How my personal transformation led to the transformation of Mekong Capital
Author: Chris Freund, Founder and Partner, Mekong Capital
It was mid-2007 and I was feeling overwhelmed. I just wanted our team to work together towards common goals, but everyone in Mekong Capital seemed to be fighting each other, many people blaming me for the shortcomings. I had so much on my plate, I felt like I was buried under a mountain. To get anything done, I had to get personally involved, as I wasn’t able to rely on our employees to meet the same standards that I was applying. Few people in the company wanted to follow my example, rather it seemed like they were going through the motions of doing their jobs, and then blame me when things went wrong. And at the end of the day, we were not delivering good results and we all kept having excuses and blaming each other. I was thinking that I’m just not a natural leader, that I will never bridge the cultural gap of being an American in Vietnam, and that maybe there is someone else out there who would do a better job than me as the CEO, someone who could build up our team in ways that I was incapable of doing. I felt like I was the victim of my employees, who didn’t appreciate my good intentions, and it seemed hopeless that they might start following my leadership. I was nearly ready to give up on myself as the CEO.
In June 2007, I went to Singapore for a 3-day personal transformation workshop called the Landmark Forum. The first day seemed boring to me, even though the program leader was energetic and clearly a powerful person. I thought about leaving the program and just hanging out in Singapore for the next 2 days, perhaps seeing some movies and going shopping. But I expected there would be some value in the program and I just wasn’t getting it yet, so I stayed in the program. By the second day I saw how much of the dysfunction in Mekong Capital started with me and who I was being, such as the way I was being a victim of our team members. It wasn’t like something was wrong or that I was blaming myself, but rather I saw how I was the source of what was happening, and suddenly I had access to changing what was going on within Mekong Capital. I saw that I had been avoiding dealing with many of the dysfunctional things happening in our company, which I didn’t know how to handle.
Over the course of the program, I received various assignments to do during the breaks, which often involved calling another person on the phone, taking responsibility for a negative point of view I had about that person and creating a new relationship with that person by letting go of my point of view. These assignments were uncomfortable at first and I resisted them. Initially, I wanted to avoid looking bad. Sometimes I didn’t even do the assignment. Luckily, I did some of them, and each time I did the assignment, I had a new realization, for example, something that I could communicate directly with someone that I didn’t know how to communicate before. And instead of feeling small and weak, each time I made those calls, I experienced how powerful it was to take responsibility for what’s not working and be direct about it, and re-establish what I’m committed to in that relationship.
There were other assignments too in which I was assigned to inspire other people to come to an introduction session about this program. I avoided doing the assignment out of a fear of rejection. As a result of that assignment and my internal resistance to doing it, I realized that I had been living with the idea that there was something wrong with me. I had been avoiding rejection as a way of trying to hide from other people that there was something wrong with me, like it was my secret that I didn’t want to be revealed. Ultimately I saw how ridiculous it was, and I was able to let go of that point of view about myself and choose different ways of viewing myself which were much more empowering and fact-based. In addition to my own personal breakthroughs, I gradually started to distinguish and articulate what was missing and broken in Mekong Capital and what actions I could take to get those things handled, like conversations I could have with people that I previously didn’t realize were possible. Finally, after years of frustration and feeling stuck, there was a clear way forward.
By the end of the 3-day Landmark Forum, I was feeling so elated and exhilarated about not only what was possible for Mekong Capital, but it was like I had discovered some deep wisdom about how to make things work in life. After that, I invited Landmark’s business consulting company to lead a transformation of Mekong Capital in Vietnam. It started with a 4-day program in December 2007 for our whole company, and then a 2-year coaching program in which we set breakthrough goals, experienced breakdowns against our goals, and used those breakdowns as opportunities for coaching. This structure was intended to ultimately lead to new ways of being by our team members, new actions and new results. But at first there was a lot of resistance to change, and a variety of people started resigning. Progress was slow at first. I felt like a victim of people who didn’t understand my good intentions for them.
In retrospect, I did a poor job at the time of getting our senior managers to understand why we were doing this, and what’s possible for Mekong Capital and for them if we successfully transform our culture. I didn’t spend the time necessary to meet with those people one-on-one, talking through each issue until we were aligned. However, I was determined to move forward regardless of any obstacles, including all the early mistakes I made. One by one, more and more team members started to take a stand for our transformation and empower what we were doing. There were lots of obstacles and breakdowns along the way — more employee turnover, we were running out of money, many attempts to take new actions that didn’t work at first, and sadly the unexpected passing away of my coach and mentor, Jerome Downes. But we were in action, trying lots of things, facing many breakdowns, learning from the breakdowns, and taking new actions. And we persisted no matter what came up. The momentum was building. Nothing could stop us.
3 years later in 2010, our transformation process was complete. The way that our investment team members interacted with our investee companies had become much more powerful and effective at getting results, and we had created a value creation framework called Vision Driven Investing which was working very well. The performance of our investee companies had improved dramatically from 2009 onwards. Ultimately Mekong’s transformation process became a pivotal and essential part of our journey to fulfill our vision of reinventing private equity in emerging markets and being very consistently successful in our investments. By 2010 there were already two case studies on Mekong’s corporate culture transformation published by Harvard Business School and London Business School. Excellent results like our 57x return on our investment in MobileWorld would never have happened if Mekong Capital, and subsequently MobileWorld, hadn’t fully engaged in the transformation of our organizations.
This is important because successful transformation requires that we have something at stake, the persistence to deal with and struggle through our obstacles, and a willingness to be coachable by someone who can help us, until life-changing breakthroughs are achieved.
Imagine what’s possible in the world if more people are inspired to let go of old points of view and transform who they are being.
September 27, 2018
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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.