Good or Great? A Tale of 3 Entrepreneurs

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A tale of 3 entrepreneurs:

This entrepreneur had recently made a lot of money; in fact, an enormous amount of money when his company was acquired by a well- known MNC. He decided to spend some of the money on acquiring the latest cars, homes around the country and the world, memberships into the best clubs and all the other commonly recognized trappings of material success. He set up a family office, with some very expensive advisors, to help advise and manage his wealth and decided to become a philanthropist. He set up a foundation that in turn set up a hospital and an educational institute – naturally, they were named after him. In a year, he had spent close to Rs 50crore of which only about Rs 6crore was spent on creating assets (including his philanthropic activities). He stopped listening to his long time trusted friend and accountant. Everything had to be big, large and loudly proclaiming his arrival into the mega millionaire club. He appeared determined to be recognized and acknowledged by all.

Another entrepreneur too sold his company to a MNC. He, alongside partners, too had built a successful business that was very well known and regarded. After the acquisition, the entrepreneur took his share of the money and left after a disagreement with his former colleagues. He appeared to be maniacally consumed with the idea of out-doing his former partners who were now at the helm of the operations of the MNC. He was the sole thinker and decision maker with no more pesky partners and investors to deal with. He spent over 50% of his hard earned money trying to set up a brand and business that would rival, and indeed, beat the MNC. Increasing losses in his new business seemed to spur him to invest more of his money. After all, he knew the business! At least he thought so. But the MNC was running away with the market.

Well known international and national publications and industry groups had showered praise and awards on the third entrepreneur. He had painstakingly built a dominant business in a large and fast growing market and was the toast of the entrepreneur-investor circuit. He had not yet cashed out and was in no hurry either. When yet another recognition came his way from a very respected international organization, he was his usual nonchalant self. He quietly thanked the writer, his board, his team and re-dedicated himself to building what he hoped would be a company with a great legacy. He was acutely conscious of the attention he and his company were getting and was rather uncomfortable. He told his team-mates that the expectations about their company were only growing. Will he remain the same after a few years when, hopefully, he would have also tasted serious financial success?

It is easy to be judgmental and pass comments on the three entrepreneurs. But one must recognize the immense pressures, hard work and heartbreaks entrepreneurs go through before they emerge “successful”. In our current world of catchy sound-bites, instant visibility and breathless hyperbole, it takes an enormous amount of self-awareness and the courage of one’s convictions to remain grounded. To realize that one’s success is a result of many factors, many fortuitous, and to therefore attribute it to one’s own capabilities and talents is sheer hubris.

Jim Collins in his celebrated 2001 book “Good to Great – Why some companies make the leap…and others don’t” identified 7 characteristics of companies that went from “good” to “great”. The first and most telling characteristic relates to people and what he calls “Level 5 Leadership” which simply put is all about quiet confident humility and driven to do what is best for the company as opposed to being lauded and heralded as the “greatest” or “ iconic” - or some other similar – leader. Entrepreneurs too, among all of us, have a lot to learn from this. There are the superstars who by sheer force of their personalities drive an organization and then there are the “great” leaders who leave behind legacies. The company rapidly unravels when the superstar entrepreneur or CEO departs from the scene.

The next time we see the media referring to someone in the superlative, take a step back and close deep look at the individual. And then ask yourself, is this person simply “good” or “great”.

Sanjay Anandaram is speaking at Mobisparks.

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