Monthly Archive: October 2011

Lessons on greed from a real-life Slumdog* Millionaire

If Occupy Wall Street, Occupy London and all the other recent protest actions have achieved anything at all, it is to highlight the general distaste in these times for pure greed. Whether that message has been heard or will lead to any sort of change appears to be doubtful, which is a pity. But it’s also symptomatic of the racy capitalist me-me-me societies we have built.

I don’t have much to say on that topic. There is good and bad in both sides of the argument and I doubt you much care for my opinion.

There is a great story to kick off the weekend however, which demonstrates the exact antithesis of greed while emulating a great book (Q&A) and okay movie (Slumdog Millionaire) into which that book was made.

The story isn’t that some smiley chap nobody is ever going to meet, saw a remarkable dream come true. Or even that Sushil Kumar’s prize money of £630 000 compares obscenely to his monthly pay of £75 which he earned giving IT lessons for the Indian government. Or for that matter, that he became the first person to answer every question right on India’s version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire and didn’t even require a lifeline in the process.

Those are all pretty great stories, but what is even better is what the guy plans to do with his winnings: to sit India’s civil service exam, set up a library in his home town and set up his four brothers in businesses of their own.

It goes without saying that in his world where he had only ever seen the game show on his neighbour’s TV because he couldn’t afford one of his own, gratitude for small things goes a little further.

It compares immeasurably however to how one would expect a minimum-wage westerner to spend their sudden windfall, which would surely involve the purchase of some or other sports car and a load of designer ‘kit’. King of Chavs, Michael Carroll provides a ready reference.

Occupy Wall Street is fine. But you have to wonder sometimes whether the wealth of social problems we face is more to do with our own preoccupation with the meaningless things money can buy and overall lack of interest in the sense of community that leads a newly minted near-millionaire to think first of building a public library.

*Sorry dude … you’re probably already sick of that far-less-than-charming epithet. Damn that movie!

How one plus one plus one equals one hell of a lot more than three

It’s a simple truth that nobody ever does anything alone.

I’ve been fortunate in a business career over many years to have had excellent partners, and with them, I have been able to achieve some really wonderful things. Among them, most recently, the building of a business named SALESGURU (www.salesguru.co.za) in South Africa which made it from a dream spelled out on a white board in August of 2005 to a thriving business that is still growing today and numbers some 20-odd people.

In building it, I was able to rely on, and be led by the amazing talents, drive and vision of two partners. But there is a secret in partnership which often goes unsaid, and it is this: none of us would have been able to achieve what we achieved, on our own. As three members of an alliance, we were each significantly less than the whole thing, but at the same time, each more than merely one-third. 1 + 1 + 1 = 4 or maybe 5 in our case.

But while great partners can help you make amazing things happen in business, and in life too, it’s vitally important that you never overlook your own contribution to that. Your 1+ is essential and the only person who can consistently bring it, is you.

Often, that makes you, your own biggest risk.  Certainly, you’re the only fallible variable over which you exert total control.

We hold our partners, our leaders, our friends and our loved ones to a very high standard because we expect a great deal from them. The risk we run however, especially as things start to play out successfully, is that we stop holding ourselves to the same high standard. We assume that if things are going well, then we can afford to allow a little slack to set in, and take things a little easier. Take them for granted, perhaps.

But as I set about building something new this year, it has been clear to me that the biggest draw card I have in establishing partners and alliances isn’t great ideas, charisma or gravitas, but the sheer weight of effort I’m willing to put in. That’s ultimately the only thing people can use to measure your worth.

Even in this wildly-connected and rapidly-changing world, the one constant that fiercely refuses to change is the value of your 1+. You have to put yourself in the game to attract other players, but they have to know they can rely on you not to fade.

Reasons why it sucks to be the king

It must be awful to be the King. Or the Queen. Or anything that means you’re born into entitlement. It must suck to be the child of super-rich parents.

Seriously.

It would be cool to have access to all the things that they have: The helpers and the minders and the sort of instant name-recognition that opens every single door in the world. It would be great  to be able to enjoy the things their money can buy.

And I don’t go in for that whole argument that it is better to earn something than to be given it. A Bentley is a Bentley, no matter how you got it.

The snag though, is that in being used to having all of the money in the world and the sycophancy it usually buys, you probably cannot have any idea how to value it.

Now of course working to earn it will teach you value in ways that simply being born into it probably cannot. But I don’t really think that’s the whole argument. It’s not scarcity that teaches you value. It’s perspective.

If you lack perspective, you’re going to take a very-heavily imbalanced view of the consequences of your actions. There’s no lesson to be learned in smashing up your sports car by driving like a dick head, when you can simply buy another one. There’s no lesson to be learned in treating people well or badly when they’re all inclined to let you have your way regardless of how you act.

And I think it must be unpleasant to be unable to put together a gratitude list or to count your blessings because you don’t know how to assess them.

Though I will never own a Bentley, I think it’s worth everything that I can see one and appreciate what it is, what went into its design and know why it is remarkable.

Though I too want great service when I’m paying for it, I think it’s worth everything to be willing and able to look at the waiter’s face and see whether they’re tired, stressed or upset before simply letting lose a tirade of angry words because my food is cold.

And it’s my feeling that if you’re born into entitlement, you’re less likely to be able to do that. Ultimately, that really sucks.

You’ve just got to be YOU

If you’re serious about life, you’re never off stage.

No matter where you are, or what you’re up to, you’re always under the spotlight. A random encounter at the supermarket or on the train. An informal meeting that suddenly turns very formal when you’re taken upstairs to meet the big kahunas. Drinks with your employees one week followed by the need to take disciplinary action the next.

Everybody is judging you. All the time. And anyone who says you shouldn’t care about what other people think is probably full of shit, because it matters. If you want to do business, make friends, get a job, get laid … anything. It matters.

The mistake I often see people make, and I sincerely hope I don’t make myself is that of forcing it.

See, if you’re really not likeable, then you’ve got a problem. If people always react badly to you, then you ought to take a look at why that is. Perhaps you need a mentor, some advice, some pills or something. There’s nothing wrong with any of those if they help.

But most people don’t have that problem. For the most part, people are people and we’re all a generally pretty nice bunch when we’re relaxed and at ease. The secret, I think, is to try to be that person as often as you can.

It doesn’t matter if the sharp business-suited you is spotted in a tracksuit at Tesco on a Saturday morning. What matters is who the person in the track suit is. How different is he or she to the person in the suit the day before?

Psychologists speak about authenticity: finding the real you. Finding who you are, and just being that all the time.

It’s a genius idea. Here’s why: when you are the same person all the time, you’re trustworthy. Even though you must be able to adapt to different circumstances; to have a different conversation with the big kahuna than you have with one of your employees, if your values, your principles, the things you stand for do not change, you instill in people a very high level of trust.

And you know what? When they feel comfortable enough to trust you, chances are near enough 100% that they’ll like you too.

You’ve just got to be you.

Make sure you hire skills from the crazy pool

“Men wanted for hazardous journey.
Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness.
Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.”

So ran an ad in one of the London newspapers in 1912 as Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton began to recruit for his next attempt to plant the Union Jack firmly in the ground at 90°S, 0°W.

As interesting as the three-year long saga of that expedition was, more stunning still is the level of insight Shackleton had into how to recruit.

Modern businesses have almost entirely forgotten this.

In that ad, no mention is made of specific skills needed. It goes without saying that he needed strong men to pull sleds, conduct experiments, tie ropes, sail a ship, dig holes and build shelters. He needed a very significant range of skills in fact if his expedition was to have a hope of survival.

But he knew, even then, that recruiting for skills was the least important part of the battle. That ad, as he wrote it, is a call for people of a similar cultural fit. He needed skills, but he knew that those skills would be of best use to him if they came from the pool of people who were crazy enough … adventurous enough … brave enough … to answer the call of that ad.

The alternative would have been to find himself with a ship full of skilled people complaining about the cold and the hardship three days into the expedition.

It’s an opinion, but it seems likely that placing culture first is a key thing that enabled those men to survive to the end when a very certain death was imminent.

Skills are great. But get them from your own crazy pool with a culture bid first.

Why I believe in honesty

Honesty is the only approach. The older and more experienced I get, not only am I more certain of this, I am generally more fearless in practicing it. We’d all be a lot better off if we put greater emphasis on making more extraordinary true stories and less emphasis on trying to embellish the ones that sadly exist.

I had a great week last week, full of interesting meetings, a talk to a big audience near Brighton and several long telephone conversations with people I hope to be working with in the coming weeks.

As I did so, I revelled in my barefaced truth-telling. I have experience here and there and am even prepared in all honesty to call myself an expert in some areas; in others however, I know absolutely nothing, and have the developed skills of an infant.

Being honest about these things not only means I get better conversations full of fresh air, it also prevents me from taking any wrong turns. In these economic conditions which are fraught with desperation, I see people every day making expedient choices rather than the right ones, in how they work, where they work and who they work with.

The problem is that when you do that, you remain miserable. And that’s no way to live a life.

I believe that  self-development is the key that unlocks the door to success, and that in-depth self-knowledge is the thing that enables self-development. Since you can’t know yourself without being totally honest, without adding any sort of qualitative measurement to that, it makes sense to work on it every day, every chance you get.

Nothing gives you a greater sense of the strides you’re taking than to share it with someone else.

I can tell you that it works. And if this past week was a success for any reason at all, it was because I chose to face it without a protective shield of half-truths, politicking or bullshit.

Time: nature’s helpful monster

One thing about time: it isn’t going to move any slower, no matter how much we may want it to on occasion. No matter how fast it seems to fly sometimes or how it seems to drag at others, one constant remains: when it’s gone, it’s gone. And what you didn’t do with it, cannot be done retroactively.

I’m something of a time obsessive. I am acutely aware of how quickly things can change around me when I’m not observant. How even stepping out of a friendship or a business relationship for a few weeks to concentrate on something else, can have the effect of locking you out forever … or at least of making it much harder for you to get back in and all the more so at the same status as you occupied previously on the other person’s agenda.

That isn’t to say that this is wrong, or even necessarily bad. It’s just that it’s a constant. While you’re working on something over here, they’re working on stuff over there. Next time you check in, it’s a different world.

The reason I obsess about this is that I always have too many pots boiling at once. I always have. And that means generally I have to purposefully focus on each of them for precisely the reason that losing control is always a real possibility.

This week in Johannesburg, in my old life and among my old friends, I have witnessed several instances of this. I am focusing on kick-starting a new career in London and running all my various other projects and so I use facebook and twitter for the most part to see how my people down South are getting on. Occasionally, I’ll back that up by popping in with a chat, an email or a phone call, to see what’s going on.

And wow! What a lot can happen. What a lot of changes. This one is embarking on a new business venture and that one is studying for a change of career in a new field. New feuds, new friendships … time is marching on for them all.

It makes me wonder though whether I’m pulling off the same sort of impressive forward motion as they all are. Locked in my own life which only moves at a day-by-day pace, and comparing it to their lives which I witness at one-month intervals, I have a totally different perception about how much momentum and direction I have in my own life when compared to theirs.

It’s ridiculous of course. If I was inclined to keep a diary, I would probably be able to plot significant changes from one month to the next. And indeed I get that feedback when sharing stories with these occasional catch up chats.

That perception of time though is the biggest danger of all. You never have as much as you think you do. The only defence is to respect it and get the most out of it. That’s what all my people seem to be doing. I hope they think the same of me …