July 30, 2012

“Looking for the Gift”

Thanh made this photo for me for my 39th birthday. She gave me a much greater gift later.

Sometimes it’s the painful moments in leadership that lead to amazing learning.

In 2008 VietnamWorks started a professional networking business similar to LinkedIn.  It was called Caravat.com.  We recruited a dynamic and talented young woman, Thanh, to start and run it.  Thanh was intimidated at first but quickly grew into the role.  She launched a good site and hired a great team.

Thanh proved to be an exceptional leader.  She built a close-knit, tight team.  She loved her people and they loved her back.  They were so dedicated that sometimes they would sleep in the office when launching new features.  Caravat began selling $200+ job posts.  By the end of 2010 Thanh’s team had become modestly profitable.

But there were problems I couldn’t ignore.

Customers were confused by the relationship between VietnamWorks and Caravat during VietnamWorks sales pitches.  That wasted valuable facetime with each customer.  There was also evidence that a good chunk of Caravat revenue was just cannibalized from VietnamWorks.  Lastly, having two different businesses imposed a hefty internal cost in terms of split focus and competing priorities.

As promising as Caravat was, I decided it was time to pull the plug and focus on the core business of VietnamWorks.

I asked Thanh to lunch.  After some small talk I decided to get it over with.

“Thanh, I have some important and unpleasant news for you.”

Her expression showed surprise and concern.  She looked at me expectantly.

I was blunt.  “I’ve decided that it’s time to end Caravat.  The Board approved the decision a few days ago.  You have three months to wind down the business.  Alternatively, we can spin it out to stand on its own but you will receive no support and you will receive only a small minority stake.”

I braced for the anger and tears.  But there was only breathless shock.

Thanh became very quiet, sad and contemplative.  After a few seconds she looked away from me and gazed into space.  I asked if she was ok.

She gave me a wan smile, then said slowly and deliberately “I’m ok.  I’m just looking for the gift here.”

Her calmness, grace and dignity astounded me.

I had just told Thanh I was pushing her baby out the door into the cold.  I was destroying the family she had worked, suffered and experienced joy and pain with for the past three years.  And yet she did not dwell on hurt and anger.  Instead, she focused on how this painful event might yield positive growth.

The image of Thanh’s sad, contemplative expression and grace is tatooed on my brain forever.  I learned so much from her that day.

Thanh taught me that even in the face of crushing disappointment there is always a lesson to be learned and a new opportunity to be had.  She taught me to embrace the change and lean forward.

Thanh decided against pouring her heart into a struggle to survive when she had only a tiny minority stake in the business.  She decided to set out on her own and become a true entrepreneur.

Eighteen months later she has her own professional networking and events company, Anphabe.com.  Many of her team members followed her — a true testament to her outstanding leadership.  She’s happier than ever, and views the closure of Caravat as a necessary step in her journey to a successful new venture where she runs the show.  We’re still fast friends.

Look for the gift.

[P.S. – check out my interview with Thanh where she explains her philosophy that “Leadership is About Love.”]

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