One of the continent’s best speakers on issues of entrepreneurship – if not the best has to be South African Vusi Thembekwayo.
A world champion public speaker there is little you can fault about his delivery.
I thought of him when one of his latest tweets on the subject of business popped up on my screen, “Ego,” he declared “(Is) the place where potential goes to die.”
That stopped me in my tracks. It sounds counter intuitive. Isn’t it big egos that build big businesses? Isn’t that the conventional wisdom?
"The thought is not original to Thembekwayo. Jim Collins in his book “Built to Last” identified the ambitious leader as key to building of companies with enduring success. But the ambition of these leaders is not for themselves but for the companies or enterprises they build....
Ambition for the company as opposed to oneself would manifest in how the leader is willing to delay his own gratification to build the company; in how he is willing to promote his company above self and in how he is focused on long term sustainability over short term gain.
Ego is defined as a person’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance. The question then is if you are interested in building an enduring business how do you put your ego aside?
We will return to that in a moment.
Last year Thembekwayo in a TED Talk “The big lie of small business” he gave in Namibia outlined the motivations for building businesses.
He said the motivation behind most businesses is to support the lifestyle of the owner. The challenge with these is you can only consume so much and once you have met your needs and wants there is nowhere to go but down.
The other motivation is to build a business to extend your lifestyle to the next generation. But the same issues as before put a cap on how big this business can become.
Then third motivation is to build a business for sale. When this is a major motivation business owners think differently. To build a business for sale you have to build or acquire assets, develop systems that will ensure the business will be able to run without the founders input in future and record all this in a way that is intelligible to buyers.
Of course you can build a business without all these and still sell it but know you will have left money on the table.
And the final motivation is because the business you are building is being employed in the service of a philosophy held by its founders. So for instance when Google declares the philosophy behind its model is “Don’t be evil”. The point is, that this motive is higher than even the desire to sell and if it is to better humankind, such a company can endure for generations.
"So clearly if you want to build an enduring company which not only support your lifestyle and those of your progeny, makes you heaps of money and does good, you have to be motivated by goals outside yourself or beyond your basic needs...
And once you transcend ego you will find the endurance to go past all the speed bumps that life throws in your way – unsupportive friends and family, no cash, trying economic environments to name a few.
Why ego is not useful is because, ego is what fears embarrassment – which will inevitably come in pursuing great endeavor; ego is what allows you to be distracted by the mice along the hunting trail when you going after an elephant and ego is what determines that there is no need to achieve more because where you are at is “enough”.
One of the major lessons of “Built to last” is that the most enduring businesses see themselves as offering a useful service to society. And for them growth, beyond being a survival strategy, means offering their service to more and more people.
So “Ego: The place where potential goes to die” adds up and explains why many of us cannot get our businesses to exist beyond the first generation of owners.
Anyone who has built a business or any enterprise of substance can probably relate to Thembekwayo’s admonishment.
"When you do it for you, you can only go so far, when you do it for family a bit further. Few of us have built businesses for eventual sale but those who have had can attest to how hard is to not only get the business up and running but also formalise it to the point where you can extract maximum value from a sale...
And finally to build a business which is true to a philosophy is even more testing and leaves no place for ego but promises that if you are true to the process the rewards can be beyond ones wildest dreams.
Food for thought!