My path as an entrepreneur has been marked by the adversity I’ve experienced in my own life and the struggles I’ve witnessed in the lives of others. Overcoming those obstacles has taught me to lead amid change and challenges in a dynamic, global marketplace where every next step is uncertain.
As an executive-in-residence at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business Executive MBA program, I recently shared my journey and leadership lessons with a group of future executives from around the globe.
My journey began in 1986 when I arrived in the U.S. from Bangladesh to study engineering at the age of 17. To survive, I quickly introduced myself to the art and science of "janitorial engineering" on the graveyard shift. Shortly after building my first commercial software product at age 19, I dropped out of college and joined Pitney Bowes. I later worked for multinationals such as General Electric, founded technology companies including KnowledgeBase and EC Cubed, and was part of a GE spin-off. To date, I have cumulatively raised more than $95 million from angels, strategic partners, and institutional investors.
And like some founders, I too got ousted from serving as CEO from my own company, EC Cubed, and survived recession after recession. Regardless of the situation, I have never abandoned my entrepreneurial spirit. Soon after losing my last company to investors, in 2000, I founded my next company to enable organizations to "architect" sustainable growth with our management software platforms.
At Booth, I discussed a variety of topics surrounding leadership challenges and priorities experienced by today’s entrepreneurs and executives. The following is an overview of those discussions:
To nobody’s surprise, the economic principles set forth more than 200 years ago—or 50 years ago—no longer work. Nations are going bankrupt. Governments and political parties seem incapable of performing their basic duties. The unemployed seek jobs that no longer exist. Businesses find themselves in tooth-and-nail struggles to survive. Technology is advancing at an unprecedented pace.
Today's leaders, regardless of industry or sector, need to question and rethink every action and approach leaving no stone unturned. They need to examine what is and isn't working. They need to ask, "Why?" To further this, they can learn from three key practices:
A strong leader must be able to inspire everyone in the enterprise with a clear vision, regardless of market conditions. Achieving this requires:
Creation of a platform for success and growth: This serves as an engine to solve problems and anticipate future obstacles in order to overcome them.
Genuine inspiration from the top down: This results from the effective communication of a leader’s vision. Making people "do their job" and people wanting to "get the job done" are two very different scenarios that will lead to two very different outcomes.
Communication of vision from an execution standpoint: Great ideas may rally the crowd, but if a leader is unable to articulate how those ideas will convert into action, a team can quickly lose confidence and fail to meet long-term goals. Follow-through and attainment of objectives must be priorities to keep everyone motivated.
Tech giants like Microsoft and Google have mastered this, but every industry needs a platform that can propel it to the next level. Take English business magnate Richard Branson, who built a platform that has evolved into the Virgin Group of more than 400 companies. With an iconic brand punctuated by his playboy nonchalance, Branson has never let change impede his long-term goals. He launched an audio-record mail-order business in 1970 and created Virgin Records two years later. That music and media business became Virgin Megastores. By the time the digital music revolution forced him to shut towering stores, he’d already expanded his brand, starting in the 1980s, when he set up Virgin Atlantic Airways. He’s never slowed his ambitions to extend his platform, beyond Earth even, with his latest plans to build an orbital space launch system.
In order to strive and thrive in uncertain times, business leaders must always set their sights on the long-term goals and not get trapped staring at the short-term numbers. Success isn’t measured solely by balance sheets, and focusing on quarterly returns isn’t going to work for the long haul. Volatile times can’t be avoided, but you can be ready for any disruptions in the marketplace with a long-term plan that supports your vision and enables you to bring to market the right products.
For a company to survive in the long-term, leaders must break down the barriers that have plagued many organizations in the past, such as:
Operating managers working in relative isolation from the market and its operating functions, leaving them—and their staff—blind to the bigger picture and strategic goals of a company.
Executive leadership with limited ability to guide and oversee operations because of inconsistent access to key information, which impedes decision-making.
Boards of directors with inadequate views of ongoing operations, lacking the perspective or information needed to offer any real guidance to a management team.
Every leader must identify his or her enterprise’s position within the greater marketplace in order to craft the best plan for sustainable success. NiSource, which serves 3.8 million energy customers in the Midwest and Northeast U.S., for example, has an employee-led sustainability council. The council is finalizing a strategy that will be incorporated into its business-planning process. It seems to be working, as last year the company reported a 40% total shareholder return and $1.13 billion in capital investment.
A healthy business ecosystem must be nurtured to achieve that long-term success. It’s the structure you form around your business to get through the bad times and good times. It’s that environment that allows us to partner with differing individuals and groups who bring unique perspectives and skills. All this enables cross-boundary collaboration.
While behemoths like Apple are an obvious example of companies leveraging this approach, any and every enterprise must build its own ecosystem to foster growth. I don’t need to look beyond my own company to see a clear example. My own company is an ecosystem composed of employees who are partners, customers who take on a partner role for the value they derive, distribution channels and service providers who collaborate with us across multiple verticals, and academics who foster knowledge sharing.
Bidirectional partnership breeds long-term success, if all parties follow a few fundamentals:
Developing appropriate partner management processes to ensure repeatability: If something works, stick with it. If it doesn’t, take another approach. The world moves too quickly to make things up as you go.
Creating win/win reward systems that can be tracked and measured: Incentive-based performance is a major driver to keep people and programs moving forward.
Evolving and expanding the ecosystem: As something is taken out—people, processes, or products—something must be put back in. The motion never stops. New markets and opportunities require new partners, products and innovations.
By following and employing these three principles, we can impact our organizations, the economy, and society. Any next generation leader must consider his or her enterprise’s impact on society. By creating a self-sustaining ecosystem, we can take better care of our employees, our customers, everyone involved in our enterprise and beyond. We don’t have to be giants to leave a big footprint. We need to lead by example and set standards that are maintained in all business practices.
Management guru Peter Drucker said: "Indeed the modern organization was expressly created to have results on the outside, that is, to make a difference in its society or its economy."
The implicit—and explicit—expectation is that businesses should "do good" for others. The ultimate objective is to produce a wealth of new ideas, profound change, dynamic innovation, and sustainable opportunities.
Leading this drive is the key mandate for today’s entrepreneurs and leaders. And it has never been more important for every one in every industry.
[Image: Flickr user Robert S. Donovan]