Leadership and the importance of changing one’s mind

Martin McGuinness, former deputy first minister of Northern Ireland and also former IRA commander, died today. I was shocked to learn he was only 66. Shocked because I have known his name since I was a child growing up in India, and had always thought he was much older.

But he wasn’t. In that short life, McGuinness, as many obituaries are reminding us, went from being “the butcher of Bogside” to “brave statesman”. In other words, he changed his approach to finding an acceptable settlement and peace. And he did it in the glare of the public eye.

Changing one’s mind, one’s opinion, one’s approach is an important trait for good leaders. It shows their ability to take on board new information as well as their ability to admit mistakes and course-correct. Not only are these traits indicators of an open mind, they also enable people around the leader to speak truth to power, for the consequences of silence can be many and unwelcome.

Yet we — the press, the analysts writing about companies, the electorate — find it difficult to forgive anyone, especially a politician, who changes his or her mind on an issue.

Not changing one’s mind is seen as a virtue, immortalised by Mrs Thatcher’s punny soundbite “You turn if you want to; the lady is not for turning”, before Mr Blair even tried his hand on the politics of soundbites.

Even the liberal press finds it hard to resist the chance to take a dig when it discusses a change in the direction of travel, a “u-turn“. See, for instance, the Guardian insist Philip Hammond digs in on his u-turn on national insurance for the self-employed.

This bald criticism creates pressure on leaders to be perfect, in-control, and always-right. It is unfair and wrong. And sad, because it demonstrates the rigidity of the electorate and the press pundits, who expect a leader to remain rigid, regardless of circumstances and possible outcomes of the original course.

An open mind is not cynical; an open mind is sceptical, inquiring and searching.

An open-minded voter or commentator does not distrust a change in stance as a knee-jerk reaction. What s/he does or must do is question the reason for the change, without sarcasm or without expecting an abject apology.

Is the change really just political expediency?

Is the change informed by new information?

Is the change driven by a new understanding of historicity, and how one might have been on the wrong side of history due to any number of reasons?

These questions hold good in both hierarchical societies as well as those who see themselves as more egalitarian.

Further, we need to remember that hindsight really is 20/20, and our understanding and memory of history both short and imperfect.

A friend and I were once discussing the leadership of Nelson Mandela. He is often cited in the same breath as Gandhi, who too had his flaws but steadfastly refused to support or choose violence. Mandela however categorically refused to denounce violence as a weapon in the pursuit of his cause. At the time the UK government under Mrs Thatcher was fighting another nationalist cause, which used terrorism and violence as its tools, namely the IRA. The policy of branding both the IRA and Mandela/ ANC terrorists was consistent with the thinking at the time.

As the President of South Africa, Mandela has been on record speaking in favour of luminaries, such as Colonel Gaddafi , the common cause being Africa and their shared identity as Africans. General Suharto was another one accorded high state honours by Mandela while he was a serving President.

Yet over time, the former “terrorist” Mandela came to be hailed as a hero. This shift took more than just one change of heart or mind.

In the United States, the Democrat Bill Clinton, the “first black president of the United States” did nothing to remove Mandela from the US Terrorism Watch list, while the Republican President George Bush signed a bill to change that in 2008. In the United Kingdom, where then-PM, David Cameron, who had once worked under the Thatcher government as a young whippersnapper, publicly noted in 2006 that the Thatcherite policy to brand the anti-apartheid movement terrorist was wrong. Predictably, the latter lead to many wondering aloud if Cameron was a Conservative at all — making one wonder if an extreme form of white supremacism is an essential quality to one being a Conservative in the UK!

But here is the rub. Post Robben Island, in his writings and speeches, Mandela was brutally honest in admitting his errors of judgment, mistakes, and shortcomings.

In other words, Mandela changed his mind too.

As leadership — and indeed, statesmanship — go, there are lessons in here for us all.

Especially in these times, when it is increasingly in vogue to dig in and refuse to consider the damage hard, inflexible stances can do.

Preferably before it is too late.

Getting help for your startup

This article is the twelfth in the Startup Series on FirstPost’s Tech2 section and first appeared on March the 16th, 2017.

Asking for help is an essential founder survival skill. But founders often do not know when to seek help, whose help to seek, whose help to accept, and how to evaluate and pay for any specialist expertise about which they, as founders, know little. Here are some key questions founders ask (and should ask) about getting help.

What help is needed? The answer often depends on the stage of the startup’s life. For instance, a competent startup lawyer would help with the legal structure, the shareholding rights agreement and other key legal scaffold in the early days. Essential help pre-launch could also come in the form of strong introductions to early adopters, potential channel partners, or influencers who can shape early adoption or off-take for your product as well as to people who can help access angel or VC funding and make introductions to advisors or board directors. The help needed post-launch varies. Customer referrals & recruitment, partnerships for growth, raising growth capital, geographic expansion, possible exit conversations are some examples. It helps a founder to map out the first growth stages

Whose help is needed? In my experience, the advisors that work with startups fall into three broad baskets: specialists, hands-on warriors, and famous-names. The first two are self-explanatory categories and include advisors such as lawyers and accountants, and people who are rainmakers, door-openers and hustlers on your startup’s behalf. Some of these are needed short-term or as-and-when. Others may be involved for short or longer periods of time. The last category however often dazzles and confuses founders. I recently advised an innovative social enterprise one of whose founders is a “celebrity”. While keen to keep control and wanting to be CEO and board director, the celebrity cofounder does not have time to do any actual work. This is problematic especially given the brand gains from keeping the famous cofounder on board. Could another advisor perhaps have a word and clarify expectations? Think of Theranos as a cautionary tale! A stellar lineup of directors and advisors, assembled for their political connections not their scientific nous, has not helped but hampered the company’s goals.

How to assess the suitability of advisors? The best way is to use a combination of verifiable credentials and testimonials. If asked for references or testimonials, I introduce the founder who is asking and one or more of the other founders I have advised, and let them converse freely. But this is rare. More commonly, founders approach me because they have been referred by someone who knows us both well. In such a case, I am the one who asks questions. Due diligence is a two-way street after all. This is when I find founders unprepared to talk or share information. Some ask for NDAs before sharing anything. Others go overboard in talking themselves up. None of these works. Advisors have finite time, and if you cannot sell your idea and vision to them, you won’t keep their interest very long.

How to compensate advisors? Startups often struggle with this question. The varying degrees of involvement required thwarts one-size-fits-all approaches. Many founders are pleased that some advisors are happy to accept equity. But equity is really the founders’ only major bargaining chip. Giving it away like toffee is unwise. Investors may also not be very happy with too much equity in the hands of advisors not actively involved. Some advisors such as lawyers, whom you want involved long term as you grow, may be better candidates for equity or options, than some other advisors whose advice is short-term or highly specific in nature. Then again not all advisors may accept equity. In such cases, the founder has to ask how badly that specific advisor is needed by the startup. Whatever you agree, put it in writing, alongside the framework for engagement; especially where you are giving away shares or options, clearly state the cliff and the vesting schedule.

Finally, how to manage advisors? This is crucial not least if you are paying your advisors. The keenest of advisors will not chase you, the founder, to give their advice. You, the founder, have to figure out a way to get their input. It helps to have a framework in place. One of the best frameworks I have worked with specified the scope of advice, the time expected of the advisor per month including roll-overs if the agreed time was not used in a given month, and the mode of communication that also identified which of the founders will be their interface.

Not all advice will be good, implementable, or effective. Some advice may be just awful. The relationship between advisor and advisee needs to be mutually beneficial and subject to periodic review. As founder, it is finally your call. It is, after all, your dream!

Risk culture and your startup

This article is the tenth in the Startup Series on FirstPost’s Tech2 section and first appeared on January the 23rd, 2017.

A healthcare startup founder I know was in a dilemma. For a pretty sizeable chunk of the equity pie, she had agreed to take on as cofounder a tech development guy. He would in turn build the platform which would enable her business model. As delivered, the platform however was far from adequate. The tech cofounder however was not amenable to taking feedback. Lately he had gone completely quiet and was not responding to emails or picking up calls. Our healthcare founder was left with a platform that did not work as expected, with no access to the source code, and now a growing dread that the company was slipping away from her even before it was built. She had no more money left to bootstrap or to pay for legal advice to buy out his share so she could get the code and find another solution.

When I heard about it, I asked her if the equity was his outright or had a vesting schedule, whether there were ways of clawing back some of the equity as a BATNA, what checks and balances had been built into the agreement between them. What I found was not encouraging.

Through some wrangling, this particular situation somehow found a cobbled-up solution. It is, however, illustrative of why your company’s risk culture needs to be thought of right at the time of creating the startup.

Whenever I bring this up with founders, they ask if entrepreneurship is nothing but risk taking by any other name. It sure is! It is about taking those risks that advance your goals, not risks that destroy your dream. It helps to develop the ability to tell the two kinds of risks apart.

I am not recommending that instead of building your product and your customer base, you spend your time writing huge formal manuals or official policies. I am, however, strongly recommending that you give some thought to the values, beliefs, knowledge, attitudes and understanding about risk shared by a group of people with a common purpose, collectively the risk culture.

How to shape your risk culture in early days? Here are some tips to clarify your thinking.

First, ask if the risk advances your objectives, your dream. At what cost?

In early days of developing a product, building user communities for early testing of features and pricing, capturing feedback and using it to improve the product, all cofounders may use their own devices to write code, collect information and user feedback, keep essential documentation. This is a good move to avoid spending a lot of cash on buying hardware that belongs to the company, if indeed the company as a legal entity exists at all in the early days. There are of course several possible existential risks at this stage. How is the repository for what the cofounders are learning being built and accessed? Where is the essential information — source code, names of suppliers, passwords for services to name a few — kept? Can all cofounders access it? Can it be lost or tampered with easily? What is the backup plan?

Second, think of mitigation plans required, should the undesirable event you anticipated comes to pass.

What if cofounders fall out, someone wants to leave, or someone dies? Can one cofounder hold the entire venture to ransom? What if your only supplier decides not to work with you, and they have copies of your sketches which they could as easily manufacture and start selling? It goes without saying that this mitigation planning needs to happen when you are making key decisions about cofounder relationships, product development, suppliers etc. One can, of course, deal with undesirables as they arise but it is likely to cost more money and time to fix than to prevent or have other recourse.

Last but not the least, by thinking through, however uncomfortable it may be, what happens if it all goes to the wall.

This is the tricky bit. Our healthcare founder was on the verge of incurring a heavy cost for not thinking through the apocalypse scenarios regarding her cofounder. His contribution was essential to her startup but his temperament and working style could not be mitigated by writing tough contractual terms. We don’t like to imagine doomsday situations, sometimes rightly so as they can be paralysing and demotivating. But it is important to know at some level what you would do to salvage your startup if the worst things you had not planned for happened.

Our risk propensity is about that we are willing to accept for just returns. A clear framework for the risk culture makes it easier to identify, preempt, accept or reject those risks. It is wise to start early.

Building your startup’s culture

This article is the ninth in the Startup Series on FirstPost’s Tech2 section and first appeared on January the 9th, 2017.

To be fair, building organisational culture is usually not on many founders’ radars in the early days, when much must be done in very little time. However as I have written in earlier columns, it is wise to consider building the scaffold of your startup for blazing success. Because while failure gives time to ponder, success rarely spares the time to do things over.

How can one go about laying the right foundations for a startup’s culture?

Culture is a catch-all term applied to business practices, processes, interactions and behaviours that make up the work environment in an organisation. Culture in a startup is how founders’ values manifest in practice. Particular business practices and behaviours may also be shaped by the founders’ personal pain points that they may be addressing with their startup.

As ever, starting with the basics is a good first step. If you are lucky, you and your cofounders are on the same page as to the values that matter to you and that set the tone — both for the organisation you wish to build with your cofounders and for your cofounder relationship.

The cofounder duo behind PostFold, whom I advise, created their fashion startup after noting that affordable fashion was often poor quality in materials and craftsmanship, or failed to understand the structure of modern life where one can seamlessly go from one’s desk at work to an evening do without an opportunity to change clothes. Their research also showed that regardless of poor quality, the markups on fashion labels were high but this did not necessarily mean that the master tailor and the machinists got paid decent wages. This, they noted, was a significant factor in poor retention of tailoring talent, which is crucial to the survival and success of a fashion business.

Their shared values were quite simple but firm. They set out to deliver a high quality of materials and craftsmanship affordably to their customers, while delivering a superior customer experience. This was the idea at the centre of their business design. They also wanted to create an atmosphere of trust and respect in the workplace, which shaped how people interact with one another in the business. This idea is in line with their belief that happy employees ensure that customers are served well. Remarkably — and this may not be feasible for all startups — the organisational values are also their core brand values.

In turn, these values shaped how they designed their business processes e.g. how customer complaints and returns are to be handled, how employees may be able to purchase the company’s products at a discount or borrow samples for occasional use, or how employees could choose work-from-home while delivering on deadlines and ensuring their collaborative projects did not get derailed.

Further, the clearly articulated brand values have shaped their brand communication strategy. If something does not increase their brand’s prominence or does not better the customer experience they aim to deliver, they choose simply not to do it. Avoiding bandwagons allows them to focus on building the excellence in serving their customers and keeping their employees motivated and engaged.

To recap, values guide our sense of what is important and what is right. Culture is how our values manifest in practice. Our daily decisions and behaviours align to our values. Processes and incentives can create reinforcement of the values on a day to day basis.

A media entrepreneur I advise has found a creative way of reinforcing the organisational values and culture within the team. He has created rituals and shared experiences to enhance the sense of belonging and the belief in their shared values. These shared rituals and experiences allow the team to speak freely, raise concerns, thrash out things and return to work with a renewed sense of commitment to their work and its purpose.

Like much else involving people and their interactions, the culture of an organisation evolves too, especially with growth and scaling. For instance, while the entire, currently small, team at the media startup I mentioned earlier can go on a shared experience, it will become harder even at twice the size.

Similarly, nearly all startups learn quickly that the formality of communications and the accessibility of the founders both change as the team size grows. This subtle change in culture can upset early employees and founders alike. At least as founders, you may find it helpful to make peace with that possibility early on.

In the next column, we shall talk about a specific aspect of building culture crucial to building a sustainable and well-run organisation.

The governance we need: a reflection

I have had both shared and personal reasons to have spent much of the last year reflecting on the nature of governance around us.

It was a year marked by sharp separation between opposing factions. This cleavage had long been in the making. The divide between the haves and the have-nots was growing with an empathy deficit. The difference between correct and manufactured reportage was lost. The political outcomes of both the EU referendum and the US presidential elections are being seen as a revolt against the soi disant elites, disconnected from the reality of the lives of many.

This is however not just an issue of national politics. A friend of mine informed me that today, January the 4th, the second working day of 2017, is “Fat Cat Wednesday.” Today the FTSE 100 CEO has apparently already earned the average annual salary of an average UK worker, a sum of £28,200.  The UK is one of the most unequal countries in the developed world. Even though the link between CEO pay and performance is “negligible” according to research, with 80% rise in pay delivering only 1% improvement in performance, the pay gap persists and is demotivating to over half the workforce. If we have learnt anything from the political seismic shocks of the year that just turned, we know this is an unsustainable state of affairs.

We are at an historical inflection point whichever way we look.

If governance is all about building stable organisations – whether national entities, for-profit businesses or non-profits, educational institutions or anything else – it is self-evident that we need a different kind of governance.

We need governance that reaches across the aisles and engages, to heal and possibly to collaborate – whether it is Hillary Clinton gracefully attending Donald Trump’s inauguration despite the bitter and personal campaign both fought, or business people such as PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi agreeing to serve on the economic advisory council in the Trump administration despite her criticism of the language used for women and minorities.

We need governance to listen and to understand one another’s concerns, which may necessitate learning how the other side uses the same words in the same language to mean different things.

We need governance that may seek efficiency but not at the cost of efficacy, because organisations are not dumb legal entities but living breathing ones, working within the ambit of their wider societal contracts.

We need governance to be anti-fragile, both in its intentions and its recognition of consequentiality of various choices, over time and not just in the immediate quarter that follows.

We need governance that is true, inclusive, collaborative stewardship for all.

If the last line reminds you of Edmund Burke’s view of social contracts, let’s not forget his words which may as well be about the governance we now need: “All that is necessary for evil to succeed is that good men do nothing.”

(Disclaimer: These are my own views and do not reflect the views of the boards of either JP Morgan US Smaller Co.s Investment Trust or BeyondMe, where I serve as a non-exec director.)