Being at the source for causing breakthrough results
Author: Max-F. Scheichenost, Partner, Mekong Capital
It is a Monday morning in early September ‘20. I am sitting with the management team of one MEF III investee company and experience a heavy cloud hanging over all of us.
The management team had a tough couple of months behind them. Their teams were split across two offices – because of the latest Covid19 outbreak. The last “big” marketing campaign in August ’20 took a lot of planning and effort to execute, was above budget….and did not result in higher transactions. In fact, transactions were flat.
Sitting in this meeting, I can listen to an ongoing concern that there is only 1 big campaign per month developed by Marketing. And that “it’s like flipping a coin in terms of success: It either works – or as it was 50% of the time the case – it doesn’t work” in terms of driving transactions. And the problem? It was best summarized by the CFO stating “We are literally running out of coins”.
The management team was stressed and the CMO at that time felt all the burden. Driving transactions was perceived as the sole responsibility of the Marketing department. The conversations were about “more”, “better” and “now”- typical for a change (or crisis) management process which is on a predictable path of failing as executives start to finger point who is to blame instead of working (or fighting) as a unified force.
The Founder & CEO opened the Management meeting: “We can’t operate as we did in the past. Hoping for the big bang to happen… it doesn’t work.”
“This is our last shot for the year. And I invited Max from Mekong Capital to coach us on how we can apply a new Operating Technology called “Agile”. Over to you, Max.”
Great!… I am being put on the spot, in the middle of the biggest company crisis of the year. And everyone sitting in the room expects me to have this one silver bullet in hand so they can reach their committed breakthrough result. My thoughts were popping up stories of “being at the source of transformation” and “standing for the success of our investee companies” but now, in this room, I was sucked up with all the things that “don’t work” and the feeling that “We have to do something. NOW”.”
As a former Founder & CEO, I felt that I had to take control of the situation—and take full control of the outcome: driving transactions. I felt this strong urge to take action, say something, do something… Anything just to drive transactions. We set up a cross-functional team and defined a clear roadmap with the end goal “to increase transactions in Q4 ’20”. And I put my “war-time” CEO-style hat on and marched forward.
By the 3rd week of September, we got absolutely nowhere. I got a call from the CEO asking, “Are you guys planning anything big? I can’t see our transactions improving.” And then a follow-up message from the Chief Commercial Officer: “There is no impact on our transactions. Nothing. What’s happening?” Everyone was again waiting for the ‘big bang’ to happen. But it didn’t. They were waiting for me to magically create something. But I hadn’t.
I falsely assumed that by co-creating a clear roadmap, aligning a cross-functional team toward this big goal, and marching ahead in my war-time CEO style that they will start working on a number of different initiatives to drive transactions. I was wondering why THEY were not delivering results. I was wondering what THEY were missing. And why THEY were not doing what we aligned on. I was so attached to the outcome (=driving transactions) that I fell into the same despair that the management experienced in early September. Even worse, I started to feel the burden of not delivering results and created a picture that I would be the next one to be blamed—which then turned into my worst professional nightmare: my coaching is a complete waste of time and resources. And the perception that I have zero impact on our investee companies.
During one of my morning meditations, I distanced myself from all these thoughts. And I started to let go of my war-time CEO role and I went into an empty space, free of attachment to the outcome and deeply connecting with myself. My source. And then – without any effort – it clicked.
The problem was not “THEM” or “THEY.” The problem was not the “outcome” i.e. transactions.
The problem was ME: me being attached to my old role as CEO & Founder; wearing my war-time CEO hat. Me being fixated on an outcome, marching ahead, and trying to pull everyone towards an end goal instead of being the source causing THEM to generate a breakthrough. I wanted to fix a situation instead of standing in the success of them and BE their success.
I realized that I have fallen into exactly the same trap that the Management team had. I operated in the space of change: more, better, different. I created an image (or in this case project) that was past-based for a single goal: driving transactions. And the best – or in this case worst of it – I was causing this to happen. I was at the source of it.
I needed a complete shift in gears. Not necessarily forward, but two steps back and going back to the drawing board. We took a hard break so we could adjust the way we were operating. So we could operate in a truly Agile way.
Instead of having “one silver bullet” for one target, I needed the newly established cross-functional team to discover that manufacturing, deploying, and testing seven smaller bullets works far better. And that if they were continuously shooting at the same target with these seven bullets, and then doubling down on the 2-3 ones that truly hit (in our case driving) the target, it would be a much better way to go. Through this process, they would discover which of these bullets were key drivers for transactions – or not. Finally, I took a stand that, first, we would add new intentions to this project: “increase transactions in Q4 ‘20 while understanding key drivers of transactions,” and, second, that the newly created team “moves with velocity & pace through trial & error rather than waiting for the ‘right solution’ to execute”.
We moved into October and could see the first initiatives driving transactions. The team was becoming familiar with Agile and I started to focus on building their internal capabilities so I could remove myself as a coach. I started telling myself: “Finally, we are on track.”
But then – in mid/end November – the CMO resigned and reduced her involvement as a key member of the project. The first reaction of the management team was: “Let’s kill this Agile project. Even our CMO has enough of it.” Instead of being a victim of the situation, I took a stand that we continue with this new operating approach and that we would not be disempowered by any circumstance – such as a key member resigning.
In a private conversation, the CEO shared with me: “Max, I have no idea what you are doing or how you are doing it. But this is literally yours, mine, and our last shot for the year.”
Instead of reverting back to my “old-me” wearing my war-time CEO hat and leading the pack on the field, I decided to continue to be the coach. I would say & do whatever the team needed to do to win the game. But I would not actually play the game for them. I would not be attached to any outcome. I would only coach them to apply Agile as an operating approach and BE whoever I needed to be to empower them to succeed.
In total, the agile project team was executing (and continuously testing and improving) 7 key initiatives over 12 weeks. Some of the key initiatives included the rolling-out of new product categories and new tactical approaches (incl. creation of a traffic driver).
- First, they built their internal agile capabilities with the announcement of their first official Scrum Master for their Marketing Director who took over after the CMO resigned.
- The team successfully initiated, launched, and generated valuable insights with these initiatives that helped the company identify key drivers of the transaction(s) while moving with velocity & pace through trial and error. And every team member had his fair share of “trial” and especially “errors.”
- In the first week of January ’21, it was confirmed that the Investee generated a breakthrough: they hit their all-time transaction and revenue high in December!
The Management team celebrated their success. Our deal team received acknowledgment for the success of this year-end performance. I was reminded of the quote of Lao Tzu: “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves”. For me – as a Coach & standing for the success of our Investees -I was fulfilled being in this role—while they cheered and celebrated their achievement and success.
I share this story with you to give you a taste of how our Digital Transformation team at Mekong Capital commits to being the source of transformation. And when applying a core methodology – such as Agile – that it requires the right leader, capable of adapting how they are BEING, to effectively and seamlessly merge this core methodology into a company in order to cause breakthrough results.
July 17, 2021
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Mekong Capital makes investments in consumer-driven businesses and adds substantial value to those companies based on its proven framework called Vision Driven Investing. Our investee companies are typically among the fastest-growing companies in Vietnam’s consumer sectors.
In January 2022, Mekong Capital founder Chris Freund published Crab Hotpot, a story about a bunch of crabs who found themselves stuck in a boiling pot. The colorful cover of “Crab Hot Pot,” complete with expressive cartoon crustaceans, looks like a children’s tale at first glance. But as one continues reading, it becomes clear that the work has an important message about organizational transformation, leadership and focusing on a clear vision for the future.