor need it.

As the New Year starts I am launching this Good & Prosper to write about and discuss topics focused on prosperity, strategies for success and on personal leadership and dissecting my own experiences and those of my friends and readers. I will be writing a great deal about focus and uncluttering is the first big step towards making progress on that score. Good luck and my best wishes for a happy and prosperous New Year in 2017.

Steven