Entrepreneurs should act like revolutionaries

I’m always grateful when my daughter Amy sends me a book to read, including the most recent one I received from her, Total Rethink: Why Entrepreneurs Should Act Like Revolutionaries, by David McCourt, published in 2019.

McCourt has indeed proved himself to be a serial revolutionary entrepreneur, disrupting the telecommunications industry in multiple markets around the world and earning himself a fortune in the process.

He came up with radical new ways of transforming how customers’ needs could be met, comparable to what the likes of Amazon, Netflix and Airbnb came up with in their domains.

McCourt saw how previously unthinkable ways could be devised to dramatically improve services and reduce costs – often by eliminating middlemen.

He won himself bold contracts, sometimes without having fully thought through how he could deliver on them but confident that necessity would be the mother of invention… which it typically turned out to be.

So what does this “Total Rethink” require? What are the characteristics of revolutionary entrepreneurs? It starts when we are young, says McCourt, with how our parents support and encourage us, and how our teachers also do.

Then there’s developing a strong work ethic, again from a young age. As a teenager McCourt took it for granted that he would help around the house and in the garden – as I used to do! And while at college – again like me – he always took up summer jobs.

In the American education system there’s too much emphasis on overcoming weaknesses and not enough on further building natural strengths, McCourt notes, while worrying that virtually all school curricula in America are geared towards helping children get good results in standardised tests – which then enables them to get into universities.

Here they are subjected to more such tests, as a result of which they qualify to enter graduate schools.

“If they do really well they get into Harvard,” he continues, “where the whole premise of the business degree is to teach them to think outside the box – the exact opposite to everything they have been taught up until then.” It makes us feel really good about our new Competence Based Curriculum, which has done away with the problems this revolutionary has identified in the US system.

All the top universities around the world now have courses on entrepreneurship, McCourt has observed, it being a “fashionable” subject to offer. But if you ask the students why they want to be entrepreneurs they will most often say it’s because they want to be rich and because they don’t want to have a boss.

He’s not impressed, asserting that no high quality entrepreneur he’s ever met has chosen that path in order to get rich, and that while not having a boss they all rely heavily on mentors and on the support of others.

He writes at length about the importance of confidence, based on capability; being willing to collaborate and compromise in order to get to win-win; sharing generously rather than being selfishly secretive (worrying in particular about middle management in this regard, who too often see their colleagues as competitors rather than teammates); listening to others and not talking at them (this for all managers, politicians, teachers, and others too).

He also stresses the need to be a good story-teller; to articulate one’s message simply, briefly and clearly – as in the elevator speech; and to write well. He was once told that his “secret sauce” was his ability to chat with anyone, whether they were three years old or 80 years old, and that they would feel like he could relate to them and that he respected them.

Here he quotes Dale Carnegie, who famously said that “you can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than in two years by trying to get other people interested in you”.

All that I have selected so far are personal attributes, and in my next article I’ll focus on the business side of entrepreneurship, on how to deal with customers so as to get the business and then how to deliver on it.

But before I conclude today I’ll leave you with a question his mentor put to all those at dinner aboard his yacht: “If you could come back as something else what would that be?”

McCourt’s immediate thought was that he would return as a revolutionary. Mine? Maybe a tennis professional or a photographer. How about you?

Challenges to change in dynamic business world

Since writing my last article on how to influence change, I have had the privilege of listening to Costas Markides, a professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at the London Business School and author of several outstanding books on the subject — including his latest one, Organising for the New Normal.

He was a delight to be with online at the Davis & Shirtliff management conference in which I was participating, making his points in such a lively and humorous way. Don’t take my word for it though, listen to him on this podcast, ‘Resilience mindset and the new normal’ on YouTube. You won’t regret it.

Costas — which I am sure is how he’d like me to refer to him — is, like me, an economist by education, and again like me he migrated into strategy. As with anyone who works in this field these days he reflected deeply on how the strategy must incorporate innovativeness, agility and resilience, and concluded that so much of what differentiates those who succeed relates to influencing people’s behaviours. He, therefore, focuses on social psychology as a key ingredient in his mix.

Why do people behave as they do, he asks, and what is it about the organisations within which they work that makes them do so? For sure leaders cannot simply tell their people to be, say, resilient and innovative. You won’t be surprised to learn that Costas is a great storyteller, and one he loves to quote is from the Harvard Medical School, which carried out a study on patients being released from hospital following major heart surgery.

Each of them was told that on returning home they needed to stop leading dangerously unhealthy lives — no more smoking or drinking alcohol, healthy eating and plenty of exercises. All very logical and rational.

The group was followed for two years, and it was found that whereas all heeded their doctors’ advice in the first month after surgery, 90 percent of them reverted to their bad behaviours within six months of their operations.

In Change or Die, the book about this case by Alan Deutschman, the author describes what differentiated the 10 percent of outliers who held on to what was good for them, Costas relates. It was how the doctors went beyond instilling fear in their patients by identifying the consequences of bad behaviour to also talking about positive futures that would result from good behaviour — like envisaging playing with their grandchildren or walking their daughter down the aisle. So to encourage people we must make the need for the change positive, personal and emotional.

Another factor that influences how we behave is our environment, and Costas talks engagingly about how leaders must create one that supports the desired behaviours. So if you want your people to be proactive, question what’s happening, collaborate across silos, experiment and assume responsibility, you must generate an appropriate culture based on supportive values, devise measures and incentives that reward such behaviours, develop structures and processes aligned to what you are seeking and hire people who are likely to be responsive to your aspirations.

This doesn’t mean people in the field can do whatever they want.

There must be parameters that define their limits, beyond which they must consult with their bosses — like if what they are considering lies outside the defined strategy.

Above all, Costas tells us that we must “treat people as people”, not as “human resources” or robots. They must feel special, working to support an uplifting purpose with which they engage.

For Costas, the new normal involves frequent and unpredictable sources of disruption, with inadequate time in which to respond. He tells us we must see these disruptions as not just threats but opportunities too. But this requires going beyond simply asserting that.

Leaders must lift their people psychologically, emotionally, reaching both their heads and their hearts, so they can visualise the fulfilment of the opportunity. Then they will commit to fighting with you.

Let me conclude by mentioning that an extra reason why I so enjoyed interacting with Costas was that nearly 50 years ago I spent a year at the London Business School as a student in their Sloan Masters programme. It was a great experience for me, building both my competence and my confidence. His session reminded me of those uplifting days, taking me back to the stimulation that so characterised the place and showing me it to be as vibrant now as it was then.