The Eagle Blog

Business Wisdom from Arkadi Kuhlmann

photo_arkadiArkadi 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 desertLike 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

Kevin Dee is CEO of Eagle (a Professional Staffing Company)
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2 thoughts on “Business Wisdom from Arkadi Kuhlmann

  1. I inherently disagree with the concept that you need to have an enemy to ensure excellence. The need to paint some as good guys and bad guys goes back to sport and war imagery which is inherently why some corporations falter and it is due to the belief that you can’t “win” without an opponent. Sorry, but it is a very “macho” approach to business which I believe is outdated. It may work for a while, but is not sustainable. I have worked in those environments and quite honestly, there is nothing inspirational about them and it didn’t improve the morale or create a positive culture, and it also didn’t enhance the top or bottom-line.

  2. I find it interesting to hear the different approaches that people take. It is fair to say that Arkadi has had some success with his approach, having built some pretty large companies. It probably only works when you adopt the role of “underdog” against the “established big company”. In his case he was trying to compete with large established banks, bringing a disruptive approach to that world. He found it an effective way to rally his team but I can also understand why it might not work for everyone, or even for every company. Not an approach we have ever taken, but I have never built a Billion dollar company either 🙂

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