- Player: Joshin Raghubar
- Company: iKineo Ventures; includes iKineo marketing agency, Sprout Performance, Explore Sideways and The Field
- Launched: 2000
- Turnover: R115 million
- Visit: ikineo.com; exploresideways.com; sproutperformance.com; www.thefieldinstitute.com
When Joshin Raghubar was 23, he found himself heading up the Africa Connection Rally, an ambitious project that spanned the African continent and aimed to break the world record for the amount of days taken to drive across Africa. The logistics involved were staggering. How did he find himself in such a trusted and important position? Because he showed up. He was at the office at 9pm when his boss and the chief of staff of the Minister of Transport were brainstorming it. By the next day he was spearheading the project.
When we started out, we had a desk in CiTi’s offices and were hooked into its Internet cable. We were bootstrapping the business, had no money, and couldn’t afford connectivity costs until CiTi’s Bandwidth Barn helped us share those costs. I’m still involved with the Barn today, because I know how essential that support is to start-ups.
The secret to business success isn’t just having the right product or idea and product market fit. It’s not only cash flow and getting paid. It’s the culmination of your ideas and mindset; making connections, helping other people and businesses and operating within a community. Often, it starts with just showing up.
Success often begins with understanding yourself. I’ve been laser focused on some things, and at other times I’ve had a number of different things on the go. That’s when I’m happiest. You need to know yourself and play to your strengths. If you’re better at focus, do that. I need a few things on the go — not too many, because then I get frazzled. But there’s a sweet spot, and I’ve found mine.
I’ve been like this since varsity. I was on track to become a CA, and I did the normal vacation work at large consulting firms for years one and two. By year two I realised that the work was interesting, but not a full expression of myself.
By years three and four I was doing all kinds of things after hours and during term breaks: I was a runner on a film set, a barman, I started a few small businesses. I was interested in the world and I didn’t pigeon-hole myself. I was on the lookout for different experiences.
I was even on the management of the UCT chapter of AIESEC, the largest student organisation in the world for business students. This gave me access to University labs and computers. Raymond Ackerman was on our board and we ran business incubation clinics. I wanted to be involved in everything and still do.
I’m multi-dimensional, and so are my work and interests. When I’m working on a few projects at a time, I’m more productive. But to focus on different things in business, I need a team that plays to my strengths and weaknesses. I’ve built up an incredible foundation. It doesn’t happen overnight, but if you’re interested in scale and growth, you need to build an infrastructure that supports your passions, goals and dreams.
For example, learning is a big part of what drives me. In a fulfilled and happy life, learning and growth are important. I’ve pushed myself into many incredible spaces because of this love for learning. Opportunities have opened up for me because I’m out there. For example, I was selected as a Yale Greenberg Fellow in 2016. This required four months away from the office at the Yale campus, and I was able
to do it because of the team I’ve built up around me.
Many entrepreneurs are so focused on the day to day needs of their businesses, they miss the bigger picture. This programme is Yale’s flagship global leadership programme, and it was an inflection point in my career. If I’d only been focused on the time away from the office, I wouldn’t have even applied. Instead, I took the risk, and ended up with a group of 16 incredible emerging leaders from around the world: A human rights worker from Syria, a female politician from Afghanistan, China’s largest independent media entrepreneur, artists and film makers. It’s designed to be diverse, and for us to learn from each other and contribute to the Yale community. We had unlimited access to all courses on campus. It was incredible.
Nine times out of ten, success begins with just showing up. This was how I ended up project managing the Africa Connection Rally when I was just 23.
I’d done some vacation work for Ravi Naidoo’s business, Interactive Africa. By the time I finished my degree, I had an interview lined up with JP Morgan in London. But I’d graduated in December, and would only be leaving for London in March. I wanted to fill the time, and so I went back to Ravi and arranged to work for him for a few months.
I loved it. I joined an entrepreneurial business rather than becoming an investment banker. I was young, but I could speak the business lingo, and I was eager to learn. I developed a habit of leaving the office at the end of the day and then returning after supper to do some extra work in the peace and quiet. I’m not great in the mornings, but I’m creative at night.
One night I got back to the office and the Transport Minister, Jay Naidoo’s chief of staff, was brainstorming with Ravi about the Africa Connection Rally. The rally was celebrating a historic telecomms agreement that stretched across Africa. The idea was to break the world record and drive across Africa in 26 days.
I was called into the session, and by the next morning I was running the project. That’s when I started appreciating the power of showing up. No one was going to seek me out and ask me if I wanted to be involved. I had to speak up, offer real opinions, and more importantly, a passion and willingness to get involved and give it my all. That’s what entrepreneurship is, but it’s also the basis of any success we have in life.
As a start-up, you need to be confident. What you’re doing is tough; you have to keep taking risks. Once you’re through start-up phase, you need to grow. But you need to find a balance. You can’t be so self-assured that you don’t learn from mistakes, because you will make them.
For us, the Cool Aid was a discussion group called the Idea Collective, run by myself and a few friends. We were fresh out of varsity, employed, and interested in how tech was changing business, marketing and the way we communicated. We launched a series of exclusive events to discuss these topics and invited business and social icons. This helped us to build a great network and repository of ideas. We were a think tank for tech, and were often invited to comment on tech-related issues.
On the one hand, it was incredible. We had put ourselves out there, and were developing a network that would be invaluable. When you’re building a business, your network is exponentially more important than funding.
But in other ways, it blinded us to the realities of launching a business. We were all employed, with this great idea that we could create our own ventures. We had no venture capital and were incredibly naïve about the realities of a start-up, but we were fuelled by our own cleverness, and the fact that we could see what the future held.
With that in mind, I resigned after 30 months at Interactive Africa. Working with Ravi made me want to test my own entrepreneurial chops, and I thought I was ready.
I was the only one in our group who quit my job and we had no cash flow. While I believe a business can be bootstrapped without funding, the secret to success for any bootstrapped business is cash flow. Without it you’re dead in the water. Our idea had been to build cash flow and then raise capital, but we hadn’t considered how long that would take.
To make the business work, we needed to stop drinking our own Cool Aid. We were smart, tech-savvy guys who had built a great network and gained exposure, but that wasn’t going to build a business. We also needed to bring in some cash — immediately. Without cash flow there was no business, and so we needed to sell something.
My experience was in the convergence of marketing and data. I believed in the concept of mass customised communications and targeted database-driven marketing. We designed flash mailers, and these became our biggest revenue stream.
Based on this and big email campaigns, we built a marketing division called iKineo that focused on customer engagement and one-on-one marketing. We believed we were uniquely positioned to solve a new marketing need. We could speak tech, we understood development and we had business and marketing backgrounds. But we were ahead — we spent more time educating our customers than selling to them for the first five to six years. We needed another ‘big’ idea while the market caught up.
We might have had a reality check, but we were also still young and ballsy — and we believed we’d embarked on a journey that was changing the way brands would market in the future. One of the key areas we identified as ripe for disruption was the tobacco industry. With restrictive smoking laws coming into effect, the tobacco industry needed new ways to market its brands.
I’ve always believed in being an open source person. It’s a term that covers everything — being open to new experiences, new ideas, and particularly new people. It’s an essential trait for successful networking.
It also gave us the confidence we needed as a start-up founded by kids who weren’t yet 25 to approach British American Tobacco (BAT), the largest tobacco manufacturer in the world, to pitch our new marketing idea that we believed would solve their problems.
At that stage, BAT had no plan to counter the new advertising laws, and no understanding of the power of data. For decades, big tobacco had sold a lifestyle through sponsorships, billboards and big screen advertising — all of which was about to end.
We pitched something completely different for Lucky Strike: An exclusive opt-in party that required fingerprints, joining a database and the excitement of a surprise. It created high target engagement, and grew a database for the brand. They asked us if it was possible. We said absolutely. There were two of us in the business and we believed we could drive BAT’s entire customer engagement model in South Africa. Maybe we were still drinking our own Cool Aid.
The Lucky Strike parties worked, and slowly the power of data and digital marketing began to take hold. Fewer customers needed to be educated on what iKineo could do, and more were asking us for quotes and solutions to their marketing needs.
As the business grew, we never lost sight of what worked well for us, and we created a new exclusive networking group with Moët & Chandon as our partners. Members took turns to invite industry icons to speak at the events. It was an incredible networking experience, and has opened many doors for me over the years. Maria Ramos, Paul Harris, Russell Loubser, Robbie Brozin, Wendy Luhabe, Herman Mashaba and Isaac Shongwe were all guests at these evenings.
Through these relationships, I was invited to join the Aspen Global Leaders Network, the Africa Leadership Initiative and the Bertelsmann Foundations’s Global Transformation Thinkers Programme, all of which required nomination. Once you’re out there, and people know you, your ideas and what you stand for, offers and opportunities follow. This is how I learnt about the Yale Fellowship. 11 000 people applied and only 4 300 completed the application. This was then shortlisted to 50, and 16 were chosen after an interview process. This opportunity wouldn’t have arisen without my connections. This is my best advice — be open. Network. Build relationships. There is nothing more powerful than people.
Through these experiences, one thing became clear: Much of leadership and business success comes down to the art of storytelling. I’ve taken a Harvard course on narrative leadership, and I’ve watched great industry captains over the years, and they all share this trait — they can tell a story. They know how to capture your imagination. Looking back, that’s what we did with Lucky Strike and all of our early clients, while we were educating them on the direction marketing was taking. It’s also why the Idea Collective and our Moët & Chandon evenings worked so well. They were all about story telling. You need to be authentic, and willing to share. Great leaders are open, honest and transparent. They are willing to share their successes and failures.
You can only join networks like these if you’re adding value. Relationships are additive, not extractive. Even as a young person I felt like I was adding value because my perspective was different.
These experiences taught me two things. First, I did have a story. The reason I went into business when I come from a family of teachers and doctors was because half of my life was pre-1994 South Africa. I turned 18 and voted in 1994. I was conscious of our country’s political liberation, but the economic liberation still hasn’t happened. I wasn’t a political change driver, but I can make an economic impact. My biggest lever for change is business. It’s why I’m still so involved in the Bandwidth Barn and CiTi.
The second is that it’s in my nature to understand future trends and tech drivers, pain points and challenges. Innovation and funding opportunities are all about pulling these together, spotting the gap and then telling the story so clients understand it. It’s one thing to have an idea, but you need to be able to sell it. You have to explain it, unpack it and pull those threads together. And that’s where the art of storytelling is so vital.
Understanding the new texture of business has also been important. It’s no longer just about the bottom line. Business needs to connect to social dividends. This is at the core of everything we do.
We thought we’d be a venture creation business when we launched. The reality is that this takes money, which we didn’t have. We bootstrapped everything, which always takes longer than you think it will. So we built iKineo as an agency to generate cash flow.
If you don’t have capital you will always build a services business first. They’re cash flow generative, because all you need is an idea that you can deliver on, and then you get paid — no manufacturing is required, and your cash cycle is good.
For years, 90% of my day was focused on this, and not venture building. Today that ratio has shifted, but it’s taken time.
In 2003, two years after we launched, a friend invested enough capital to buy out the other partners. He’s still a shareholder today. Since then, we’ve grown organically, self-funding iKineo until we could start incubating new ventures within the business.
We’ve been able to do this because I never lost sight of the long-term strategy: To accumulate capital and create an environment and infrastructure that could support new ventures and realise our dream. We tried it earlier, but we didn’t have capital, time and infrastructure for new venture development. We systematically built our capabilities, learnt by failing a few times, and put those learnings into our model and new businesses.
Although the agency has been our backbone, it’s also an increasingly challenging business model. When we were smaller we were more profitable. In this industry, as you grow you change from a value or IP-based model to a resource plus model. While we were building the business and coming up with new and innovative solutions for our clients, we were able to price ourselves according to our IP and ability to deliver.
But, as we grew and targeted larger clients and advertising contracts, we started following the industry and large corporate template, where clients tell you how many people they expect on their account, estimate your costs and then give you a percentage mark-up. The problem is that an account is measured by the people on it, and they’re dedicated resources. If you lose that account, you can’t redeploy them back into the business unless a new account is landed. You end up employing more people at lower margins.
I fought this model and lost a large corporate client because we said no to the resource plus model, but eventually we had to align with our industry. We knew this wasn’t where our future growth lay. It’s been an important part of the path to get there, but it’s never been our final destination.
When you reach a stage where you have to follow set procurement models to land big clients, you either agree or reposition, and that’s what we’re doing with our new ventures: Sprout, Explore Sideways and The Field.
Sprout is a programmatic media business that we’ve developed with partners from Silvertree Capital, which was launched by the co-founders of Zando. Peter Allerstorfer and Manuel Koser came from Germany to launch Zando in South Africa. In two years, they built a business with 200 employees, and an incredible model for hiring people and mastering online marketing and retargeting.
Three years ago, there was an entire issue of The Economist dedicated to programmatic advertising. We started asking ourselves where online buying was going, and where programmatic media buying would be. I called Manuel to ask his opinion, and discovered he was leaving Zando and launching a tech investment firm. We realised we were ideal partners. They had the knowledge and experience in this field, and we could incubate the new venture in iKineo.
Explore Sideways is an internal start-up. It’s the product of two distinct business developments. The first is that we believe the future of agencies lies in the ability to be strategically involved with a client’s R&D. To test our theory, we developed an app for Western Cape Tourism. They couldn’t afford it, so we carried it ourselves in return for their endorsement. It was designed as a platform to find all 500 Cape wineries in one place. It’s a fragmented industry, and there was a need for this information, particularly to put the smaller wineries on the map.
But it was difficult to monetise, and we realised that its users were mostly tour operators, who tended to only use the wineries they knew well.
The second development involves the consumer shift from products to experiences, and international spend on luxury experiences is on the rise. The result is that Explore Sideways has developed into an immersive luxury travel tech business.
In two years, we’ve built up an incredible team. We’ve had 3 000 guests to date, including various international celebrities and their families. We’re in our niche, and on a growth path. The plan is to take the business international, and we will be in Napa Valley in California by the end of 2018.
The Field is our third start-up. It’s been incubated within iKineo with three managing partners who are all experts in their fields, Ann Lamont, Alison Jacobsen and Barbara Dale-Jones.
The Field helps large organisations through the digital transformation process to become future fit. We partner with the best educational brands in the world, including Stanford, to offer African and European executives global programmes at a fraction of the cost.
Like iKineo, the business is generating cash flow through consulting and coaching to big corporates while the rest of the programmes are developed, and we’re focusing on people change management, product development and an innovation lab.
Our venture build strategy is based on three pillars: Create the space to excel, have the required investment and working capital, and then attract the best talent.
The third pillar is absolutely vital to the success of these ventures. Today I can spend 90% of my time on new ventures, but I can’t focus equally on three start-ups and two more in development. Our success lies in the people driving these businesses.
In Sprout we have a CEO and CTO who moved here from the Netherlands because programmatic is new in South Africa and the skills don’t yet exist here. Before we could convince Stijn Smolders, who was newly married with a baby boy, to take a chance with us as Sprout’s CEO, we needed to derisk the business and create the right space for him.
Explore Sideways is run by Brittany Hawkins, who is an American wine marketing expert. She will be instrumental in our international expansion.
Ultimately, you need strong back-end and support systems and the ability to pay competitive salaries and offer shares. We’ve learnt that running a business takes on a different dimension when management feels ownership. Our managers deliver and have a great attitude, but shares reward and focus those abilities.
7 Self-Made Teenager Millionaire Entrepreneurs
These teenager entrepreneurs have already made their first million and more. How did they do it and what’s their secret to success?
1. Evan of YouTube
Evan and his father Jarod started a youtube channel ‘Evantube’ to review kids’ toys. The channel was a resounding success with other kids – so much so that today it boasts just over 6 million subscribers.
Evantube brings in more than USD1.4 million a year from ad revenue generated on the channel.
How did it start? With a father-son fun project making Angry Birds Stop Animation videos, and morphed into doing reviews on toys and video games. But Jarod’s dad is aware of the responsibility of Evan’s sudden fame and hopes to teach Evan about the importance of being a good role model for others.
“Most recently, we had the opportunity to work with the Make-a-Wish Foundation, and were able to fulfill the wish of a young boy whose dream was to meet Evan and make a video with him at Legoland,” explains Jared. “It was a really incredible experience. YouTube has definitely opened many doors, and the kids have gotten to do some pretty amazing things.”
Expert Advice From Property Point On Taking Your Start-Up To The Next Level
Through Property Point, Shawn Theunissen and Desigan Chetty have worked with more than 170 businesses to help them scale. Here’s what your start-up should be focusing on, based on what they’ve learnt.
- Players: Shawn Theunissen and Desigan Chetty
- Company: Property Point
- What they do: Property Point is an enterprise development initiative created by Growthpoint Properties, and is dedicated to unlocking opportunities for SMEs operating in South Africa’s property sector.
- Launched: 2008
- Visit: propertypoint.org.za
Through Property Point, Shawn Theunissen and his team have spent ten years learning what makes entrepreneurs tick and what small business owners need to implement to become medium and large business owners. In that time, over 170 businesses have moved through the programme.
While Property Point is an enterprise development (ED) initiative, the lessons are universal. If you want to take your start-up to the next level, this is a good place to start.
Risk, reputation and relationships
“We believe that everything in business comes down to the 3Rs: Risk, Reputation and Relationships. If you understand these three factors and how they influence your business and its growth, your chances of success will increase exponentially,” says Shawn Theunissen, Executive Corporate Social Responsibility at Growthpoint Properties and founder of Property Point.
So, how do the 3Rs work, and what should business owners be doing based on them?
Risk: We can all agree that there will always be risks in business. It’s how you approach and mitigate those risks that counts, which means you first need to recognise and accept them.
“We always straddle the line between hardcore business fundamentals and the relational elements and people components of doing business,” says Shawn. “For example, one of the risks that everyone faces in South Africa is that we all make decisions based on unconscious biases. As a business owner, we need to recognise how this affects potential customers, employees, stakeholders and even ourselves as entrepreneurs.”
Reputation: Because Property Point is an ED initiative, its 170 alumni are black business owners, and so this is an area of bias that they focus on, but the rule holds true for all biases. “In the context of South Africa, small black businesses are seen as higher risk. To overcome this, black-owned businesses should focus on the reputational component of their companies. What’s the track record of the business?”
A business owner who approaches deals in this way can focus on building the value proposition of the business, outlining the capacity and capabilities of the business and its core team to deliver how the business is run, and specific service offerings.
“From a business development perspective, if you can provide a good track record, it diminishes the customer’s unconscious bias,” says Shawn. “Now the entrepreneur isn’t just being judged through one lens, but rather based on what they have done and delivered.”
Relationship: “We believe that fundamentally people do business with people,” says Shawn. “There needs to be culture match and fluency in terms of relations to make the job easier. As a general rule, the ease of doing business increases if there is a culture match.”
This relates to understanding what your client needs, how they want to do business, their user experience and customer experience. “We like to call it sharpening the pencil,” says Desigan Chetty, Property Point’s Head of Operations.
“In terms of value proposition, does your service offering focus on solving the client’s needs? Is there a culture match between you and your client? And if you realise there isn’t, can you walk away, or do you continue to focus time and energy on the wrong type of service offering to the wrong client? This isn’t learnt over- night. It takes time and small but constant adjustments to the direction you’re taking.”
In fact, Desigan advises walking away from the wrong business so that you can focus on your core competencies. “If you reach a space where you work well with a client and you’ve stuck to your core competencies, business is just going to be easier. It becomes easier for you to deliver. Sometimes entrepreneurs stretch themselves to try to provide a service to a client that’s not serving either of their needs. This strategy will never lead to growth — at least not sustainable growth.”
Instead, Desigan recommends choosing an entry point through a specific offering based on an explicit need. “Too often we see entrepreneurs whose offerings are so broad that they don’t focus,” he says. “Instead, understand what your client’s need is and address that need, even if it means that it’s only one out of your five offerings. Your likelihood of success if you go where the need is, is much higher.
“Once you get in, prove yourself through service delivery. It’s a lot easier to on-sell and cross sell once you have a foot in the door. You’re now building a relationship, learning the internal culture, how things work, what processes are followed and so on — the client’s landscape is easier to navigate. The challenge is to get in. Once you’re in, you can entrench yourself.”
Desigan and Shawn agree that this is one of the reasons why suppliers to large corporates become so entrenched. “Once you’re in, you can capitalise from other needs that may have emanated from your entry point and unlock opportunities,” says Shawn.
Building a sustainable start-up
While all start-ups are different, there are challenges most entrepreneurs share and key areas they should focus on.
Shawn and Desigan share the top five areas you should focus on.
1. Align and partner with the right people
This includes your staff, stakeholders, partners, suppliers and clients. Partnerships are the best thing to take you forward. The key is to collaborate and partner with the right people based on an alignment of objectives and culture. It’s when you don’t tick all the boxes that things don’t work out.
2. Make sure you get the basics right
Never neglect business fundamentals. Do you have the processes and systems in place to scale the business?
3. Understand your value proposition
Are you on a journey with your clients? Is your value proposition aligned to the need you’re trying to solve for your clients? Are you looking ahead of the curve — what’s the problem, what are your clients saying and are you being proactive in leveraging that relationship?
4. Unpack your value chain
If you want to diversify, understand your value chain. What is it, where are the opportunities both horizontally and vertically within your client base, and what other solutions can you offer based on your areas of expertise?
8. Don’t ignore technology
Be aware of what’s happening in the tech space and where you can use it to enable your business. Tech impacts everything, even more traditional industries. Businesses that embrace technology work smarter, faster and often at a lower cost base.
Ultimately, Desigan and Shawn believe that success often just comes down to attitude. “We have one entrepreneur in our programme who applied twice,” says Shawn. “When he was rejected, he listened to the feedback we gave him and instead of thinking we were wrong, went away, made changes and came back. He was willing to learn and open himself up to different ways of approaching things. That business has grown from R300 000 per annum to R20 million since joining us.
“Too many business owners aren’t willing to evaluate and adjust how they do things. It’s those who want to learn and embrace change and growth that excel.”
Networking, collaborating and mentoring
Property Point holds regular networking sessions called Entrepreneurship To The Point. They are open to the public and have two core aims. First, to provide entrepreneurs access to top speakers and entrepreneurs, and second, to give like-minded business owners an opportunity to network and possibly even collaborate.
“We believe in the power of collaboration and networking,” says Desigan.
“Most of our alumni become mentors themselves to new entrants to the programme. They want to share what they have learnt with other entrepreneurs, but they also know that they can learn from newer and younger entrepreneurs. The business landscape is always changing. Insights can come from anywhere and everywhere.”
The To The Point sessions are designed to help business owners widen their network, whether they are Property Point entrepreneurs or not.
To find out more, visit www.ettp.co.za
Bain & Company Give You The Data On How To Become 40% More Productive
Top performing organisations get more done by 10am on a Thursday than most companies achieve in a full week. They don’t have more talented employees than everyone else though — they’re working with the same people and tools as you. Michael Mankins unpacks what separates these businesses from everyone else, and how you can learn to be more like them.
- Player: Michael Mankins
- Company: Bain & Company
- Visit: www.bain.com/offices/johannesburg/
“Engaged employees are 45% more productive than satisfied employees. An inspired employee is 55% more productive than an engaged employee and 125% more productive than a satisfied employee.”
When Bain & Company partner, Michael Mankins evaluates businesses, he clearly distinguishes between efficiency and productivity. Efficiency is producing the same amount with less — in other words, finding and eliminating wastages. Productivity, on the other hand, is producing more with the same, which requires an increased output per unit of input and removing obstacles to productivity.
Interestingly, when businesses face challenges or tough operating conditions, the first response is always to become more efficient, instead of more productive. Restructuring and ‘rightsizing’ are the result. The problem, says Michael, is that when companies take people out, they don’t take the work out, and so the people end up coming back, along with the costs.
A better response, he says, is to identify the work that could be removed to free up time, which could then be invested in producing higher levels of output.
While businesses have become very good at tracking the productivity levels of blue-collar and manufacturing workers, tracking the productivity of knowledge workers is entirely different.
“There’s no data around white-collar productivity,” says Michael. “The problem is that the world is shifting towards knowledge work, and so, if we can’t measure productivity, output and obstacles in that space, businesses will never get the great levels of performance they’re looking for.”
Because of a complete lack of statistics in this area, when Michael and his colleague, Eric Garton, were approached by Harvard Business Review Press to write a book dealing with this issue, they had to devise a way of looking at the relative productivity of organisations comprised of white-collar workers.
The results were unexpected. “We were asked to research the difference between top performing organisations (the top quartile) compared to average organisations. I honestly thought the answers would be obvious, even if we didn’t yet have the tools to track them. I thought the best companies would have the best people. That’s 90% of the answer. Simple as that.”
As it turned out, it wasn’t that simple at all. Of the 308 organisations in the study, drawn from a global pool, the average star performer or A-player was one in seven employees. This statistic held true whether the company was in the top 25% of performers or an average performer. The difference was that the top performing businesses were 40% more productive than their counterparts — and yet their mix of talent, on average, was the same.
“There were some exceptions, but on the whole, the best in our research accomplishes as much by 10am on a Thursday as the rest do the whole week. And they continue to innovate, serve customers and execute on great ideas — all with the same percentage of A-players as other, more mediocre businesses.”
So, what were the differentiating factors?
What’s dragging your organisation down?
First, we need to understand how Michael and Eric approached their research before we can understand — and implement — their conclusions.
“We began with the notion that every company starts with the ability to produce 100 if they have a workforce that’s comprised of average talent, that’s reasonably satisfied with their job and can dedicate 100% of their time to productivity — bearing in mind that no-one can dedicate 100% of their time to productive tasks.
“The question we were focusing on was around bureaucratic procedures, complex processes and anything else that wastes time and gets in the way of people getting things done, but doesn’t lead to higher quality output or better service to customers. That’s what we call organisational drag. You start at 100 and then the organisation drags you down. The good news is that you can make up for organisational drag in three ways: First, you can make better use of everyone’s time. Second, you can manage your talent better by deploying it in smarter ways, which includes placing it in the right roles, teaming it more effectively and leading it more effectively. Third, you can unleash the discretionary energy of your workforce by engaging them more effectively.”
This trifecta — time, talent and energy — became the basis for Michael and Eric’s book, Time, Talent, Energy: Overcome Organizational Drag & Unleash Your Team’s Productive Power. “The way you manage the scarce resource of talent can make up for some, potentially even all, of what you lose to organisational drag,” says Michael.
What the research revealed: Time
“Wasted time is not an individual problem,” says Michael. “It’s an organisational problem. The symptoms include excess emails and meetings and far more reports being generated than the business needs to operate.”
These are all manifestations of an underlying pathology of organisational complexity, which is managed by senior leadership. “The best companies lose about 13% of their productive activity to organisational drag. The rest lose 25%. The most important thing is to reduce the number of unnecessary interactions that workers are having. That means meetings and ecommunications need to be relooked.”
The easiest manifestation for Michael and Eric to observe were hours committed to meetings and how much time workers spend dealing with ecommunications. What’s left-over is the time people can actually get some work done.
What they found is that the average mid-level manager works 46 hours a week. 23 hours are dedicated to meetings and another ten hours to ecommunication. That leaves 13 hours to get some work done — except that it doesn’t.
“It’s difficult to do deep work in periods of time less than 20 minutes. When we subtracted all the other distractions that happen daily, we were left with just six and a half hours each week to do work.” What’s even scarier about this statistic is the fact that meeting work and ecommunication time is increasing by 7% to 8% each year and doubles every nine years. If left unchecked, no-one will have the time to get any work done. “This is why everyone plays catch-up after hours and on weekends,” says Michael.
“One of my clients told me that his most productive meeting is at 6.30am on a Saturday, because it doesn’t involve one minute that isn’t required or one individual that doesn’t absolutely need to be there. If the same meeting was held at 2pm on a Tuesday, there’d be twice as many people, it would be twice as long and there’d probably be biscuits.”
The point is clear: We don’t treat time as the precious resource that it is, and if we did, we would radically shift our behaviour.
Start by asking what work needs to be done and then figure out the best structure to do that work. “Don’t confuse having a lean structure that does the wrong work with being effective,” says Michael. “One of the biggest problems we see is that companies are not particularly good at stopping things. Things get added incrementally, but nothing ever gets taken away. For example, we found that 62% of the reports generated by one of our clients had a producer — but no consumer. Time, attention and energy was invested in reports that no one needed and no one read.
“Ask yourself: How many initiatives have you shut down? If you made the decision that you could only do ten initiatives effectively, and each time you added an initiative, one had to be eliminated, what would your organisation look like?
“Unless you routinely clean your house, it gets cluttered. The same is true of companies. Initiatives spawn meetings, ecommunications and reports, which all lead to organisational drag.”
What the research revealed: Talent
According to Michael, the biggest element in their research that explained the 40% differential in productivity is the way that top performing organisations manage talent.
“We conducted research in 2017 that revealed the productivity difference between the best workers and average employees. Everyone knows that A-level talent can make a big difference to an organisation’s performance, but not everyone knows just how big that difference is.”
To put it in context, the top developer at Apple writes nine times more usable code than the average software developer in Silicon Valley. The best blackjack dealer at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas keeps his table playing at least five times as long as the average dealer on the Strip. The best sales associate at Nordstrom sells at least eight times as much as the average sales associate walking the floor at other department stores. The best transplant surgeon at Cleveland Clinic has a patient survival rate at least six times longer than that of the average transplant surgeon. And the best fish butcher at Le Bernadin restaurant in New York can portion as much fish in an hour as the average prep cook can manage in three hours.
It doesn’t matter what industry you investigate, A-level talent is exponentially more productive than everyone else.
This is why Michael thought that the obvious answer to why some organisations perform better than others is the mix of talented employees they’ve attracted.
“When we asked senior leaders to estimate the percentage of their workforce that they would classify as top performers or A-level talent, the average response was slightly less than 15%. And that’s despite the fact that most companies have spent vast sums of money in the so-called war for talent.”
The big difference, as Michael and Eric discovered, is how that talent is deployed. “It’s what they do with that one in seven employees that makes the biggest difference,” says Michael. “Most companies use a model called unintentional egalitarianism, which basically means that they spread star talent across all roles. The best on the other hand, are more likely to deploy intentional non-egalitarianism. They ensure that business-critical roles are held by A-level talent.”
The challenge is that approximately 5% of the roles in most companies explain 95% of a company’s ability to execute its strategy, and very few organisations articulate which roles those are — but the ones that do tend to be top performers.
“There’s an excellent historical example of this at work,” says Michael. “Between 1988 and 1994, Gap was a high-flyer in the retail sector. They performed globally on all levels — they grew faster than anyone else, were more profitable, had higher shareholder returns, and were the most admired company.
“During that time period, the organisation was led by Mickey Drexler, and his strategy was to focus on what he believed was Gap’s critical role, which was merchandising. He wanted every merchandiser to be a star. ‘No one will tell us what the colour is this year — we’re going to tell the world. We’re going to determine which styles are in and what everyone will be wearing.’
“And they did. If you want proof that Gap’s merchandisers were in fact stars during that period, you can look at today’s CEOs and COOs of the world’s largest retailers. Most of them were merchandisers at Gap during those years.”
The challenge of course is that everyone is always trying to hire stars, and yet only 15% of employees can be described as A-level talent. What can organisations do to utilise their stars wisely?
“First, move a star into a different position if they’re not in a business-critical role. To achieve this, how you define a star might have to change. Some companies hire for positions, and others hire for skills across positions. Stars, in my view, are more the latter. They can learn different skills and fill different roles.
“Second, start defining your business-critical roles. If you ask executives what percentage of their roles are business critical, most say 54%. They’re not discerning. It’s unintentional, because they don’t want to signal to their workers who aren’t in a business-critical role that they’re not as valuable to the organisation, but the reality is that people figure it out anyway, and you just end up with business-critical roles that aren’t filled by the right people, and stars in positions that anyone else could fill.”
Teams perform better than individuals
To understand how important teams are when deploying talent, Michael uses an example from the world of racing — Nascar in the US to be precise.
“Between 2008 and 2011, there was one pit crew that outperformed everyone else on the track,” he says. “A standard pit stop is 77 manoeuvres, and this crew could complete them in 12,12 seconds, which was faster than any other team. However, if you took one team member out and substituted them with an average team member, that time jumped to 23 seconds. Substitute a second team member, and it was now 45 seconds. The lesson is simple: As the percentage of star players on a team goes up, the productivity of that team goes up — and it’s not linear.”
Michael and Eric also discovered that the role leadership plays on team productivity is both measurable and exponential.
“In 2011, the National Bureau of Economic Research wanted to quantify the impact of a great boss on team productivity. They found that a great boss can increase the productivity of an average team by 11%, which is the same as adding another member to a nine-member team.
“If you take that same boss and put them in charge of an all-star team, productivity is increased by 18%, and this is with a team whose productivity was exponentially higher to begin with. Great bosses act as a force multiplier on the force multiplier of all-star teams.”
According to Michael and Eric’s research however, what most organisations tend to do is place a great boss with an under-performing team in the hopes of improving them, when what they should be doing is pairing great bosses with great teams.
“We did a survey that asked a simple question: When your company has a mission-critical initiative, how do you assemble the team? A: Based on whomever is available. B: Based on perceived subject matter expertise. C: We attempt to create balanced teams of A, B and C players to foster the development of the team. D: We create all-star teams and we put our best leaders in charge of them.
“We thought everyone would answer D. We were wrong. 30% of our bottom three quartiles answered B, closely followed by C, and then A. Only 8% of them answered D.
“The results were very different in our top-performing quartile though. There, 81% of respondents answered D. In other words, the 25% most productive companies in our study set were ten times more likely to assemble all-star teams with their best players than the remaining 75% of the organisations in our research.”
How talent is deployed makes a difference. “I recently had this highlighted for me through another sporting analogy. The world record for the 400-metre relay is faster than the 100-metre dash multiplied four times. How is that possible? When your role is clear and your position is clear, the handoff is seamless. Under these conditions, the best teams outperform a collection of the best individuals.” Michael does offer a word of advice though.
“Don’t fall into the trap of believing that if you do have the best talent, you don’t need to worry about anything else. I don’t believe that’s true. There are always higher levels of performance that can be achieved because there are always areas you can improve on.”
What the research reveals: Energy
According to Michael, employee engagement and inspiration is a hierarchy. “There are a set of qualifiers that have to be met just to feel satisfied in your job: You need to feel safe, have the resources you need, feel that you’re relatively unencumbered in getting your job done every day and that you’re rewarded fairly.
“To be engaged, these all need to meet, and more. Now you also need to feel part of a team, that you’re learning on the job, that you’re having an impact and that you have a level of autonomy.”
Inspiration takes this a step further. “Inspired employees either have a personal mission that is so aligned with the company’s mission that they’re inspired to come to work every day, or the leadership of their immediate supervisors is incredibly inspiring, or both.”
Why does this matter? Because how satisfied, engaged or inspired your employees are has a real, tangible impact on productivity. “Engaged employees are 45% more productive than satisfied employees. An inspired employee is 55% more productive than an engaged employee and 125% more productive than a satisfied employee.”
The really scary statistic is that 66% of all employees are only satisfied or even dissatisfied with their jobs, 21% are engaged, and only 13% are inspired. “These statistics are pretty constant, although top organisations can improve their engaged and inspired ratios,” says Michael. “What we found amongst those companies that did have more engaged and inspired workers was that they all tended to believe that inspiration can be taught. It’s not innate. You can become an inspirational leader with the right attitude and training.
“For example, one organisation surveys its employees every six months and specifically asks workers to rate how inspirational their leaders are. If you’re rated uninspiring by your team for the first time, you’re given training. If, six months later, you’re still rated uninspiring, you’re given access to a coach to evaluate why the tools aren’t working for you.
“By the third, two questions are asked: Should you be a leader, and should you be at the company? Many productive employees can be effective individual contributors but aren’t necessarily leaders, or aren’t happy as leaders, and would best serve the organisation in a different role. The second question is tougher, but even more important. If an inspired employee is 55% more productive than an engaged employee and 125% more than a satisfied employee, an uninspiring leader is a tax on the performance of the company, and there has to be a consequence to that. We have to constantly enrich our workforce and leaders need to be included in that.”
The problem is that very few organisations are asking how inspiring their leaders are. “If you don’t know if your employees are engaged or if your leadership is inspiring, you can’t address it,” he says. “You can take a satisfied employee and make them engaged, but you can’t inspire someone if they aren’t first engaged — that’s the hierarchy. Employee engagement is largely achieved through the way you manage teams. You have to give people the sense that they are having an impact, working within a team and learning. Get that right, and you’ll unlock a powerful level of discretionary energy that will drive productivity in your organisation.”
Time, Talent, Energy: Overcome Organizational Drag and Unleash Your Team’s Productive Power, by Michael Mankins and Eric Garton, focuses on the scarcest resource companies possess — talent — and how it can be utilised to drive productivity.
Visit www.timetalentenergy.com to find out more.
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