The future is missing! How we spent 14 days creating it in 2009
by Chris Freund, Partner, Mekong Capital
28 October 2020
It was the middle of 2009. I had initiated Mekong’s transformation 1 1/2 years earlier. While there had been some progress and our performance was starting to improve in 2009, our team was wrestling with fully applying what we were getting from our coaching program. There was a group of around 7 people, including 4 senior employees and 3 junior employees, who were taking a stand for the transformation and were attempting to be the core values. The vast majority of the team were going along with it, not resisting but also not providing any leadership.
After 1 1/2 years of struggling, it was clear that something was still missing. Until then, I had assumed that what’s possible for the future of Mekong was really obvious, we just needed to implement everything that we were getting from our engagement with our coaches¹, and we would be very successful. I kept thinking the future of our organization was so obvious, other team members would just open their eyes and see it. But our team still didn’t really have clarity about why we needed to transform, or where we were headed. Why were we making all of this effort, spending so much time and money on this, and causing so much disruption?
I recall a big event we hosted at the Caravelle Hotel in which we invited around 200 of our business partners to share about our transformation. One person from IFC stood up and asked why are we spending so much time and money on our transformation? I struggled to answer her question, and I failed to articulate it clearly in terms of what we are committed to achieving in our future. (IFC wasn’t yet our investor at that time, but they did become an investor in our subsequent funds.)
And there was a risk that all of the transformation work we were doing wasn’t really sticking. It was like our team had to be chased to apply what we were getting from our coaches, rather than the team pulling for it from a commitment that they have to achieve an outcome in the future.
My coach and mentor, Jerome Downes, saw this. One day in mid-2009, he asserted to me that the future is missing. Jerome proposed that Mekong create a new future that our team would co-create and commit themselves to. He would personally be the lead facilitator until our vision is complete. It had never even occurred to me that our team was unclear about the future of our company, but I was open to explore what Jerome was proposing.
So Jerome and his colleagues, Ramesh and Poorani, facilitated a series of 2–3 day sessions around once per month, which ultimately spanned 14 days over a 6 month period.
It started with our whole team getting together to communicate everything that was in the way between us, and get that completed and let go of it until there was an empty space to create something new rather than trying to fix the past.
Next, we brainstormed on what the predictable future of Mekong Capital looked like if we were to just give up on creating a new vision and transforming who we were being. It looked pretty bad, and we agreed it wasn’t what we wanted. The predictable future was that we would continue to have mediocre performance, high turnover in our team, and perhaps never successfully raise another fund. The predictable future wasn’t pretty.
Then the core team of around 4 most senior members in our team identified what spaces we wanted to address with our vision, like what kinds of stakeholders that have intentions or concerns that would be fulfilled by our vision. This started with brainstorming and then an alignment process until we aligned around 5 spaces to address in the vision:
What we are committed to achieving in Private Equity?
What we are committed to for our investee companies?
What we are committed to for our team members?
What we are committed to mastering that will lead to the other intentions being fulfilled?
What we are committed to beyond ourselves?
Then we identified what would be the criteria for the vision, in other words, how would we know when the process of creating the vision is complete. The criteria that we came up with included the following:
ENROLLING — People are moved, touched, and inspired by the vision from which people are pulled into actions
COHESIVE — Components of the vision fits together in a way that evokes the whole story
SIMPLE — Getting down to the core of the message. Easy to remember and communicate
CONCRETE — Particular, easy to visualize and understand
MEASURABLE — At least some key parts of the vision can potentially be measurable
COMMITTED — The vision is very closely aligned with what each individual is authentically committed to (fulfilling the vision does not seem like work)
BOLD — The vision must catch people’s attention, like a bear jumping out of a cave and surprising you
Next, was the alignment process. Each of the core team created their individual proposed visions for the future of Mekong that would meet these criteria. Then we met and conducted a series of alignment conversations, with the following steps:
One person (the “Proposer”) would go to the front of the room and present their vision, with an intention to enroll others into that vision.
Among the people not enrolled, one of them (a “Challenger”) would go to the front of the room and restate the Proposer’s vision.
After the Proposer confirmed that the Challenger restated the Proposer’s vision, the Challenger would state how the proposed vision does or doesn’t meet the criteria. They would have a conversation until either: a) the Challenger was aligned and enrolled in the Proposer’s vision; b) they had together made some changes to the original proposal and both were now aligned and enrolled in the modified version of the vision; or c) the Challenger had enrolled the Proposer in the Challenger’s proposed vision.
Whoever’s vision had been aligned in step 3 would be the Proposer for the next round, and back to step 1 until everyone was aligned.
At first, we found it very difficult to listen to each other, and even harder to let go of whatever points we wanted to make. We each struggled through listening for the intention, creating a vivid picture of what someone else was sharing, and letting go of points of view. This took a lot of mental effort, but by patiently practicing these with Jerome’s coaching, we each got to see a clear picture of what the future looked like for each other, which opened up lots of new possibilities while gradually aligning our perspectives.
After a few days of alignment, the core team thought we had aligned on the preliminary vision. The plan was to consider it for a month and meet again. However, during that month several of us realized the vision wasn’t what we were really committed to, so we conducted another session with the core team to propose new visions and align with each other. By the end of that session, we were excited about what we had created and we were ready to introduce it to the next layer of the investment team to get them to be aligned.
After 1 month we met again and introduced it to the bigger group, and to our surprise, they weren’t aligned. So once again we engaged in an alignment process to talk through and listen to everyone’s ideas until we were all aligned and enrolled in a single vision. This was around November 2009. Around this time, Jerome informed me that he needed to have surgery on his heart valve but he had delayed it a bit so that he could attend the final session of our vision creation in December.
In December, the whole company assembled for the final session, and it was facilitated by Jerome but by that time it was very clear that the situation with his heart was impacting his energy levels, and Jerome mainly facilitated from the back of the room while sitting down in a chair. He had delayed his heart surgery to fulfill his commitment to leaving Mekong with a new future, but I could really see the impact of his health situation.
When the senior and middle layer presented the proposed vision to the whole company, once again the whole team was not aligned. The people who were new to the conversation started making counter proposals and we undertook another alignment process. By the end of that last session, we successfully created Mekong’s first vision, the new future that we would live into. It felt like the clouds parting and the sun shining through brilliantly after years of clouds and rain. The alignment process had been so comprehensive and so intense, so many possible aspects of the company’s future had been discussed in vivid detail that we all had a very clear picture of what the future looked like and what we were committing ourselves to. It was crystal clear. We were enrolled in it. This is the future we created in December 2009:
⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Mekong Capital 2015
⠀⠀Most consistently-high investment returns in Asia ⠀⠀Transforming leadership and corporate culture ⠀⠀An elite team: everyone committed, together unstoppable ⠀⠀Partnering with companies: creating futures, achieving targets ⠀⠀Making a big difference in Vietnam and beyond
⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀This is Mekong Capital
⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ This is our Stand
The final step was to declare the vision and give our word to it, committing to it with integrity. After it was aligned, we read through it out loud many times. We gave our word to the vision as the future we would create together. Finally, we declared the vision creation process was complete.
This was a future that we would not predictably achieve at the time, it would require major breakthroughs for its realization. We created it in vivid detail and lived into it. Our team started working together towards common objectives. Team members were taking a stand for that vision, stepping up and providing leadership towards its fulfillment. By 2015 we successfully achieved major breakthroughs in all of the spaces addressed by the vision and achieved our measurable targets for most but not all aspects of the vision. However, even in those areas where we didn’t yet achieve our committed outcome, we stayed in the game and continued to deliver huge performance improvements in subsequent years, especially with respect to our investment track record.
Jerome fulfilled his commitment to guide us to create a new future, planting the seeds for Mekong Capital to transform who a Private Equity firm can be, and how value can be consistently created in Private Equity. Sadly Jerome died shortly after his heart surgery in December 2009. I was not ready for this and felt such a huge loss and sadness. He had left the world when he still had so much remaining to contribute. To this day, I am very committed to honor the memory of who Jerome was being for me, for Mekong Capital, and for transformation in Asia. His commitment, is always alive in me, that we create a bold and impactful future, breathe life into that future, be the leadership to fulfill upon that future, and inspire transformation in all of the people and organizations that we touch.
¹ Our coaches were part of a consulting affiliate of Landmark Education in Asia, which was at the time led by Jerome Downes, the person who first brought the Landmark Forum to Asia. We had engaged them to facilitate our transformation process, which in the second year of the engagement included facilitating our creation of a bold, powerful vision for the future of Mekong Capital.
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Mekong Capital makes investments in consumer-driven businesses and adds substantial value to those companies based on its proven framework called Vision Driven Investing. Our investee companies are typically among the fastest-growing companies in Vietnam’s consumer sector. For more information on Mekong Capital, please visit www.mekongcapital.com.