“Who am I in this game?”
Author: Do Thi Khanh Van, Principal, Mekong Capital
May 29, 2021
In 2016, after 14 years of professional experience and two years in the Investment team of Mekong Capital, I proudly became the leader in charge of our partnership with F88, a small chain of secured lending at that time. With my enthusiasm, determination, and result-oriented mindset, I made up my commitment with F88’s founders: “I would do everything to help the company realize its long-term Vision, despite all the hardships and challenges”.To give you the context, at that time, F88 was like a newly formed soccer team whose desire was to become the National Champion. Thus, they needed to up-skill themselves, build the team, and learn how to play together to score—so much work to be done. I felt I should stand shoulder to shoulder with the founders.
With their openness, they immediately welcomed me to join as their teammate on the court. In the first few months, I spent 2-3 days a week working at their office. I coordinated the recruitment of new C-suites. I participated in management meetings and even got involved in building business and financial plans. Those were great times as I felt like we were growing together, and I could contribute so much to the management. When some managers came to me to ask me for advice instead of going to the CEO, I was so happy because I thought I was helping the CEO to build his team.
However, one year passed, the team still could not score any goals. Most KPIs were very far off track. Departments started to blame each other, went silo, and lost confidence in themselves. I got frustrated and impatient. It felt like the more I tried to support the team, the further they ran away from me. I often stayed up at night with a big fear “Will I fail? Am I the devil that leads to this failure? Am I not competent enough to play this game?” I was about to drown in the midst of a rushing waterfall.
In early the second year, I attended a leadership coaching project together with the F88 founders. One of our assignments was to communicate all the unsaid complaints about each other directly. I was shocked to hear their words piercing through my heart: “We never denied my enthusiasm and commitment to F88’s success. However, we felt that when you intervened too deeply in operation, you had led your concerns to undermine the team’s trust in one another. You have indirectly created the dysfunction and underperformance of the company”. To my worst fear, they asked me to stop playing on the court with the team. It was such a painful but decisive ‘aha’ moment. I thought I should be a soccer player on the field to help the team win. But I was deadly wrong. I got drowned in sorrow and fear.
Having nothing to lose, I was determined to reinvent my role and my relationship with the F88 team. I questioned myself, “Now, who and where exactly should I be for this game? As the spectator standing outside cheering? Or as the consultant, the captain, or even as the referee to pinpoint faults? How am I supposed to help?”
I brought my dozens of questions to the mentors I trusted the most. But no one could give me a clear and satisfactory answer. However, the biggest takeaway I got from their coaching was: “Don’t be limited to any one role. You have to stand from your commitment, listen for your partner’s commitment, to find who you should be and what you should do—whichever is needed by the company at that moment to achieve its Vision. Lead by questioning to explore together, instead of with advice and what you have known in the past.”
So I departed the journey of taking different roles. Sometimes I tried to overcome my fear to be their coach. Many other times, I went on the ground to practice with them before the game. And the more I tried, the more clarity I got on when and how my roles needed to change. And there was one thing that came to me crystal clear: NEVER should I participate in any real game and NEVER should I try to score any goals FOR them. I fully trusted that my leaders and their team could win any battles, no matter what challenges they may face.
I went to the F88 founders and shared with them my new commitment:
“Stand from the company’s commitment to success, Van will continuously reinvent and find the best way to support the company. Respecting the CEO’s executive role, Van will serve as an advisor to the CEO and the other two founders. Van will constantly co-discover with you the blind spots from every problem to find new perspectives and new ways of being, and more importantly, to rekindle our commitments to our Vision.”
After that, I could feel a new space arose between each co-founder and me — a space full of trust and mutual empowerment. We could openly share the hiccups at work also in our partnerships. I learned to listen to the commitments and to what really matters for the CEO and founders. It was when I realized that when people have ambitions and commitments to a Vision greater than themselves, they are able and willing to reinvent themselves to realize that ambition. Since then, every day, my belief in the leadership and operating capacity of the Founder team had grown stronger and stronger. I remember at the end of 2018, during our weekly meeting, the CEO suddenly acknowledged that I was indeed a Coach who transformed him and his team. An inextinguishable elation gripped my heart and my smile. It was probably one of the happiest moments of my career.
As of now, F88 has realized its initial Vision and now embarked on a new journey. From a newly formed team, they are now a leading professional soccer club, who not only can hit targets reliably but also can develop future generations of leaders.
I am not sharing this story to show you a ‘formula’ for an investor to lead the success of an investee company. I am sharing my journey of experience, reflection, and reinvention. To empower the company to realize its long-term vision, it is not about doing whatever it takes. It’s about the journey of taking different roles to be — whoever I need to be — to empower the founders.
As an investor, the biggest challenge for me to add value is not about finding solutions for the business. It is about overcoming my own fear of being on the sidetrack, staying 100% committed, and providing the space of trust and confidence for the founders.
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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.