How I learned to use my time more effectively by asking questions

by Truong Dieu Le, Partner, Mekong Capital

Chris Freund (left) and Truong Dieu Le (right)
Chris Freund (left) and Truong Dieu Le (right)

Back in 2004 when I was a member of Mekong Capital’s deal team for Duc Thanh Wood Processing, I was responsible for writing the investment appraisal report for a potential investment in Duc Thanh. The investment appraisal is a document to be submitted to the fund’s Investment Committee to approve a proposed investment.

It was almost midnight on a Friday night. Sitting in my chair, finishing my report. Everyone had already left long ago. There was complete silence, except for the tac tac sounds of the key board. My fingers moved constantly over the plastic keys, and the keys were singing out as if Celine Dion was merging with my satisfying mood. I had a final look at the report, feeling quite good. Finally I had completed this after months working on this deal. I felt so confident that I could deliver the report without asking any questions to Chris Freund, who was the person to whom I reported. Absolutely no questions. I felt the report was very innovative, with lots of new content that I believed would be relevant and I left out lots of the normal content that was usually required in the template. I thought that it was awesome. I hit enter and submitted the report, I was eager to receive feedback and praise from Chris.

The next Monday, Chris’ email response came to me, and I was shocked! He had rewritten the whole report and sent it back to me. In his email, he started with: “At this stage I’m going to take over responsibility for completing the Duc Thanh appraisal. I want to get this completed ASAP and therefore don’t want to return it to you to amend since I think that will take longer.” In another email after that, he also wrote: “I don’t mean to hurt your feelings. You are one of the nicest and most considerate and well-intentioned people I’ve ever met and I recognize that you are very committed and hardworking. However, the appraisal that you wrote is far below my expectations and it took too long to get it completed. Both of these problems would likely have been reduced to some degree if I was kept more well informed or if you asked more questions during the appraisal process because I could have helped you to more quickly focus on the most important issues.” And while he said he did not mean to hurt my feelings, my feelings were deeply hurt. My mind was frozen. I could not think straight several hours after that.

Still I wanted to finish what I had started. I went back to the company to ask for more information and data. I also needed to meet more stakeholders to get additional information for the report. It delayed the timing of submitting the report to the Investment Committee but I could see clearly then what was missing from my original report. I put myself under a lot of stress after that and lost some confidence in myself. At one point, I even had doubts that I was suitable for the job.

The proposed investment in Duc Thanh then was ultimately approved, and we made the investment. Afterwards, I received another email from Chris where he wrote “Thanks, Le. You’re doing an excellent job on the Duc Thanh implementation.

And thankfully Duc Thanh turned out to be a successful investment for our fund.

I learned some valuable lessons from that experience. After that I always made sure to carefully check and clarify the intentions and expected outcomes of any project before taking it on, so as to focus my effort on the issues and results that really make a difference. I can save a huge amount of time and effort, and have a much bigger impact, when I make the effort at the beginning to get very clear about the intentions and criteria for any project before commencing any work on that project.

This reminds me of a proverb: “He, who is afraid to be a fool in 5 minutes, will be a fool for a life time”.