Gumption and conviction

Some interview questions to get at the important stuff:

“What grounds you?”

“What are you best at?”

“Tell me about at time you changed someone’s mind.”

“At your core, what makes you tick?”

“What does generosity mean to you?”

Degrees and smarts are nice, but they’re almost easy to come by.   Being the kind of person who drives and leads (no matter what your job title) is much more compelling.

Right ask, right time, right way

The other day I was lucky enough to sit for an hour with the Acumen Fund Fellows for a talk on networking given by the wonderful, inimitable Sunny Bates.  Sunny is a natural connector, full of joy and exuberance, brimming with energy.

Would that an afternoon with Sunny were mandatory for every MBA student – who inevitably has been misguided into thinking that “networking” is about making a beeline to the most “important” people in the room (defined how?), giving them your pitch and collecting their business card.

Sunny talks about building and cultivating your personal network – the one asset you bring with you everywhere you go – and constantly feeding that network through your own generous acts.  Your network strengthens because you feed it – by making connections between two people who would enjoy meeting each other, starting a business together, or just sharing ideas; by helping others accomplish their goals.

This kind of active nurturing is a mindset shift that takes the instrumentalism out of each interaction while at the same time leaving space for asking for things that YOU that you would like others to help you achieve, the more specific the better.

To do this well you have to get good at making the right ask in the right time and the right way – which is about the timing and pacing of what you ask for as well as the medium.

For example, in the course of any healthy personal/professional relationship you might ask someone to: attend a party, serve as a judge on a panel, give a keynote address, fund your startup, give job advice to your niece, serve on your board, help you on a thorny strategic question, be a mentor.

Since these many threads are interwoven, and since there are asks flying in both directions as relationships deepen, my advice is that you make big asks in big ways, small ones in small ways.

Small asks over email: come to this party, serve as a judge, talk to a friend, speak at a conference

Medium asks over the phone: spend a day brainstorming with me and a group of peers, quick advice on something I’m stuck on, “do you know anybody who…”

Big asks in person: we’re stuck on this strategic question, help fund this idea, serve on my board.

Obvious when you write it out, but lately I’ve seen people trip up by asking for a meeting that’s billed as a broad, strategic conversation, and then spending the precious hour they have been given asking for something much too small. The person will say yes to this small ask, but you won’t get an hour or an afternoon from them the next time you ask.

Why am I not more…

A long time ago, I decided to take some time off from school to go live in Spain.  I dutifully bought a copy of “Spanish in 15 Minutes a Day” and had worked my way through the first chapter when I found myself on a bus in Boston, returning from a school where I volunteered once a week.

Two guys sitting a few rows behind me having a conversation in Spanish.  I strained to understand, and quickly became frustrated that I could barely catch two words of what they were saying.

This of course made no sense at all.  I hadn’t (yet) actually done the work of learning to speak Spanish, I’d just decided that I was going to learn the language, yet there I was beating myself up for not understanding these guys.

It’s tempting when we find ourselves in new situations – new countries, new jobs, among a new peer set or just at a cocktail party or a conference where we don’t feel comfortable – to beat ourselves up for not being more…something (connected, outgoing, fluent, knowledgeable of local customs).  It’s tempting to forget that we are who we are – nothing more, nothing less.

The point of the new situation is that it’s new, that we don’t yet have what it takes to be the best at this new thing – and that’s why we’re there.  The only positive response to that feeling of discomfort, of inadequacy, is to decide to put in the time it takes to get better.

Sin eso, nunca aprendemos a hacerlo mejor.

The big ask

A colleague asked me today, “what different strategies would you use to ask someone for $250,000 as opposed to $50,000?”

The first thing to clarify is whether you’re asking the same person for these different amounts of money.  Put another way, are you asking “how do I get someone to shift from making a donation that’s not a big decision to making a donation that is a big decision?”  Or are you asking, “how do I get up the nerve to look someone in the eye and ask them for a quarter of a million dollars (or more!)?”

Regardless of which of these questions you’re really asking, in each case you need the same basic elements.  You need a story that is real, compelling, that has emotional content.  A story that you believe in, that you think is important.  A story that is true for you, for your organization, for its beneficiaries.  A narrative that resonates with and reinforces the world view of the donor.  A narrative that the donor can be a part of – can place themselves in and, in the best of cases, can help write themselves.

The size of the donation (the “ask”)?  It has to come out of this narrative and this truth – you can’t bolt it on afterwards and have any hope of success.

So, going back to the two questions, if someone is giving much less than then can, then the story is not holding true for them on some level.

If you are asking for much less than you should, then the story is not holding true for you on some level.

Which one is it?

Kindle reflections: Do nothing badly

I got a Kindle as a birthday gift, a practical, non-iPad antidote to caving to an iPhone 18 months ago, when I turned in my trusty Blackberry.

(Side note for int’l travelers: AT&T iPhone data plan does not cover Kenya).

The Kindle has a great feature with a tiny glitch:  “Sync to Furthest Page Read.”  It works seamlessly between the Kindle and the Kindle iPhone app, letting you read on your Kindle at home, pick up where you left off on your iPhone, and come back to your Kindle at the end of the day without ever having to flip pages.

The glitch is that you can never go backwards.  So if you go to the end of the book once (because, say, someone else read the book before you; or you’re rereading a  book; or you went to the index once), the sync becomes useless – it always syncs to the last page ever read in the book, with no way that I can find to reset it.

I was trying to figure out if there’s an easy fix to this glitch by skimming the Kindle User’s Guide, whose three different version (v3, v4, v5) take up too much real estate on my Kindle’s Home screen.  And while I didn’t find a fix to the problem, I did discover that my Kindle can do all sorts of things I never knew about: I can post to Twitter from my Kindle about a book I’m reading; I can browse the web; I can type notes in the margin of whatever I’m reading; and on and on.

And guess what?  Nearly all of those features are slow, clunky, and nearly unusable.  It’s the kind of meager feature creep that happens with subsequent iterations on a product – ironically cutting directly against what Kindle did so well: create a reader that’s JUST a reader, and make it incredibly quick and easy to buy books from the largest online store around.

“Do nothing badly” is not an inspiring mantra, but it’s a good way to kill lots of nice-to-have ideas that you know you won’t execute better than anyone else.  It’s much more actionable than “do everything well” because “everything” sounds like too much and what exactly do we mean by “well?”

“Nothing,” on the other hand, is much clearer.

“We will not do one thing, not single thing badly.  Not even one.  Not ever.”

The one thing I’d like to know

How can you get a read on an organization, what really makes it tick and if it is functioning well?

For example, say you’re considering taking a new job – you want to understand how the place really functions, not just what the website looks like and what people say when they know you’re listening.

Look at all the little things, the things that are too small to specify, and see how they handle those.  How do they greet people who call on the phone, unannounced?   How do they welcome visitors?  How quickly do people walk down the hallway?  How clean is the store or the stockroom or the warehouse?  How candidly do they answer when you ask, “what do you dream about?”

If I were trying to suss out one thing to predict long-term success, one thing that would help me understand how well an organization is going to do not just today but tomorrow, I’d want to understand: are people proud to be here?  Do they treat this place like it’s their own?

If you can get that right at any sort of scale, so many other things will take care of themselves.


Hot Sun in Kibera

How’s this for an idea: creating a film school in the heart of the Kibera slum.

How’s this for a first impression: drive down a narrow dirt alley, pull the parking break, open the iron gate and duck through the narrow entrance of a small, unremarkable building that opens onto a simple room with pale fluorescent light, a simple table and some plastic chairs….and a brand new iMac computer.

In the next room, a young man from Kibera is editing a clip for Kibera TV, which tells stories about what’s really going on in Kibera – all the videos are available on YouTube.

This is all the work of the Hot Sun Foundation, whose founder Nathan Collett, made the award-winning film Kibera Kid and whose latest feature film, Togetherness Supreme, is screening in Nairobi tomorrow night and is on the film festival circuit.

You can listen to the splashy CNN story here, but I was more moved by Josphat, one of the young men who has been trained in film-making, scriptwriting and video editing by the HotSun foundation.  This is a 40 second video I shot of him yesterday talking to our group – his personality, his energy, his love of film overwhelmed me and filled me with joy.

If it’s so obvious, why hasn’t it been done before?

I’m in Kenya this week, with a small group of Acumen Fund Partners to visit our investments here and spend time with our East Africa team.  Today we had the chance to visit with David Kuria, the visionary entrepreneur behind Ecotact, which is single-handedly transforming the notion of what is possible in building safe, clean and affordable toilet facilities in Kenya and beyond.  David’s Ikotoilets, which are sprinkled throughout Nairobi, were used more than 4 million times last year – and these are early results from a company that was just an idea three years ago.  David will have 40 Ikotoilets up and running by the end of 2011 and all you need is to see the glimmer in David’s eye to know that this is just the beginning.

Walk down the sunny, bustling Aga Khan walk in Kenya’s Central Business District towards one of the most successful Ikotoilets in the Ecotact network (above), and you begin to understand the genius of the Ecotact model.  The street is literally teeming with foot traffic on this clear, sweet-smelling Nairobi morning, people walking deliberately in suits, ties, formal wear between the various government offices in the heart of the city.  David Kuria pulled a coup when he secured this location – not only for its foot traffic, which is stunning.  This toilet is part of daily life on this street, and not a single government official can ignore its success or turn away from its beautiful, colorful walls and the message they represent – that sanitation matters, that people demand it, and that it can be provided affordably.

And while we are just at the beginning, while the biggest challenges may lie ahead, these challenges, these iterations on the business model, are not top of mind for me today.  If anything, I’m struck with how easy it is forget that, no matter how obvious the Ikotoilet seems now (given its early success) no one has done this before.  It is so easy to put on our thinking caps and pick apart all the things that could be better, all the issues that will need to be addressed as the company continues to grow. It is so easy to forget that this thing was impossible before it became obvious.

Today I want to cherish the notion that all of us together have made a hair-brained, crazy, impossible idea a reality.

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P.S. If you’ve missed it check out Acumen’s new micro-site, Search for the Obvious, where we’re spreading light on just these kinds of ideas (old and new).

Something new

How do you approach absolutely brand new, hey-I’ve-never-done-this-before-in-my-life situations?

If you’re working with someone who HAS done this before, here’s something you might try: “Hey, friend, I’ve never once done this before.  I’m excited to learn, I’m ready to jump in, but as of this exact moment I’ve no clue how to do this.  What should I be thinking about?”

More often than not, with new and tricky things, people jump right into the tricky thing (“this is a big deal, we better get started!”) instead of spending time talking about HOW they’re going to do what they have to do.

“I’m new to this…” ignites a conversation that will inevitably set agendas, define how the work is going to be done, roles, strategies….instead of getting stuck in the weeds of Step 1, Step 2, Step 3 of the project.  It also demonstrate the confidence of showing vulnerability – if you say this in the right way and with the right attitude, what comes across is, “I’m a doer.  I’m planning to do a great job here.  Help me take that first step.”

Plus, more likely than not, by asking this question, you make learning how to do “this” (whatever “this” is) one of the goals of the project.  You put your own learning and growth on the agenda.