More than ten years ago before COVID-19, I recall most of my days (and nights) spent in the office working on ppt slides and having discussions with my VPs and directors. Occasionally when they wanted to work directly on the numbers or show me how something was done, they would come over and sit at my desk space, typing away at my computer while I stood and watched how it was done. It was a simple gesture - fixing a problem right when and where it was needed, in person. And that simple gesture didn't only solve the problem (whether it was a glitch in the model or some formatting on powerpoint), it also demonstrated leadership right then and there.
Today this is very different. No more in-person consultations and discussions, no more live demonstrations. Everything is done over Zoom. No more personal touch. There's a Chinese saying: "fighting the bull from across the mountain" (隔山打牛), which basically translates to trying to solve a problem from afar.
So right now, that's how a lot of things are - both for businesses and down to the professionals working away at their desks (or from home). Clients and suppliers trying to deal with new normal of doing deals virtually without a handshake or sighting of the product. Employees and their line managers trying to make a project or a pitchbook work while being separated hundreds and thousands of kilometers, connected only by email or whatsapp / wechat. To take the challenge up a notch, imagine the difficulty of new joiners who may have never seen their bosses, co-workers and their office desks.
Leadership and management in a virtual world is extremely difficult. It's difficult to show how things done. Difficult to foster camaraderie without a working lunch, chugging a few beers or simply just hanging out after work. Hard to show charisma and motivate others when you don't (in this case, can't) show up in person. Lots of things get lost in translation when you don't see, don't talk directly to the other party. Doing business across the front office to back office gets incredibly difficult.
Zoom calls can only do much in facilitating communication in a physically disconnected world. But in order to restore the current situation back to equilibrium or the good ol' days, we'll eventually need to be able to go out and travel, meet people and forge collective experiences together.
The last few weeks had been a huge tailspin for me. I relate it to a multitude of challenges compounded upon each other - first, the physical distancing barrier, then the business-cultural aspect of it and then the technicalities of the underlying business. To add on, although the world of investment and banking is not unfamiliar to me, the scope of publicity and investor relations work remains an uncharted territory.
Compared to 5 years ago (or even 15 years ago), perhaps the biggest difference is that the mindset that one takes into any job, any role, any engagement.
Never take on a job purely because of money. This might be one of the most important starting points in terms of getting the right mindset. Money is of course important but the experience of taking on the engagement should enable you to grow as a person, forge new relationships, learn new things that you never knew before, and naturally add to your professional credentials. To add on: Never switch jobs solely because the pay on the other side is higher. The "intangible assets" that you give up from making that move might cost you a lot more in the future.
Never wear your designation / rank like a "political shield" or a "badge of honor", and let it get in the way of what you should be saying and doing. Most of the people that I know like to flaunt their status of being a VP, Director or being in C-suite roles. That kind of ego wears off fast when things go bad. The ability to be hands-on and execute will eventually outlive ego.
Never stop moving or learning.
Towards the ending scenes in the movie, The Martian, Matt Damon (as Mark Watney the astronaut) talks to a class at NASA saying:
At some point, everything's gonna go south on you and you're going to say, this is it. This is how I end. Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That's all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem and you solve the next one, and then the next. And If you solve enough problems, you get to come home.
He didn't survive the journey back home by squatting in space, flaunting his celebrity status as an astronaut and griping about how people back on earth could have done better in trying to rescue him. Whether it is a Fortune 500 company, a small medium enterprise or a start up company, the most basic mission of any organization is just "getting things done."
A true entrepreneur - whether he/she is running his/her own business or working in someone else's organization - doesn't care about pride or rank. He/she just cares about getting the job done and getting paid for it. Unfortunately, 99% of the people out there aren't entrepreneurs, so they make up excuses saying that they aren't paid enough for what they do or getting the corporate title they want.
And for all the people out there who think that they are "too senior" to be hands-on or doing grunt work: I still take a lot of pride in being able to build a three-statement financial model from scratch. I consistently do this during the classes that I teach at SMU and remind everyone that it is really not that difficult.
If you refrain from revisiting the basics every now and then just because you think you are "too senior" to be working on models, you are going to regret it much later on in life with that kind of mentality. Keep telling yourself that you are too good or qualified for any job or you should be getting more credit for your work and you'll also find yourself in a lot of trouble when you get older.
This is true for many investment banks. And people pay for complexity.
But it's an odd world:
Founders chasing publicity on social media, focusing on “story-telling” instead of "product-selling".
Companies (especially funds) announcing (and celebrating) an investment or acquisition in a business, almost sounding like: “Look, we bought these guys” or “Hey I pulled that off, can you?”
Entrepreneurs focusing too much on beautifying powerpoint slide decks and looking for investors instead of devoting more resources towards building a real product and looking for customers.
Some people spend too much time going around begging angel investors and VC funds for money to build their business. I once told a friend: raising capital is equivalent to "cash flow from financing". Why don't you focus more on delivering "cash flow from operations?".
The same applies to private fund raising: If you have to wait to bring in OPM (other people's money) before kickstarting your fund, maybe you really shouldn't be in the PE/VC business.
The end result is the same: solving for that funding gap.
You are much better off spending your time and resources looking for customers (who are by the way, non-dilutive to shareholding) rather than "road-showing" month after month to investors.
I think many of us nowadays over-relate to what we read in social media. We constantly see how different forms of a Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk manifest themselves as visionaries of businesses: People who make sweeping, yet inspiring remarks about their entrepreneurial ambitions, and making the headlines through that process. A few days later, a large venture capital or private equity firm, a middle eastern sovereign fund, or some other titan of an investor with deep pockets take a minority stake in the company.
And weirdly (for a lot of people), a part of the brain puts one and one together concluding: "Go big, or go home", "If I passionately try hard enough, someone will acquire us some day", or "some big company will buy us out". It's easy to get caught up with the hype and optimism. After all, there are many precedents of successful tech founders who started from humble beginnings.
While it is true that if you don't die trying, you won't make it, too many folks forget that the most important part of doing any business is reeling in customers, not telling stories to investors (but what do I know, right?)
I also know a handful of folks who place too much emphasis on pursuing egotistic corporate titles, lamenting on why they aren't promoted or not given nice-sounding C-suite positions. Those who crave the adulation of social media and in the process, overcompensate themselves have no chivalry.
They are all doing it backwards. Real business is in working the P&L, not in fluffy words and lofty titles.
There is no point in calling yourself Chairman, CEO, CFO, CIO, (or any permutation of a CxO), Head of Business Development or Head of Investments if you have a lousy report card to show for. It's useless to garner a thousand followers if you can’t successfully monetise your product.
You can call yourself anything you want really, but at the end of day if your designation doesn't get the job done and bring home the bacon, then what is the point?