Why I love the
Small Giants

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.

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.