Becoming a B-Corp

Here’s a story about selling my previous business, M5 Networks.

Anyone that worked at M5 could see how living by a mission and values motivated us. The mission was not even particularly glamorous or unique, just simply getting customers to love us one by one. Measuring that gave us all real satisfaction. But there was always an undercurrent: Isn’t our real mission making money for shareholders?

By 2011 the market  we’d pioneered, cloud phones, was heating up. The team and I knew that we needed to go bigger or go home. In the course of putting together financing for our big growth plan, ShoreTel’s CEO asked me to lunch. This evolved into a buyout offer. We faced two options: take some more investment and play more hands at the table, or move on and cash out our chips.

I was surrounded by VPs and VCs. The VPs were relatively new, and were tempted by a quick payback. The VC’s had a 6-year itch and rationally were motivated to return capital. Their structure, our structure, meant I was surrounded by people who were tempted to sell. Once we started to explore the SHOR offer, I was surrounded by bankers and lawyers. Their incentive was to sell. I tell this story to any entrepreneur considering their exit. Before things go too far, go for a long lonely walk and make up your own mind. Once a deal is rolling, a lot of people around will be pushing for it. As we at Circles know, peer pressure is a thing.

After the successful sale, there was a certain sadness. A lot people felt that M5 had more good work to do. Some of our customers and staff felt that we’d let down our mission in the name of a juicy buyout offer. I’ve now had a chance to reflect on that tension.

I believe that business is the best structure for propagating a change in the world, and for-profit is the most likely structure to produce fast growth. So I’ve been looking for a way to set the right balance for Circles, the company (formally incorporated now as Circles Learning Labs, Inc.) I want employees, investors, customers all to be aligned around a better balance of growth, profit, and mission. I want us to be able to make balanced choices between applications that are lucrative – like corporate leaders – and ones that may be lower price like helping my friend Aditya create circles for the 5,000 school principals he works with in the toughest parts of India.

I get that one part of that is maintaining control, and leading with strength. Warren Buffet only reports once a year and does it his way because he’s an amazing leader. Some family businesses have this figured out and are the most long-term thinkers around. Kudos to Circles advisor Jeff Snipes who has helped a community of “enduring” companies with a long-term view called Tugboat Institute. I think I’m a clearer leader now, and I do have enough control to make these choices.

Another part is structural: things like compensation and options, the deal we cut with investors, or the way we measure our success. I’ll write more on those things as they crystalize for us.

Ultimately, though, I do believe in the power of peers. I want to be surrounded by people motivated by business as an instrument for social good. I want that kind of peer pressure. The Henry Crown fellowship has certainly been a positive force for me in that regard. Circles is my fellowship project.

Another famous HCF project was the B Corporation. Three fellows set out to create a corporate structure that made shareholders responsible for both share value and mission. Almost a decade later, they’ve created the Benefit Corporation structure in almost every state. There are about 2,000 B Corporations worldwide. They’ve added a stringent certification process layered on top of the legal requirement. And they’ve built a vibrant community so these entrepreneurs can help each other. Famous B corps now include Warby Parker, Patagonia, Ben & Jerry’s, Honest Tea, Kickstarter, and the list goes on.

So we’re going to be a B. But we are going to go one step farther. Since we’re a new company, we’ll elect to become a benefit corp, B Lab’s requirement to ensure considerations of stakeholder interests in our governance, which will allow us to be a Pending B Corp. After a year of performance above the bar for certification, we will try to meet the high standards to become a Certified B Corporation. Plus, the Circles team is excited about having an impact in helping this community, our new community. So we’re prioritizing launching circles for B corp leaders. We’ve just started calling around to make friends in our new community and gauging interest in B Corp Leadership Circles. It makes sense to us to help these leaders, help each other, help the world.

If you are a B Corp leader and this sounds like something you want to be a part of, you can

Is Your Team Having Conversations, or Sitting Through Presentations?

people at a team meeting They may not have the wow factor of Guy Kawasaki evangelizing the heck out of Apple products on stage, but why should we be having conversations instead of giving presentations?

The Presentation Problem

We’ve all sat through dozens, if not hundreds, of presentations. That’s all well and good, but are we really getting the most out of a team if one person -the presenter- is treated like the fountain of all knowledge?

It’s easier to rally around one person’s ideas, so business leaders have traditionally been put on a pedestal. Brilliant public speakers too. Think a Guy Kawasaki, or Tony Robbins. The focus is on being magnetic, having a stage presence and, more often than not, selling a product or persona.

There is, of course, a time and a place for this, but if we want to learn from the work, and life, experience of others, there are better methods that have been proven to be more effective.

If we’re emulating people trying to have huge reach and mass appeal, like the Kawasaki’s and Robbins’ of the world, when our objective is communicating in a meeting with a small group, we may be missing the mark.

Focus On The Message

Of course it’s understandable that we want to show our best selves when we give a presentation. However, chasing that wow factor in our presentations can actually have the opposite effect, completely derailing their effectiveness and leaving us back at square one.

John Coleman, writing for HBR, has revealed the side effects of having “that tendency [in presentations] to want to save key findings for the last moment and then reveal them, expecting a satisfying moment of awe”. This is something he characterized as “the great unveil”. Withholding information to increase that wow factor, Coleman says, would actually lead to “one sided expositions” and “anemic conversations.”

Worst of all though, as Coleman puts it, they would “miss problems, or solutions that had already been tried and failed”, and if someone pointed these out to the presenters “in the middle of [the] presentation, [they’d] end up distracted and confused.” By focusing too much on giving a killer presentation they completely failed to get gain any value from the input of others. Their message inevitably fell on deaf ears.

But how do we make the message our main focus?

A “punchline first” form of communication, as Coleman calls it, can take us far. That means starting the presentation with an executive summary of key conclusions. Your counterparts can study them and keep them in mind throughout the presentation meaning everyone’s efforts will be aimed at testing these conclusions and finding solutions. No energy will be spent on taking up new ideas. Additionally, you’ll be opening the floor and making the most of group intelligence, which is, unsurprisingly, much more reliable than putting all of the burden on the presenter.

Have A Structured Conversation

“Inevitably, when I engage well with an audience, it feels much more like a two-way conversation. When I fail to engage, I realize I’ve fallen back into the presentation trap.”

George Bradt nailed it on the head in his Forbes article. There’s a way we can really drive home this idea of conversations over presentations and it doesn’t mean throwing your q cards out the window. Having a purposefully structured conversation can get everyone engaged on the topic and create an environment that is inclusive and collaborative.

You can do this in a number of ways. Firstly, disperse responsibility for key parts of the presentation. A good way to start is by assigning roles such as timekeeper and note taker, and most importantly, having a facilitator to run things. Doing this will start proceedings on the right foot and lead to an inclusive discussion instead of a static presentation.

We can also take Coleman’s “punchline first” approach even further by having required reading before meetings. Once again this will get everyone involved,

If we really want to get to the route of an issue, we also have to get rid of the notion that we somehow “own” the solution.

John Coleman’s team discovered this through trial and error:

“When we created a perfect solution in isolation and made it “ours” to present, we ignored the fact that each individual needed to arrive at the conclusions independently to really understand it, to believe in it, and to be willing to work hard to execute it.”

Conversations allow us to feel invested in each other’s stories instead of feeling like we’re being talked at or spoon-fed advice. Our meetings, and workshops, at Circles encourage conversation over presentation and storytelling over advice giving.

This reverses the focus. Kawasaki and Robbins are geniuses at having a mass reach and wide appeal, but depending on our situation, trying to copy that style is likely to have our focus in the wrong place. While they reach a huge amount of people, turning those presentations into conversations will let you be reached by a huge amount of people.

Seeking those different perspectives opens you up to a constant source of learning opportunities.

In a world of physical distance, circles facilitate authentic human connection.

In a circle, 3-12 participants contribute equally, share openly, and push each other to act.

We spent years with academics and practitioners, honing best practices and building a technology platform. Our circles have helped scale peer learning, sustain manager and leadership development, move live training online, onboard new employees, support career development, teach collaboration, and build community.

We’ve been grateful for the support and the referrals from our large corporate partners, schools, and communities who have been hiring us to help design, facilitate and manage Circles programs.

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