2016 / 18 September

The human cost of doing business

The last few weeks have been a real struggle. But within that struggle I have learned three very important lessons:

  • Trust takes months to build and seconds to destroy
  • Authenticity is an undervalued commodity
  • Your team is your biggest asset

All three are well known platitudes, but as with most platitudes, they are usually true. These lessons have all been learned the hard way, due to a surprising and unexpected change in the mindset of one of our investors, who seemingly not only chose to pull their funding despite agreements being in place, but also did not offer any insight into why. However, I am not one to sit idly by, so have spent the time trying to understand what has happened, what I can learn and what to do about it. For better or for worse, I have learned the following.


Trust takes months to build and second to destroy

An observation I have of the Australian investment landscape is that it’s slower and more risk averse than other countries. This was definitely confirmed during my time in Geneva. A simple analogy would be that our approach is much more like traditional dating. While America and other countries have a kind of Tinder like approach — swipe right for 6% — our landscape is based on building rapport and trust over time.

And just like a relationship, trust goes both ways. Investors need to trust that your team is right, that your product is sound and that your market strategy is well researched. They have to trust that your projections are grounded and their chances of success are reasonable. Conversely, it’s important for the team to trust the investor and that they are looking for more than just quick dollars. Yes, business is business and dollars matter, but so too does the health and strength of the team. An exit strategy can only be fulfilled with the right people and the motivation to succeed, so a true trust based investment should go both ways.

I am a firm believer in trust. It is difficult for me to learn to trust someone, but when I do, I am on their side completely. So when that trust is shattered, it’s confronting and challenging to one’s own perception of their ability to identify trustworthy people and opportunities. This may seem naïve within the context of business, but I am driven by the belief that the world is changing and that emotional intelligence will result in success. At the core of that is trust. That is who I am, how I work and how I want to be known. Some may like it, others not, but I want to hold onto that core notion, which leads me to the second lesson.


Authenticity is an undervalued commodity

While it’s definitely a hit to the team and to our progress that a reasonable investment has fallen through, that is very much the nature of the beast and something we have to roll with. It’s disappointing, but not the most disappointing aspect.

What I’ve found over time is that there are a number of great business leaders, but not all of them are great human leaders. That is, their ability to deal with numbers, growth, profit etc is all sound, but they are not reasonably equipped to deal with their staff and their wellbeing. Conversely, others are fantastic at understanding what motivates and enhances a team, but don’t see the dollar sign as the driving factor. Very, very few manage to balance both.

Those who do are quickly highlighted within in the industry. They are the mentors, the exceptions to the rule and, for anyone as curious as myself, the ones I want to learn from. What has really knocked me around these last few weeks is that I was lead down a path by someone who I viewed as one of those such people. That they were able to balance both the business and the human capital. But for reasons outside of my control, and probably that I will never know, it seems that this persona has been a total façade.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated event and not the first time I have worked with or at least observed a person of power projecting one persona and acting in a completely different manner. Something about this discrepancy calls into question just how authentic these people are. What I will never know is whether this is a conscious or subconscious act — a true choice to deceive people and create a presence that is based on a lie, or a total disconnect between perception and reality.

Whatever the reasons, the ramifications of aligning with the inauthentic are far reaching. I pride myself on being open and honest with my team and the last few weeks have forced me to hold on that action. I made some poor business choices, but tried to make the best human choices.

I had to understand all the moving parts, the people and the motivations involved which meant I was unable to tell the full story to those that I trust most. And that calls into question my own authenticity. That fact alone has caused me more distress than I’ve felt in some time, but it’s the role I needed to play and thankfully when I was able to share the what and why, my team stood up and responded in the best way they could. Which is the final and most important lesson.


Your team is your biggest asset

I play many roles. Some are important, others maybe less so. But I am a member of a team and it is the strength of that team that has lead us to this point. Anyone who cannot see the value of their team is a blind person.

While I understand that some industries thrive on dollars and cents, I do not exist in that realm or mindset. Business is largely driven by profit, but profit should be as a result of purpose, not the other way around. And even the word ‘profit’ alludes to monetary outcomes, however I see profit in multiple ways. I understand that some are motivated by their income, but I try to wake up every day and add value to the world around me.

When I surround myself with people who approach life in the same way, I feel like I profit from the experience. It makes me love what I do, despite all the stress and heartbreak. I profit by learning, sharing, laughing and ultimately doing things I never would have dreamed of by myself.

So I think it’s important to recognise that behind every business decision is a person, or a number of people. I am not deluded enough to believe that the cost of doing business will ever not have a human element to it and that there will never exist a time where trade offs are not needed.

Perhaps it will be possible to move towards a model where human cost and impact is considered a metric as important as each line item. It is a huge challenge and one that will continue to be hampered by the same problems I’ve recently faced. But hopefully by identifying those with power who are inauthentic, or destined to break the trust of those around them, we can slowly start to shift towards a mutually beneficial model. At the very least, I think it’s worth trying, even if I do have to pay the price again.

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