Unlike most reality show winners, Randal Pinkett was successful long before he was hired by Donald Trump after the fourth season of “The Apprentice.” His company, BCT Partners, was posting seven-figure revenue numbers just four years after Pinkett launched it in 2001 with no start-up capital. He holds five academic degrees and was a Rhodes Scholar and captain of the track team at Rutgers. At the age of 37, his CV already reads like a who’s who of the world’s best corporations and academic institutions. On top of that, he’s written two books and has a third on the way.
He shares his thoughts about where he’s been, where he’s going and what he’s learned along the way.
Entrepreneur: What did you learn from Donald Trump that has helped you in terms of being an entrepreneur and running your own businesses?
Pinkett: Being on the show was like taking a test. You don’t really learn anything, but it is a great evaluation of what you knew coming into the test. The experience was a great test of my business acumen. I didn’t learn a lot, but it did reinforce and validate that my approach to business is a solid one that can be equally effective at my firm, BCT Partners, or in a surreal reality television show environment.
As the apprentice, I learned a tremendous amount over the course of the year – everything from the project I managed in Atlantic City to observing Donald Trump in action and studying his company and how it’s run and organised. Even in my travels across the country, meeting people at different events and engaging other entrepreneurs, young people and business leaders, I’ve learned a lot.
One of the more specific lessons that I’ve applied in my role back at BCT is really trying to decide what is the best leverage for my time. Donald Trump is a very busy man and he has a lot of responsibilities, but he does a really good job of zeroing in on his unique contribution to his organisation. For him, it really is the art of the deal and being involved with getting deals and closing deals, and he’s extremely good at that.
So before going on the show, I would say that my time was very scattered. It was divided up among many different tasks, from project management, sales and marketing and operations to administration and hiring. Now, I focus on one thing, and that’s business development. I build relationships, I find opportunities and I close deals.
Entrepreneur: You were a Rhodes Scholar and an accomplished athlete at college. How important is it to be well-rounded?
Pinkett: I’m a big believer in well-roundedness. You learn things like how to multitask and how to juggle different responsibilities, how to focus on what you’re doing when you’re doing it and to develop a level of proficiency, if not excellence, that I believe spills over. I believe the discipline it takes to be an athlete spills directly over into things like business or time management, or leadership for that matter.
Entrepreneur: Your book Campus CEO talks about how people can start a business at college. What ratio of education to practical experience and street smarts makes a successful entrepreneur?
Pinkett: It is an equal and healthy balance of both, and I say that from the standpoint that you don’t necessarily need a formal education to qualify as having an education, but rather you need to spend time studying and learning and mastering what it is to be in business. You don’t learn things like financial accounting or profit and loss or internet marketing strategies just by living life. You’ve got to sit down and spend time to read and talk to people and learn and understand and digest, and then embody those best practices.
But at the same time, I believe there is a tremendous value in street smarts, in developing a level of intuition and dedication and a street-level mentality that says you’re willing to try anything and to put in the time and effort to get the job done and to trust your gut and follow your instincts and not necessarily rely on what conventional thinking would suggest, but what your intuition would suggest.
Entrepreneur: Your latest book talks about ways for African-Americans to break into predominately white institutions. What’s the line between recognising things the way they are and striving to change things for the better?
Pinkett: At every stage in our lives, we have to make judgement calls about whether we want to challenge the system or subscribe to it. Part of the art of facilitating change and challenging societal norms is knowing when to hold them and when to fold them – to use Kenny Rogers’ lyrics – when to stand up and speak up and when to sit back and manoeuvre more quietly. If anything, the more influence that you have, the more responsibility you have to challenge the system.
I wouldn’t tell a college graduate who has been hired by a corporation to challenge the dress code on day one. But five years from now, if you become a manager or an executive, and you believe the dress code may not be accommodating people of different backgrounds, you’re at a point in your career where you can challenge the system and facilitate change. Change in our society is predicated upon individuals being willing to stand up for what they believe in, and often that means going against the grain.
Entrepreneur: You’ve put a lot of emphasis in your career on social entrepreneurship. Why is it important for business owners to give back to their communities, and what are the best ways for them to do that?
Pinkett: I believe that the mind-set of social entrepreneurship is not something that you do because it’s philanthropy or goodwill. You do it because it’s good business that can actually lead to competitive advantage for your firm. The way that it’s done is by creatively seeking out opportunities where your business objectives align with social objectives. You look for the synergy between your corporate responsibility and your branding, or you look at how involving diverse suppliers can actually give you an edge. You look at how you can partner with your local community to better serve that community, but also to draw talent from that community. It’s about making the commitment that you believe in these tenets and seeking out those opportunities.
Entrepreneur: What’s next for you at this point?
Pinkett: I’m expecting BCT Partners to continue on our current trajectory and establish ourselves as a legitimate and long-standing social enterprise.
What A Grade 1 Sticker Business Taught Me About Business
It’s the very fundamentals that are frequently overlooked amid ambition and “blue sky thinking” – yet, these remain the most crucial element of any business.
When I was a kid, my father believed that instead of getting pocket money, my brothers and I should learn how to make money. Stickers were the school craze when I was in Grade 1, and we wanted a collection for ourselves, so Dad said if we wanted to buy the stickers, we needed to make the money. So, logically, we started a sticker trading business. Dad gave us the start-up money and took us through the basics of business.
We had a cash float for purchases, and learnt about cost price, mark-up and selling price – very basic accounting. We kept recycling that money, making extra and using it to buy more stickers. Then we worked out that if we increased the mark-up, we’d make a bigger profit – so why not make the mark-up as big as possible? The obvious happened. Our prices were too high, and we lost customers.
Valuable business lesson learnt, we came back down to a mark-up that other kids were willing to pay for.
More lessons to learn
Then people came to us and asked if they could take a sticker today and pay us tomorrow. We saw no reason not to trust them. Guess what? They didn’t pay us back. We had bad debt on our hands. When we sold out of stickers, we had cash-flow issues and couldn’t buy more stock. Dad was there to help us out, though, so we received another capital injection to get back off the ground. And this time, if we did extend credit, we loaded it for the privilege of “buy now, pay later” – another lesson learnt.
We ran a proper ledger for the business, tracking our inventory, sales and profit. Even if our “bank” account was a piggy bank, we had a clear record of what was going on. When I look back on it, none of what I learnt was irrelevant.
Today, I run a leading financial services company with billions of rand running through our bank accounts. Even though the finances of the business are run on a much larger scale, the principles of business – those basic principles that we learnt trading stickers – still power our company. And when I see entrepreneurial ventures failing, or when friends come to me for advice because their business is struggling, it’s almost always because they haven’t got these basics right.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learnt is that if you don’t fully understand how the money is being made, walk away. Whether you are dealing with stickers or financial services, the business principles should be straightforward: money coming in, money going out, and profitability.
Every day, I look at an Excel statement of my company’s forty bank accounts. Every day, I look at the cashflow, and unusual big-ticket items get a note so I know what’s going on. It’s just like that Grade 1 business, only on a bigger scale.
Once the other kids saw the success of our sticker business, they started to want to get in on the action, so they came to market with their own competing products. At first, we were able to innovate as the competition squeezed our margins and started to impact on our profits. Eventually, the whole situation got completely out of hand and the school banned sticker trading for profit.
While I didn’t become a sticker magnate, the lessons I learnt in Grade 1 remain central to every business I am involved with – get the basics right.
How To Handle A Director Who Always Says No
Diverse opinions on a board is a good thing — but is it boosting your business, or hindering growth and decisions?
Do you have that director on your board who always says ‘no’? Regardless of what the issue is, regardless of the context, who raises it or whether or not it is indeed a good idea, their response is either a simple ‘no’ or an elongated perspective on why they disagree? It can even feel at times that they are actively working against the company and against the board. Although they obviously do not see it that way.
Experienced directors will have multiple war stories related to this subject. Aspiring directors should be aware of how to approach these situations when they arise and how to avoid becoming the subject of such stories.
Develop a culture of trust, candour and professionalism
A board’s conduct must be characterised by trust, respect, candour, professionalism, accountability, diligence and commitment. It is the board’s collective responsibility to build this culture and to engage with one another in a productive and effective way.
Dissent should be welcomed when it is constructive and engaging. The idea of being the ‘devil’s advocate’ for the sake of it however, is not the best way to approach this. Dissent should be based on a real belief that the issue has not been fully debated or creates a real challenge for the company going forward.
If you have a director who genuinely believes a different path is right for the company, hear them out and engage in the discussion. In my experience, this often opens up an issue or changes a detail that when taken as part of the whole, improves the decision-making outcome for the board and the company.
Related: Contributing In The Boardroom
Remove the politics from the boardroom
At the heart of this issue is often politics. Politics between directors, who are also shareholders or executives. Politics between the ‘new guard’ and the ‘old.’ Regardless of the genesis, politics really do not have a place in the boardroom and directors who engage in it should be called out by the chairman or another senior director.
In local government I have heard stories of councillors who always vote ‘no,’ so that whenever something goes wrong, they can say “I told you so,” and show the public why they should be re-elected. But that is indeed politics. The boardroom is a very different space. It is private and discussions should be confidential.
Board rotation, a simple solution
While the removal of an errant director should never just be left to resolve itself, there is a simple solution that can support the easy removal of the most difficult directors. The challenge is that it requires forward planning prior to the appointment of any new director.
Directors should only ever be appointed for a predefined term, with automatic rotation at the end of that term. This does not stop you from reappointing a director for a further period. It is, however, always easier to ask someone to consider a further term than it is to tell them that their time has come and they should resign from the board.
Having a predefined term for a director essentially ensures an automatic resignation period. A simple rotation policy for directors is not just good governance, it is a practical step you can take to provide a way out of a sticky relationship.
Ultimately the board as a whole must address issues that detract from the board fulfilling its function as and when they arise. A rotation policy might provide an effective backstop. A high-performance board is one that will tackle the issue head-on.
Read next: How Diversity Drives Board Performance
The Power Pose: Using Body Language To Lead
Use the way you move and stand and interact with others to become a better entrepreneur and leader.
In 2012, the power pose became a global sensation. A Ted Talk by Amy Cuddy hit a staggering 46 million views and became the second most popular Ted Talk in history. The premise was simple – hold a powerful pose and it will not only affect the way you behave but it will even change your body chemistry. Since the talk, the power pose has met with heavy criticism and been labelled as nothing more than pseudoscience. Fortunately for believers, they were proven right. Amy Cuddy released further research this year and it fundamentally proves that this bold stance works exactly how she said it did back in 2012.
The power pose isn’t something that you’d adopt in a meeting or around the office but the science behind it shows how important it is to pay attention to your body language as it can fundamentally change how you are perceived.
Notice how you are noticed
People spend a lot of time reading one another’s body language and the way a person stands or holds their hands or moves can influence how others see them. It’s very natural to judge someone else’s posture, but what about the way they are judging yours? Few people look at how their body language is affecting the way people engage with them.
So, what are you supposed to do?
Fake it until you make it
Want to know how can you adapt to become a better leader? You can fake it.
The power pose isn’t the only way to change your mood. Research has shown that whether you laugh naturally or put on a smile and make yourself laugh, your body still releases the same levels of serotonin.
Whether you are really laughing or just pretending to laugh doesn’t matter – they both have the same impact on your demeanour.
Change how others see you
Think about the pose that every athlete adopts when they win a race or achieve something that’s been physically taxing. They hold their hands outstretched in the air. Even blind athletes hold the same pose. It’s big, it’s bold and it’s a physical manifestation of success.
Now consider the defensive pose. The tight hunched shoulders or inward curve of the spine. These poses immediately make a person look nervous, afraid and lacking in confidence. Like the porcupine curling in on itself for protection.
The same ideas apply to daily business life. While the power pose and the athlete pose are not necessarily a team activity, ensuring that you hold your body upright and with confidence means that you’re conveying an attitude of strength. You come across as confident and capable and positive. You are ready to take on anything and overcome the odds.
By contrast, if you are hunched and withdrawn, you come across as nervous and lacking in confidence and these are not the qualities you want associated with you as an entrepreneur and a leader.
Body language for entrepreneurs
- Shake hands like a hero. The way you shake hands with someone is very significant in terms of establishing equality. Be even, be firm but don’t pull people towards you or turn their hands under your own. This makes them feel like you are trying to establish dominance.
- Create an atmosphere of openness. Maintain eye contact, say hello to people with warmth while holding a strong posture. A warm and open greeting is essential to establishing trust.
- Do the power pose for two minutes before any meeting or interview. This will get those chemicals stirring and make you feel confident and in charge.
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