When should I become a leader?
Author: Nguyen Minh Phuong, Investment Principal, Mekong Capital
Feb 24th, 2023
After joining Vua Nem’s deal team in 2020 as a Deputy Deal Leader, with my love for the company and commitment to realizing Vua Nem Vision, I declared proudly that I would be Vua Nem’s deal leader at the end of 2021. I thought to myself, “I would give myself 1 year to learn everything there was to know about creating breakthroughs for Vua Nem. I loved this company, and I loved to partner with Vua Nem’s founders. I would be ready then.” That seemed to be a perfect plan.
Out of nowhere, in mid-2021, Chris Freund, my mentor, invited me to be the deal leader of Vua Nem right away in July. Six months ahead of my plan. I was shocked.
“Am I ready to become a Deal leader?” “I am so not ready!” – my immediate thoughts came. Compared to my deal leaders, I was nothing to them. They could create a huge impact yet my influence was tiny. They had years of experience with Vision Driven Investing (VDI) implementation while I had just passed my one-year anniversary.
One week later, Vua Nem held a Board of Directors (BOD) meeting, which was supposed to be the last BOD meeting that I joined as a Deputy Deal Leader. My head was running around with thoughts and concerns. I sat quietly, observing the conversation between Chris, Do Khanh Van – my Deal Leader, the industry expert, and the founders. I took notes, silently organizing in my head the questions I planned to ask. I tiptoed through the conversation, trying to find the perfect way to raise them without being judged. As my questions were raised one by one by Do Khanh Van, I ran out of stock myself. During the break, I received Chris’ message, requesting me to participate in the conversation.
My heart just skipped a beat. I was busted.
I had to think of a question right now. But the more I thought, the less I was present for the conversion, and the more frustrated I became with my lack of participation. I ended up sinking into silence for the rest of the meeting.
My participation at the BOD meeting was not what it looked like to be a Deal leader. I was waiting and thinking in my head.
“Why did I wait? Why did I hide? I didn’t want to wait. I didn’t want to hide. I wanted to be the trusted source for Vua Nem to realize its Vision. I wanted to see the world become a better place thanks to Vua Nem”. As I struggled to seek inside me why my action was so in misalignment with what I wanted, I sent an invitation to have a breakthrough coaching session with my mentor – Chris.
That was my FIRST breakthrough coaching session with Chris. I was terrified. As I waited for the meeting to start, I wondered: “What if it was going to be my last? I surely disappointed him. He must have thought that I was a failure.”
To my surprise, Chris started the meeting gently, just asking me to write down my commitment. I was nervous like a little girl waiting for the rage of her father after being busted for skipping class. My hand was typing but my eyes were carefully checking on Chris. His voice was light, and his eyes were calm. “Nothing is wrong” was what I experienced. Question by question, the warmth in Chris’ voice soothed me. Then one question caught me off guard and made me reflect deeply:
- “What is it that you think of yourself and don’t want people to find out?”
- “I am never gonna be good enough” I blurted as my past came back vividly to me.
Growing up as an only child, I had the luxury of not having to compete with any siblings for attention. Instead, I always felt like I was competing with the whole world for validation.
My first “rival” was one of my oldest friends – Trang. We were born 15 days apart, and we were practically friends from birth. Nevertheless, we were completely different: She was this chubby little girl, and I was thin with fairly dark skin. She studied hard, while I was into drawing. She seemed to make her mother proud, whereas I seemed to do all the wrong things.
In primary school, Trang played the keyboard. My mother asked me if I wanted to study it too, saying I would be smarter if I could play a musical instrument. Well, I didn’t know about the keyboard, but I knew I wanted my mother to be proud. So, I agreed. Learning a musical instrument was hard, but my fingers were even harder. As Trang’s fingers moved smoothly across the black and white notes, my fingers were stagnant, as if they were holding on to a bunch of crumbling crayons. I failed.
So I thought if I couldn’t beat Trang on the keyboard, I could be better than her in other aspects. I pushed myself to study math and literature to be qualified for the best secondary school in Hanoi, while she was in a different school. I was relieved that I no longer had to prove my worth.
But I was wrong.
In secondary school, my rivals increased in both number and quality. Even when I was in the best class at the best school, there were always 4-5 kids whose grades were higher than mine. “When I was your age, I was always at the top of the class, but you are never a class leader,” I remember my mother telling me.
Since then, I believed that I was never good enough to be a leader. I was born to be a follower, always 2nd, 3rd, or even 4th in charge. I didn’t bother to compete with anyone anymore.
So there it revealed… the reason that I had been hiding my long-standing fear of not being validated, the fear that “I am not good enough“, that “I don’t know enough“, that “I am not experienced enough“, that “I am just not enough“.
As I shared parts of my childhood in reflection, I was getting more freed up.
Chris was getting more … upbeat:
- “So what value can you bring for Vua Nem to realize its Vision?”
- “My commitment and complete trust in Vua Nem Vision” – I quickly responded.
- “What is your unique power?” – Chris still insisted and reframed the question.
I hesitated then I replied:
“I can create an experience for others that makes them feel loved, trusted, and accepted so that they believe in themselves that they can do anything, and that’s where the magic happens.”
When I finished, I was so sure that Chris would think I am crazy, “What kind of investment associate would say those things?” But then, I suddenly realized how I had hidden myself behind the fear of validation when I measured myself up to a ‘perfect’ image of an investment deal leader. I was so afraid of being seen as not good enough that I stopped being myself. I just stopped bringing love and light to everyone, including myself. All of these fears were thickening clouds, obstructing my love for Vua Nem and covering my lights in darkness.
But in fact, I am unique and different. It’s just a matter of when – when I choose to shine my own light.
I went out of the coaching session, feeling free. It was not about being fully ready. It was not about knowing everything there is to know to be able to lead. It IS about starting to let myself light my way through the journey of discovery.
Later that week, I eagerly met with the founders to share my commitments. I created the Deal leader I would be for the founders and for Vua Nem:
“I was lucky to join the Vua Nem deal team when the company created the new Vision in 2020, and ever since I have always pictured in my head how Vua Nem will be in 2023. It is not just a place to shop for mattresses but also a symbol for love, warmth, and comfort that is trusted nationwide. I don’t know how it is done, but I am not afraid to commit to being your partner in every step of this journey to discover it together.”
Since that day, I have been leading meetings with the founders and management team, listening to their concerns/discoveries, and setting new context step by step. Committing to a big vision also means that there will be a lot of breakdowns. But it does not scare me away anymore.
Every time I fail, I acknowledge the facts and seek for coaching to discover new ways to drop my fears and see my commitment clearer.
Even if I fall, with my love and commitment for Vua Nem present, I will discover new pathways to take towards Vision realization.
Click below to subscribe to Mekong Capital’s quarterly newsletter.
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.
The book is available on Tiki (Hard copy): bit.ly/38baF8a (Vietnamese) and Amazon: amzn.to/3yWunzG (English)
Leave a Reply