Monday, March 26, 2007

Who speaks when a founder is talking?

Working in close cooperation with and coaching the founders and leaders of a business is the type of work I most enjoy because it is about helping them achieving their potential. Facilitating the achievement of human potential to the fullest possible extent in a business is in my opinion one of the most exciting missions.

To be able to serve such a mission in business one needs structured thinking and true compassion, the first making it possible to approach often complex situations sometimes from unusual angles and the latter being the condition sine qua non for sharing the feelings and passions of people, without which even the best plans and decisions fail to generate business value.
Just a couple of days ago I had the opportunity to take the founders of a fast growing business to an off-site workshop aimed at helping them define key directions regarding both their business strategy and their personal goals and expectations as founders. The decision to prepare such a workshop came when I realized that the founders of the business had highly fluctuating positions when considering potential investors for their business. It was almost as though different people where speaking to me at different times about the same topic, and in fact that may have been exactly what was going on.
From my training as a master practitioner of neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) - a discipline that sometimes causes heated debate despite the indisputable added value it can bring - I know that human beings have several facets that seem to have their own agenda in the human psyche. Each facet generates thoughts, feelings and actions that serve one or more specific goals, which that part of the person feels are its best possible contributions to the person. When someone is not confused or troubled in any way, when someone is "aligned" in the sense that all of the facets of her psyche contribute their part to an overarching goal, then things flow pretty smoothly: thoughts, speech and actions are quite coherent and the commitment to a course of action is quite unwavering unless new data come in that justify a change of position. Of course, the opposite happens when "parts" of a person seem to pull in different directions because the agendas they serve seem incompatible at first glance. I thought that was probably what was going on with the business founders who were ambivalent about a number of issues regarding the development of their business. So I used my NLP skills to develop a tool that can be used in workshops as well as in one-to-one sessions with people pursuing business quests and which I am publishing here under Creative Commons license (NC-BY-SA).

The founder of a business has several facets or roles, four of which are dominant in my opinion. Although from person to person there may be variations of these four dominant parts or even additional part, my method focuses on these common elements of a founder's personality. Let me quickly present them (and I apologize for the very general statements whose sole purpose is to sketch quick profiles here) and then show how to use the method. Having a rough understanding of these different roles is quite important to be able to identify who speaks when a founder is talking. The diagram (click on it to get a larger version) shows the four roles and the intensity of ties between them.

The Entrepreneur is the most obvious and most public facet of the founder. The Entrepreneur is the most active part in pursuing the creation of a new business, the mastermind behind the business concept, the inspirer and "strange attractor" for talented early joiners and crucially, the top salesman for the services of the newly created business. His strongest skills are selling, building partnerships, generating a vision and communicating with enthusiasm and authenticity. Typically, the Entrepreneur's values are creativity, discovery, creation, growth, innovation, merit... although there may be other values as well and these may be expressed differently. Although he knows that risk is inevitable, the Entrepreneur will seek all possible ways to keep risks under control. His outlook on life and the world is usually positive (typically he believes success is possible provided he works hard to pursue a vision).

The Professional is the second best known part of the founder's personality. He is the expert in a specific field, the part that provides "technical" content and so-called hard skills. Depending on the field of expertise, the Professional will pursue a number of key values that are typical in that field (e.g. creativity for ad execs, precision for software engineers...) and the role of that part in the founder is to provide assurance to the world that the founder is competent to act as a provider in his chosen field of business. The Professional bears a heavy load whenever the founder needs to assert his rights as a legitimate participant in an industry or profession.

The Private part is the founder's non-business life, which is sometimes neglected or forgotten, but acts as a strong driver of many decisions. Ask successful founders and they will all tell you how important the private facet is and how essential it is to find the right tension between business and private spheres. That part's mission is to contribute to the founder's inner balance and to create places and times where the founder can rest and take a few steps back to consider things without day-to-day business pressure. Needless to say how fundamental that part is and I can speak from personal experience both because at times in the past I minimized the energy alloted to that part and because I was lucky to get a lot of strength from that part of my self while going through some very tough challenges a few years ago.

The Shareholder / Investor is the least acknowledged facet of the founder. Many founders forget that when they work without pay, do extra-time, put their money in a business or generally speaking allocate existing resources in a way that can only be justified by the expectation to get more resources out of the business in the future, they do act as investors. Investors of a very peculiar type perhaps because most of their resources are generally speaking non-cash, but investors still. So in a way, it is quite paradoxical that so many founders have such hard time accepting the logic that drives professional investors, although the scant respect of the latter for so-called sweat equity may be an explanation. The Shareholder is the part of the founder that seeks a fair return on the investment and wants to secure the founders' assets. The values he will typically adhere to are efficiency, profitability, productivity, fairness, security, power-influence and control. His beliefs about the world are not necessarily positive and may sometimes be quite paranoid, especially when prospective investors require terms that may be detrimental to the founder's position.

The method is based on the principle of inviting each of the four parts to express its position relative to a given issue that the founder is facing. Relevant issues may be both business decisions from strategy to day-to-day situations, and more personal decisions ranging from the longer term commitment of a founder to her business to deciding about which kinds of investors to accept as partners.

20070325_businessquests_rolesoffounEach of the roles is assigned a physical location in the room where the exercise is taking place (see diagram - click to enlarge). When the founder is physically located at that spot he is only allowed to speak in the name of the role of that location.

Step 1: The facilitator invites the founder into the space of the exercise and asks him to quickly explain the issue that he wants to solve.
Step 2: The founder is asked to choose the first role for which to express an opinion or decision on the issue. The facilitator helps the "part" of the founder express clearly its opinion, position or decision and notes down a couple of sentences that express that part's input. Then the founder is asked to choose the next role to be involved in the process and the step is repeated.
Step 3: Once all parts have made a statement that reflects their position, the founder and the facilitator move to the neutral spot to act as non-judgmental observers or coaches. The facilitator invites comments from the founder about the interactions between the roles, the situation, any potential conflicts or issues of compatibility between the roles' positions. The facilitator helps the founder express his analysis from the neutral position (i.e. without being identified to any of the roles, without expressing judgments about the roles or their positions...).
Step 4: Once the analysis of the situation is done, the facilitator will invite the founder to imagine possible changes to the positions of the roles that would help them cooperate better in the resolution of the issue being discussed. For each change suggested from the "coach" position, the founder is invited to go back to the positions involved in the change to check how that specific change would affect their opinion, position, decision or general contribution to the solution of the issue being discussed. If additional issues arise, the facilitator may decide either to interrupt the exercise and discuss those issues first (potentially using this same method) or to note the issue for later. Once a role's position is modified or reviewed, the founder goes back to step 3 to review the situation and to step 4 to identify additional improvements.

Several iterations of steps 3 and 4 may be necessary to achieve a fluid set of positions that is defined as a set of positions such that all roles contribute to a commonly acceptable solution in the issue raised by the founder.

Step 5: The facilitator asks the founder to build a short sentence that integrates the four perspectives and expresses the founder's attitude, opinion, decision or plan for the issue at stake. The founder is then asked to detail how that sentence will translate in his actions in the near and longer term future (in NLP this is to create a bridge to future real-life situations and hence some sort of foundation to actual implementation of the integrated position of the founder).

I have had a couple of opportunities to try this method and it does bring some pretty good results both in terms of how founders feel about the issues tackled and in terms of their actual actions relative to these issues. For those of you who use the method or a variation of it, I would be very very interested indeed by your feedback. Suggestions and ideas to improve this are very welcome.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Using the web to manage a merger

Mergers and acquisitions are tricky ventures. The outcome is seldom in line with pre-M&A projected benefits and unexpected obstacles appear once the operation is under way. Failure rate is high and the drain on management's energy huge. I have not come across many good assessments of success and failure factors for mergers, let alone "good recipes" for success, if there is such a thing as a fail-safe recipe in business. However, something that all failed M&A have in common is the people factor: cultural incompatibilities, resistance to change, desire to keep a corporate identity, urge to preserve corporate values, fear of loss of jobs...

That's why I really like the initiative of Arcelor-Mittal to invest in a web TV that allows employees as well as outsiders to follow and contribute to the process of creating the largest company in its industry. The mission of the web TV is clear: documenting the creation of one of the greatest companies in the world. It's a creative and daring way of using modern technologies and the power of communities to help people let go of what is no longer and to move towards a common goal: the successful transition to a unified ArcelorMittal. Of course, the fact that the project is run by one of my customers, Vanksen, only makes it more enjoyable for me :-) There was an interesting article about that on the International Herlad Tribune a couple of days ago.

clipped from

Arcelor-Mittal Web TV documents the strains on staff

Account on Web tells full story of anxieties in a shotgun marriage

With a budget of €350,000, or $467,000, and the backing of the company's top management, Arcelor Mittal's reality show has appeared biweekly since February, unfolding to a basic company plot: "Will they succeed? At what cost?"

powered by clipmarks

Thursday, March 15, 2007

MyBusinessAssistant: complete back-office support services

Today, I had the opportunity to interview Gourab Nanda, the founder and CEO of MyBusinessAssistant, an enthusiastic and driven entrepreneur who is on a quest to deliver top notch back-office outsourcing services for entrepreneurs and medium sized businesses. From communications and receptionist services to office collaboration and bookkeeping, this young company is shaping interesting packages of services. And there's a story behind it as well, with Gourab's background with SAP and his wife's strong drive to provide back-office services remotely. The web site is worth checking out and I will publish a transcript or podcast of the interview in the coming days. Perhaps MyBusinessAssistant will end-up becoming my own back-office service provider; at least I definitely intend to try the service.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

The Ethical Mind

There's an interesting interview of Psychologist Howard Gardner in the latest issue of the Harvard Business Review, in which he gives a couple of perspectives on the ethical mind. Gardner sees the human mind as a set of cognitive capabilities that can be grouped in five classes he calls the five human minds (disciplined, synthesizing, creating, respectful and ethical). Here are a few interesting quotes from an article definitely worth reading:

"A person with an ethical mind asks herself, "What kind of a person, worker and citizen do I want to be? If all the workers in my profession adopted the mindset I have, or if everyone did what I don what would the world be like?"

"A study we published in 2004 found that although young professionals declared an understanding of an a desire to do good work, they felt that they had to succeed by whatever means; When they had made their mark, they told us, they would then become exemplary workers."

"We live in a time of intense pressure on individuals and organizations to cut corners, pursue their own interests, and forget about the effect of their behavior on others. Additionally many businesspeople have internalized Milton Friedman's belief that if we let people pursue their interests and allo the processes of the marketplace to operate freely, positive moral and ethical consequences will magically follow."

"When everything that matters can be bought and sold, when commitments can be broken because they are no longer to our advantage, when shopping becomes salvation and advertising slogans become our litany, when our worth is measured by how much we earn and spend, then the market is destroying the very virtues on which in the long run it depends." - Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Jonathan Sacks

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Clipmarks just got better

I simply cannot describe how delighted I was today to discover the new version of Clipmarks, which delivers a host of features I needed and never got down to writing a mail to tell those guys. Clipmarks is a beautiful tool that allows you to keep only those parts of a web page that you consider relevant, to qualify and comment them and potentially to share them with the rest of the Clipmarks community. I use it a lot while doing research on the web to keep track of the stuff I find in a way that is organized and simple to exploit. Now the tool just became more powerful by integrating video content and by making it possible for me to select content and to publish my clips and notes on my blog. Here's the list of things that Clipmarks is now capable of doing (quoted from their announcement):

"Clip Video: You can now clip videos from YouTube, Google, Metacafe and others.
Clip-to-Blog: You can now post clips directly to your blog, with or without saving it to Supports WordPress, Blogger, Typepad, Movable Type, LiveJournal and Vox.
Clip-to-Email: You can now email what you clip without saving it first.
Clip Sentences: If the orange lines don't give you what you want, it's now easy to select words or sentences within a paragraph."

These guys definitely know how to design a good online product and how to deliver excellent user experience. Hats off!