Fly High, Entrepreneur, With 3 Key Skills

There are great minds aplenty when it comes to individual business disciplines (marketing, finance, quality, social media, etc). Rare is the individual whose thought leadership spans effortlessly from one to another. Seth Godin, however, is one of those truly bright minds who “gets it” on many fronts. His Twitter posts are very interesting to read and his books are well respected. Godin’s most recent, The Icarus Deception (Portfolio, 2013), is described below by Amazon.com:

The old rules: Play it safe. Stay in your comfort zone. Find an institution, a job, a set of rules to stick to. Keep your head down. Don’t fly too close to the sun.
 
The new truth: It’s better to be sorry than safe. You need to fly higher than ever.
 
In his bravest and most challenging book yet, Seth Godin shows how we can thrive in an econ­omy that rewards art, not compliance. He explains why true innovators focus on trust, remarkabil­ity, leadership, and stories that spread. And he makes a passionate argument for why you should be treating your work as art.
 
Art is not a gene or a specific talent. It’s an atti­tude, available to anyone who has a vision that others don’t, and the guts to do something about it. Steve Jobs was an artist. So were Henry Ford and Martin Luther King Jr.
 
To work like an artist means investing in the things that scale: creativity, emotional labor, and grit. The path of the artist isn’t for the faint of heart—but Godin shows why it’s your only chance to stand up, stand out, and make a difference.
 
The time to seize new ground and work without a map is now. So what are you going to do?

Fall_of_Icarus_Blondel_decoration_Louvre_INV2624In a blog post last week for Entrepreneur.com,  blogger Bryan Elliott cites three essential skills Godin mentions in the new book as being critical for every great entrepreneur:

1. Quiet your lizard brain.
We all have what Godin refers to as a lizard brain. He says, “The lizard is a physical part of your brain, the pre-historic lump called the amygdala near the brain stem that is responsible for fear and rage and reproductive drive.”  

Godin has written a lot about this in previous books including Linchpin and Poke the Box and cites author Steven Pressfield for further explanation — “As Pressfield describes it, the lizard brain is the resistance. The resistance is the voice in the back of our head telling us to back off, be careful, go slow, compromise. The resistance is writer’s block and putting jitters and every project that ever shipped late because people couldn’t stay on the same page long enough to get something out the door. The resistance grows in strength as we get closer to shipping, as we get closer to an insight, as we get closer to the truth of what we really want. That’s because the lizard hates change and achievement and risk,” Godin says in The Icarus Deception.

2. Think like an artist.
In The Icarus Deception, Godin challenges us to think beyond the norm and become artists. “It’s not art if the world (or at least a tiny portion of it) isn’t transformed in some way. And it’s not art if it’s not generous. And most of all, it’s not art if there’s no risk. The risk isn’t the risk of financial ruin (though that might be part of it). No, the risk is the risk of rejection. Of puzzlement. Of stasis. Art requires the artist to care, and to care enough to do something when he knows it might not work.”

3. Connect the disconnected. 

Godin writes about “The Connected Economy” and explains that the era where we needed to care about catering to the masses is gone. It’s about connecting people who are disconnected — then connection becomes a function of art. The opportunity in the Connection Economy is about finding the problem (where are people disconnected).

Can you make the transition to reduce resistance, seek to transform, and connecting others to solutions? If so, you have assets that will serve you well as an entrepreneur!

 

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Entrepreneurial Twists and Misfortune

Anyone who has read my blog for more than one sitting knows that I began my career doing turnarounds, mixed in some strategy added to marketing and nonprofit, started some businesses, and now help startups and SMEs. Invariably, some of the companies I run across or that you may read about in an epitaph simply do not pan out. Megan Kauffman posted a blog entry today that features the thoughts of Wen-Szu Lin, a Wharton grad whose entrepreneurial venture in China was unsuccessful. Lin’s thoughts are below:

When our business in China did not work out as hoped, I could not believe that I failed at something I set out to achieve.  Four years of my life were gone.  The emotional scars and physical ailments resulting from the stress were real enough.  I couldn’t believe that I had lost money for my investors (who were friends and family).

Few people discuss the details about such periods in their lives.  Most entrepreneurs that we hear about succeed.  Or else they fade into oblivion.  Older entrepreneurs occasionally discuss the multiple failures that they experienced to reach success.  Yet, those painful memories are long past.  The younger a successful entrepreneur is, the more he or she is featured and sought after in stories.Venture failure

So, what happens with the majority of the entrepreneurs who, like myself, have experienced a major setback?  By far, this period was the most challenging in my life, and I was the most unprepared for the moment.  All of the business cases that I had studied in school, read in books, and heard first hand from entrepreneurs focused on how to handle business success.  How would I deal with failure emotionally and mentally?

Range of Initial Reactions

In China, I saw a lot of failed businesses, both from local Chinese and foreign entrepreneurs.  Through my years in Beijing, I have met many entrepreneurs and witnessed their responses when their businesses fail.

Based on my un-scientific observations, initial reactions fall into a few categories:

  • Reflect and move on
  • Disappearing Act
  • Denial (negative energy)
  • Oblivious (optimistic)

There are probably many other common responses to a failed business venture, but these were the ones that I encountered most often.

What happens now?

My foolish pride was quickly replaced by an immediate concern:  I needed to support my family, as my wife had just given birth to our first child.  Perhaps this urgency snapped me out of a potential downward spiral into depression. I had to quickly figure out how to generate an income for my family.

I experienced many mixed emotions as I evaluated my options and next steps.  Here were some of my main take-aways:

  • Personal reflection:  I started writing anecdotes, detailing each of the memorable stories from our four years.  I relived them in my mind and tried my best to put them on paper with the same intensity as I experienced them.  That was how I learned to move on from my experience.

Bottom line, I wrote a book (The China Twist) that reflected my experience.  The book contains the most vulnerable moments in my career, so I am facing my fears and my ‘shame’ head-on.  I am proud of what I wrote and what I have experienced. 

  • Job opportunities:  I did not realize that my degrees and background experience in consulting and technology were such a strong security blanket.  My options were actually quite varied and better than I had expected when the business ended.  
  • Another shot at entrepreneurship:  Growing up, I could think of nothing else I wanted to do except start something from the ground up.  My priorities definitely have changed but my dreams have not. One thing I know for sure is that I will be back in the entrepreneurship game sooner or later.

Some great advice from someone else who has lived the highs and lows. Take it to heart…stick a copy of it in a file and read his book –“just in case” you ever need the encouragement!

Leadership Mindsets to Foster Innovation

When lively conversations abound on the subject of innovation, invariably, the matter of culture emerges. Does the organization have a suitable culture to nourish innovation? If not, why not? Often, management is held up as a scapegoat for the lack of innovation. Karl Ronn recently said, “Companies that think they have an innovation problem don’t have an innovation problem. They have a leadership problem.”

Scott Anthony, a regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review blog and managing partner of Innosight, took note of Ronn’s recent comment. Anthony  had featured Ronn in The Little Black Book of Innovation, and considers him to be “thoughtful, widely read, a seasoned practitioner, and a great communicator.” Anthony wrote of him in a recent HBR blog post:

Ronn’s basic idea was that four decades of academic research and two decades of conscious implementation of that work have provided robust, actionable answers to many pressing innovation questions. Practitioners have robust tools to discover opportunities to innovate, design, and execute experiments to address key strategic uncertainty; to create underlying systems to enable innovation in their organization; and to manage the tension between operating today’s business and creating tomorrow’s businesses. Large companies like IBM, Syngenta, Procter & Gamble, 3M, and Unilever show that innovation can be a repeatable discipline. Emerging upstarts like Google and Amazon.com show how innovation can be embedded into an organization’s culture from day one.

Pixar innovationIn Building a Growth Factory, David Duncan and Anthony suggested why many others have not been successful: too many companies use point solutions to address a systematic challenge. They may offer an idea challenge, ideation session, growth group, corporate venturing arm or incentives for innovation…

(writes Anthony,) “None of these is bad, but point solutions don’t solve system-level problems. Duncan and I suggest working on four systems — a growth blueprint, production systems, governance and controls, and leadership, talent, and culture. It isn’t easy to do all of that, but it is what is required to really make innovation work at scale.” (continuing:)

Ronn agrees, but notes that the responsibility for such systemic work ultimately rests with a company’s leadership team. And it’s absolutely necessary. Research by Clayton Christensen, Rita McGrath, Richard D’aveni, and Richard Foster make very clear that we are in a new era where competitive advantage is a transitory notion. (McGrath’s forthcoming book is provocatively titled The End of Competitive Advantage.) Any executive that doesn’t make innovation a strategic priority, ensure there is ample investment in it, and approach the problem strategically is committing corporate malfeasance.

Further, leaders can’t just set the context and hope that innovation happens. Innovation is enough of an unnatural act in most companies (which were built to scale yesterday’s business model, not discover tomorrow’s) that it requires the day-by-day attention of the company’s top leadership team or it simply won’t stick.

The leadership challenge facing executives today is to balance today’s needs versus tomorrow’s. In the current environment, productivity and risk management are priorities. In the longer run, being able to anticipate market needs and adjust one’s go-to-market strategy are critical. Leaders must now be good at both to create and sustain competitive advantage. 

Anthony acknowledges that, to justify why innovation is a struggle, leaders mention factors such as “short-term pressures from investors, talent deficiencies, the challenge of implementing innovation-friendly rewards structures, the still fuzzy nature of innovation, and, in candid moments, their own discomfort with the different mental frames required to lead innovation.”

Most importantly, the paradigm shift needs to occur whereby the goal moves from being most innovative among a peer group of companies to being cutting edge like some of the upstart organizations known for redefining the playing field. 

Entrepreneurs With Too Much Passion Are Challenged

Diana Ransom is a contributing editor to Entrepreneur.com and queried in an article today whether lack of focus is an issue in startup failure. She cites the usual suspects (inadequate capitalization, poor market timing, and “founder fatigue”), but then notes that there’s no plausible explanation in other situations. Ransom’s case in point is the decision by founder Campbell McKellar to close the doors of New York City based Loosecubes in November after what seemed to be an incredible run. While McKellar was praised as articulate and poised, Ransom went on to postulate that maybe she had too many passions and it became her undoing.

LoosecubesThe 2.5 year journey attracted 25,000 subscribers in 60+ countries in an office-sharing play that has been copied by Desktime in Chicago. Ransom said she felt the idea was taking off, as evidenced by $9 million in venture capital funding and a staff of 16, all run by a phenomenal young entrepreneur. The sudden decision to close up shop with no media interviews by the founder gives rise to Ransom’s observation that there must be an underlying cause such as too many competing interests:

Like novelists who write several books, entrepreneurs often harbor multiple business ideas, and they love all of them. This is where problems arise; rather than building and running one business for decades, they’re itching to give the next idea a try. In fact, selling or shutting down a business can serve as a form of catharsis.

Naturally, there’s a financial loss associated with failure, but there’s also a sense of closure that people in the career world don’t really ever get to feel. That business (aka your baby) is gone. And while employees who get laid off often look for a new job in the same field, entrepreneurs can consider something entirely different. They can break new ground, explore undiscovered territories. While fraught with uncertainty, it’s also exciting. It’s the thrill of the launch. I suspect this is what happened to McKellar.

Ransom has interviewed many entrepreneurs and has experience identifying with their motivations. She writes that, “If you can identify with these flights of fancy–and you’re aware that they’ve become an impediment to your business trajectory–let me offer a suggestion: Instead of seeking your bliss by creating specific products or services, fall for something that can work across any business. Tony Hsieh (the serial entrepreneur and CEO of Zappos) has a (well-known) major crush on customer service. That’s his thing no matter what business he’s in. His long-held belief that quality customer service will make or break consumer companies helped him create a beloved online retailer, which Amazon.com acquired in 2009 for an estimated $1.2 billion. Now, customer service may be Hsieh’s cup of tea, but yours may differ. And that’s OK. Just make sure there’s something in your entrepreneurial passion that will hold your focus well after your initial idea has matured. Your eventual success depends on it.”

While identifying a strong suit and core value like customer service that can transcend products and services ideas is a good idea. I would argue that there is nothing wrong with being the other kind of entrepreneur. One key proviso: find a way to build a superstar team around yourself sooner than later so that you can effectively delegate responsibilities that draw you into the doldrums of running a business instead of the excitement of launching an idea. 

Those who are able to build teams that function without their requisite involvement are freed to do more of what they wish–even becoming a serial entrepreneur like Tony Hsieh!

 

 

Leaders Instill Vision and Creativity

 

“Vision is the best manifestation of creative imagination and the primary motivation of human action. It’s the ability to see beyond our present reality, to create, to invent what does not yet exist, to become what we not yet are. It gives us capacity to live out of our imagination instead of our memory.” 

– Stephen Covey

Vision cogAs a management consultant of 25 years, I have had the opportunity to interact with a variety of companies, their leadership teams, and employees. What Covey describes above is the missing ingredient in many businesses and the critical success factor in others. Jeff Orr, who coaches executives and their organizations, has this to say about Covey’s quote:

Vision. A key component of leadership. The ability to see what doesn’t exist…yet. And then to communicate that vision, so compellingly, that anyone who hears it can’t help but jump on board. This is the stuff of great leadership.

I have found that one of the most challenging aspects of vision casting is not the actual speaking of the vision, but what the person receiving the message actually sees in their mind regarding that vision. I have discovered that I can verbally paint a vision for a group of people and, depending on their experience, upbringing, etc., each person can have a slightly different picture in their mind of what the vision looks like. They also have a particular view of how they play a part in that vision – which may or may not be what I had intended. This has led to miscommunication and missed expectations. So how do we as leaders cast a compelling vision that is caught by our audience as we intend it to be caught?

Know your audience-their background, personalities, language and culture; (then) you can (better) craft your message to connect with them. If your audience is diverse, you may need to use multiple word pictures to say the same thing to different people. This takes a bit more time, but can be an eye-opener for you. Learning how to convey your vision in multiple “languages” will make you a better communicator.

Once you feel enough of your audience has “gotten it,” you still need to continually cast that vision. As one great leader has said, “Vision leaks.” Imagine a bucket with small holes in the bottom. As you fill that bucket with water, some of it leaks out the bottom. If you don’t continually fill the bucket, all of the water will eventually empty out. People are no different. The concerns of their department, projects, and life in general, all compete for their attention, crowding out the vision. It’s up to you as their leader to keep “filling their bucket” with the vision so it stays top of mind. As you utilize various methods of delivering the same message, you will see your team gain energy, synergy, and momentum.

What applies to leadership applies to intrapreneurship especially well. Organizations that lack visionary leadership often stagnate in their business performance. As the followers sense that the leaders care about creative capacity and are doing something about it, they become very motivated to produce.

When the workers are unable to see beyond their current reality (and not encouraged to do so), they can become disheartened. Being able to envision a better day with more positive outcomes fuels the fires. Given the opportunity to be creative, to look for what lies beyond the obvious, most will work harder with less need for exterior reward because they are motivated by what they can contribute. Seek to be an organization that values vision!