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The Agility of Ownership – Lessons from South African Entrepreneurs

This is the 3rd and final installment in my series on customer experience lessons I gained from a recent trip to Africa. The first two blogs involved insights from the African Bush and from the informal townships.

As you may know, I work predominantly as a consultant to senior leaders in Fortune 500 companies but occasionally choose to participate in public or private events for entrepreneurs and small business owners. As a small business owner myself, I realize the importance of accessing thought leaders who can help me with my business and to the degree that I might have something to offer entrepreneurs I occasionally provide training and coaching on branded customer experience delivery. Such was the case in South Africa and soon I will returning to some of my favorite places like Singapore and Sydney, Australia, to deliver similar programs. Every time I am provided the privilege of working with entrepreneurs and small business owners, I experience the remarkableness of the human spirit.

William Shakespeare is credited with being the first to say, “Your greatest strength begets your greatest weakness.” As much as I love working with large organizations – their greatest strength (ample resources to affect change on a grand scale) often begets their greatest weakness (silos and a lack of change urgency). Speed to change, however, is certainly a strength of entrepreneurs which can, unfortunately, beget weaknesses in thoughtful strategic planning.

For me, entrepreneurs (like those who entrusted me in South Africa) remind me of key elements needed to succeed irrespective of business size. Here are a few desirable qualities demonstrated by my friends in South Africa:

1. Do an Authentic Self-Assessment: Great leaders start by “leading themselves.” They realistically assess their gifts and liabilities to craft customer solutions based on their aptitudes.

2. Trust that Your Unique Gifts Will Deliver Value: Whether you lead a start-up or high-equity legacy brand, you have to be willing to “bet” on your ability and the ability of your team.

I‘ve had the good fortune to work with Arlene Dickinson (venture capitalist and acclaimed co-star of Canada’s “Dragons’ Den”  – a show akin to “Shark Tank” in the U.S.). In her book titled All In, Arlene suggests entrepreneurs trust a calling to create:

“Entrepreneurs are not unlike singers, artists, or other creative types in one important respect: we view what we do as a calling. Our work is far more than a job. It’s a passion, a way of life that both defines and expresses who we are.”

According to Arlene, that passion for and trust in one’s creativity enables leaders to step forward in pursuit of customer and team member solutions.

3. Humble Yourself to Learn: When the CEO of Mercedes-Benz USA reached out to me for the first time, he asked if I could arrange and facilitate a panel with customer experience leaders at other brands about whom I‘d written (e.g., The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company and Zappos). Similarly, growth-oriented entrepreneurs take time out of their busy work lives (as an endorser of my recent book Michael Gerber famously stated) “to work ‘on’ instead of ‘in’ their businesses.”

4. Practice Agile Design: Entrepreneurship has a natural affinity to agile design. Great entrepreneurs routinely demonstrate this series of actions:

  • Listening
  • Ideating
  • Trying
  • Doing
  • Listening More

The swiftness and agility of entrepreneurs is reflected in this social media post from Victor – the founder of Mr. Artisan On Call and an attendee in South Africa:

If you are working to maximize authentic self-assessment, leverage your unique gifts to create customer value, and/or humbly learn and practice agile design, let’s set aside some time to talk. I can be reached here.

Until then – thank you, Africa, and thank you, entrepreneurs, for your inspiring creative passion!

Smoke over black background

Joseph A. Michelli, Ph.D. is a professional speaker and chief experience officer at The Michelli Experience. A New York Times #1 bestselling author, Dr. Michelli and his team consult with some of the world’s best customer experience companies.

Follow on Twitter: @josephmichelli

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