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Making silence golden

Ernesto Sirolli makes a good living coaching entrepreneurs. And whenever he meets a business leader for the first time, he says that leadership starts with four words: “Shut up and listen.” Here’s why.

Italian consultant Ernesto Sirolli, whose TED talk on this theme has more than two million views, is not being arrogant when he tells business leaders to “shut up and listen”. He is re?ecting on his own experience. In the 1970s, his idealism ?red up by a political science degree from the University of Rome, he went to work in impoverished communities in Africa. “Everything we touched, we killed,” he told the TED audience. “Every single project failed.”

His account of one particular disaster explains why. In Zambia, he and his colleagues could not understand why one particularly fertile valley was not being cultivated. The locals lived there but refused to plant anything - and kept refusing despite various incentives - so the Italians planted tomato vines themselves. When the huge tomatoes grew Sirolli and his fellow workers felt vindicated. The next day they returned to the valley and every plant had gone, gorged on by rampaging hippos. The locals said: “That’s why we never plant in that valley.” The Italians asked: “Why didn’t you tell us?” The locals replied: “Because you never asked.”

The lesson Sirolli drew from all this – the ?rst of many in his globetrotting career as a management coach – was that even good, intelligent people can fail badly if they don’t start by asking the right questions, shutting up and listening. That is the ?rst lesson for leaders Sirolli has to offer. Here are a few more.

1 Don’t fall for fashionable myths about leadership
The business press likes to write stories about celebrity entrepreneurs as go-it-alone individualists because it makes good copy. Yet, as Sirolli points out, these hagiographic hero stories about “geniuses who do it all on their own” aren’t that accurate. Steve Jobs didn’t do it on his own – he worked with Steve Wozniak, and Bill Gates went into business with Paul Allen. Sirolli says: “It takes three people to make a business, those who know product, marketing and financial management. This is the trinity of business.”

2 Money isn’t everything
If you haven’t got that trinity right, finance isn’t going to solve your problems. Marketing is traditionally not something large-format print companies have excelled at – though they’re getting much better - and that means, Sirolli argues, you risk spending a lot of money making products you can’t sell. Having more money may just exacerbate this risk and help you fail faster.

3 “Become what thou art”
This famous injunction by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche is sound advice for the entrepreneur if properly understood. It is not a rationale for bosses to indulge themselves, ignore colleagues who disagree with them and let their ego swell until they see themselves as infallible. For Sirolli, Nietzsche’s point is that self-actualisation – the drive to realise one’s potential – is one of the most powerful drivers of human behaviour.

Smart leaders recognise this and help people do what they want to do. This approach has two virtues: it motivates employees and encourages them to generate their own ideas. Managing a company today is such a complex, time-consuming business that, even if you have Sirolli’s trinity right, leaders cannot be everywhere all the time having input into every decision. They need to find good people and create an environment where they have the confidence to make the right decisions. One damaging aspect of the go-it-alone individualist myth is that it has created what Steve Jobs might call a “reality distortion field” where the complexity of Apple’s success is simplified into a parable in which a messianic leader has great ideas while his disciples stand around in awe. That isn’t how Apple really worked and it’s not how any successful businesses work. Ideas have to flow up from the bottom as well as down from the top.

4 Get help
Sirolli believes that every entrepreneur needs a coach. This will be anathema to a certain kind of gung ho, old school managing director who wants everything done now. Yet Sirolli may have a point. Pioneering research by US psychologist Carl Rogers found that therapists could help patients heal just by “being there”. In Rogers’ view, a counsellor’s job was to honour the patient’s innate wish to grow. This is the approach Sirolli applies as a coach. The client decides if they want to meet, whether and when they act on what is being discussed and what they want to discuss. The coach just listens and, to emphasise this is a collaboration, doesn’t take notes but gets the client to draw or write something they can mull over together. The coach’s role is to help diagnose what an entrepreneur needs and how they might find the right resources. They don’t monitor how an entrepreneur is doing or measure progress against a timeline. Yet by just “being there” – and offering informed, disinterested advice when asked – they can make a difference.

5 Know your limitations
Many business schools teach entrepreneurs that they need to develop all the skills – product, marketing and financial management. By doing this, Sirolli believes, “they often set up their students to fail”. Product people, he argues, cannot effectively double up as marketeers. “Product people believe they can sell because they can blow the customer away with their passion. An occasional blown-away customer does not make a business.” So decide which role in Sirolli’s “trinity of business” suits you and fill the other two roles with the best people you can get.

6 Seek external expertise
Some Australian sheep farmers asked Sirolli to help them get a better price for their sheep and stop soil erosion. He hired two young agronomists to analyse the value chain and they devised a cost effective way of making use of the sheep skins. He also arranged a meeting with a local environmentalist – hitherto regarded with suspicion by the farmers – who showed them how they could make commercial use of scrub on their land and helped them with re-vegetation. Soon the farmers had expanded their business and stopped the soil eroding. Time and again in Sirolli’s career, apparently intractable problems have been solved with the help of an external study or expertise.

7 Get people talking
If leaders kick off meetings by articulating their views, they immediately place limits on discussion. In southern Mongolia, Sirolli came across the non-governmental organisation equivalent of the great idea – ie ill-informed diktat - from head office. The NGOs were trying to help the community near an enormous copper mine but their idea, setting up chicken farms, was entirely alien to the Gobi culture and didn’t work. What the locals did have was camels and after getting them to talk, they developed a way of turning the camels’ wool, which had previously been thrown away, into a luxury fabric.

8 Inspire – it’s worth it
Sirolli’s mission statement, if he has such a thing, is that: “The future of every community lies in capturing the passion, energy and imagination of its own people.” That applies to companies too.

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