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Business Wisdom from Arkadi Kuhlmann


Arkadi Kuhlmann was a guest speaker at the Inc Rider’s Summit, a conference I attended last week.  This will likely be my last blog entry related to that conference, but I think the number of posts is indicative of the value that came from it!  As mentioned several times, it was a unique event bringing together a group of CEOs who not only run companies but also have a shared passion for riding motorbikes.  The organisers ensured that the guest speakers were also “bikers”, which just added to the fun!

So, in addition to three great rides out into the Nevada Desert, we shared business experiences, forged new friendships, energized each other and  learned from business leaders like John Paul Dejoria and Arkadi Kuhlmann.

Arkadi is the founder of ING Direct in both Canada and the US, has written numerous books and is currently forming his fifth bank … Zenbanx.  Here are a few highlights from Arkadi’s thoughts on business …

Entrepreneurs get things done, so it is important that they spend their time as effectively as possible.  Arkadi recommends using the question “Why” as a guide.  Why is this business relevant?  Why will people buy from me?  Why will investors invest?  Why will people work here?  Why am I doing <this>?

Inc Riders Summit ride in the desert

Like most business leaders Arkadi understands the importance of having the right people on the team.  They need to be able to fit the company culture, to be aligned with the company values and willing to stay “on mission”.  “Performance without being on mission is useless”.  By this he means that working hard is not enough … people need to work smart, focused on their role in the company.  He also believes that attitude is more important than experience … skills can be learned, it is tough to change poor behaviours.  He also suggests that when interviewing senior people it is important to understand their failures, even more than their successes … this allows you to understand them better, and what they might have learned through failure.

Arkadi talked about every business having three ACTS, like a play.  The opening ACT is that start-up phase, the middle ACT is when the company is operating and growing while the third and final ACT is some kind of EXIT, either for the company (an acquisition) or the founder (who passes control t someone else who can continue with ACT two).  It is important to work on all three ACTs because many business leaders don’t recognize when they are leaving ACT two … which can be problematic.  He says that in previous businesses he ran there were consistently two questions/statements he was asked after all was said and done.  (i) Why did you never get rid of <name>? ; and (ii)  The last <x years/months> were awful!  He suggests that each were a product of not being aware ACT three was upon them!

One of Arkadi’s books, which is now on my must read list, is Rock then Roll: The Secrets of Culture-Driven Leadership.  It was little surprise that culture was one of the topics he spent some time talking about.  He likes to run businesses that are disruptive of established enterprises and has made a career of taking on the “big guys” … notably the established banks.  One of his strategies is to paint his large competitors as “the bad guys” and to rally his team as the good guys. He will often use “mythology” as a rallying force, for example a Star Wars analogy would have the “enemy” as the “Death Star” and “Darth Vader”.  Of course the good guys will be “Luke Skywalker” etc.  Being one of the “good guys” appeals to people.