Inc 5000 was the highest energy conference I’ve ever attended. The power in the room was palpable: these entrepreneurs, builders of the fastest growing companies in America, have created the truly wonderful out of nothing. During the two days, I met CEOs from companies that license film clips, create employee feedback and badge software, and give military kids a scouting experience.
Besides meeting these amazing entrepreneurs, the other conference highlights were the keynote speakers. Here are a few highlights from my favorite keynoters: Les McKeown, Jack Stack, Lewis Schiff, and Ted Zoller.
Les McKeown, author of Predicable Success and The Synergist
I’m a Predictable Success fan (you can find my Predictable Success cheat sheet here). It’s a beautiful, clear, practical, and actionable model for how to move companies through what Les calls Early Struggle and Whitewater to Predictable Success.
Hearing Les talk brought some nuances to the model that I didn’t pick up while reading his excellent book, Predictable Success. The first one was that not every company needs to get to Predictable Success. For many, it’s enough to stay in the Fun phase. Let me explain.
Fun is the stage in which a company is growing rapidly through increases in sales. Passionate and resilient visionaries run the company. All enjoy the energy and frenetic pace. It sometimes takes minor miracles to fulfill customer promises, but staff rally together, get the job done, and mark the experience as another of the company’s great successes.
In contrast, Predictable Success is the only place in which a company can truly scale. However, there’s a price to pay for scale: Whitewater. During this challenging, anxiety-filled stage, the company becomes complex and can’t operate using its ad hoc, everyone-pitches-in Fun style. Mistakes happen, clients become unhappy, and coming to work becomes the opposite of fun.
To get through Whitewater, companies need processes and systems: just what they’ve resisted because they enjoy the freedom and autonomy of the startup culture. Some can slog through Whitewater, by installing necessary processes and systems, to get to Predictable Success. But, for many, it’s just not worth it.
The question for you and your business is this: Do you need to scale? If not, stay in the Fun stage, grow the business, and enjoy the adrenaline of improvising together to get things done. If you do need to scale, come to peace with process and install only as many as you need to handle complexity.
Jack Stack, author of The Great Game of Business
Jack Stack is best known for championing the practice of open book management. This practice is still radical, says Jack, since many companies still won’t open their books and share financial data with employees. Companies that do have an interesting competitive edge: telling the truth.
I’m with Jack. All too often, companies treat employees like children. We coddle them and protect them. We fear that, if they really knew what was happening in the company, they’d bail. But I think it’s just the opposite. People can handle the truth. Not only that, they can do better work when they understand the context in which they operate.
Some of the smartest people I’ve known in companies have shown up in line positions: a warehouse worker who moonlighted as a journalist, a waitress who curated major Wikipedia pages in her free time, and a lab tech who was a brilliant artist. They, and their less ambitious peers, can handle the truth. And, in fact, when trusted with it, their loyalty to the organization increases and they feel more ownership for their work. Of course, people need education to understand the balance sheet (we don’t come out of the womb knowing what amortization means), but once they do, they can surprise you.
Lewis Schiff, author of Business Brilliant
Lewis Schiff studies habits of moneymakers (people with high net worth) in comparison to middle class folk. He’s found that moneymakers have a few habits that separate them from the rest:
They focus on what they do best. They know what those things are (generally just two or three things). They don’t waste time trying to build other skills; they find others who can fill their gaps. Not only that, they’ve figured out how to make money doing what they do best.
They’ve figured out that “it’s essential to know people who know people.” In other words, it’s not necessary to have a lot of contacts. You have to have the right contacts. We preach this message all the time at Partnering Resources, and I’m glad to see yet another research study supporting this!
Ted Zoller, Senior Fellow at The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation
We often talk at Partnering Resources about Critical Connectors: the 5 – 15% of people in any network who have disproportionate influence over the whole. Ted Zoller has done some amazing research analyzing influence in entrepreneurial networks. He’s found that a small percent – 2.7% exactly – hold the role of dealmakers. They’re the ones responsible for funding ventures that succeed, creating markets, and bringing money to worthy causes. I’m delighted to learn about Ted’s work. I’ll devote a blog post just to this topic sometime soon.
Business Ecosystems and Change
I was delighted to present twice at the Inc 500 conference: once on the main stage as part of the “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There” panel, and once in a concurrent session on “Follow the Leader: What You Need to Drive Your Organization to Achieve Its Change Goals.” Stay tuned for blog posts focusing on these two topics.