INDEPENDENT SOCIAL PERFORMANCE / BLOG

[S01P02] Independent Social Performance’s Five Rules of Business Operations

Series 01: Independent Social Performance – Our 5 Year Review (PART 2)

Post 02: Independent Social Performance’s Five Rules of Business Operations

Access Independent SP – Our 5 Year Review Blog Series Here

When I started Independent Social Performance I didn’t feel like I was jumping into the Freedom Fastlane. Nor did I experience the elation of Escaping the Cubicle or the satisfaction of Be[coming] My Own Boss only having to work a 4 Hour Work Week. Nope. The overwhelming feeling that I felt – the feeling that was driving me to put in 10+ hour work days before Independent SP had anything remotely close to a client – was best described as fear.

When I incorporated Independent SP, my family had just relocated back to the Netherlands from Canada.  The dual goals of this relocation were to enable my wife to take an opportunity which we hoped would kickstart her career in Academia, and for me to start Independent SP. The month I incorporated Independent SP, our daughter turned 8 months old. Don’t get me wrong, I near-overwhelmingly grasped by the irony of having our child and then promptly turning our backs on all things providing security in our lives – namely leaving our jobs and our home country. We had been relatively responsible with money when I had worked at the companies and as a result we did have a sound safety net for the transition, but the new reality of no monthly paycheck, no comprehensive expat benefit package, and my wife newly assigned the responsibility of becoming the primary earner of the family for the foreseeable future (with only a year-by-year contract to start with) was a level of exposure that I had forgotten the feeling of. Yes, it felt raw and honest and unencumbered by any sense of my being beholden to an employer (is that what freedom is?) but more than anything I was terrified that I had made a bad decision which my family would be paying the price for.

But, I can’t claim that Independent SP was exactly the first time I started a consulting company. Between working for the First Nations Indigenous community in the Alberta Oil Sands and working for Shell, I had moved to Calgary to start a Masters in Environmental Design. I made it through the first semester before I was approached by a gentleman named Ed who was co-owner of a mid-sized consultancy that provided cultural heritage resource management and community consultation services to Oil, Gas and Mining companies across western and northern Canada.  These companies were looking to fulfil the provincial and national regulatory requirements  with regards to cultural heritage, indigenous community consultation, and traditional land use mapping. To this day, I’m still not exactly sure how Ed had heard about me, but over a meeting in Calgary, he made me and offer to set-up a regional office in North-Eastern British Colombia’s Peace River region, based out of Fort St. John.  I accepted on the spot. I moved to Fort St. John that fall. I got a dog. I got a big truck (Ford 350 crew cab with an extended bed). I started working from my living room  in front of the fireplace on the cold days,  and  on the back porch overlooking Charlie Lake on the warm days. The timing proved perfect: The unconventional gas business boomed across the region. Within three months the dog (which turned out to be half coyote) and I moved to a main street office location in downtown Fort St. John. By month six, I had 10 staff hired, by the end of year one we had grossed over a million dollars. But then I was assigned to a project from Calgary HQ. The client was Shell, and well, the last post covered that.

The best field dog ever. // Photo: J. Kuschminder

 

So, one might argue that Independent SP was not really my first ‘start-up’ experience. But, as I was to discover in 2013, setting up a regional office in a corner of northern British Columbia, Canada using other people’s money and resources was not at all the same game as setting up an international consultancy from a corner of our kitchen using our family’s savings.

Independent SP’s first office in the kitchen corner (…and people ask me why I use 2-factor authentication)  // Photo: K. Kuschminder

Prior to incorporating Independent SP, while doing ‘competitor research’, I saw that essentially every consulting company working in my niche had its own unique set of the essentially the same values up on their website.  Everything from how they respect working with communities to how they operate with honesty and integrity, to how innovative they were, to how all this somehow translated into a competitive advantage for their clients. It was all so warm and fuzzy. But the very first value/principle that I had set for Independent SP was that INDEPENDENT SP IS NOT NORMAL…

And so, out of the respect for Independent SP’s first principle of not being normal, I diligently developed Independent SP’s set of values just like every other competitor  (but I *un-normally* called them Guiding Principles 😉 – being ‘not normal’ to me apparently started with baby-steps). To not be further distracting to this blog post, I’ve copied-pasted those Guiding Principles (which I, admittedly, have used in some proposals)  at the end of this post for your curiosity and entertainment. However, after having theses principles  posted on the website for about a week, I found myself starting to think about how do I actually want to build and operate this company? ‘If values are a company’s motivational variables, then what are the deep structures and idiosyncratic attributes – the character of the organisation that is frustratingly resistant to change?’ (- said nobody, ever).   The result of this exercise was Independent SP’s 5 Rules of Operation that until now has not been shared publicly. This is not because they are any sort of secret, but rather more of a function of my not realizing until just recently that people might actually be curious about them and it also might explan better why Independent SP is not so normal:

 

INDEPENDENT SOCIAL PERFORMANCE’S 5 RULES OF OPERATION:

  1. Build the business on new clients (Don’t leave the job you have to do the job you have)
  2. Business is personal (Kind Regards)
  3. Address any personal uncertainties/insecurities before you take on your first/the next client (Deal with your own stuff first)
  4. Leave breadcrumbs (Be ready to grab an opportunity and go with it even if you don’t know where it is going to take you –  but know how to find your way home).
  5. Fail fast (fast is usually not fast enough)

 

  1. Build the business on new clients.

A sustainable consulting business needs to be able to attract clients. This was an early lesson courtesy of Northern British Columbia. As well, during my time in the corporate world, I saw consultants come and go. The weakest model for a consultancy start-up that I witnessed was people using former employers and personal contacts to start their consulting businesses. In Northern BC I didn’t have this option as a new arrival to town and in not having a network-  it meant I had to learn how to pitch. The obvious benefit of the personal network based client list is that a new consultant leaning on known contacts for work can often generate client work fast. Which is great. It provides a sense of credibility and confirmation to the company to get client work fast. But in my opinion, it’s a false indicator of success and often not sustainable over the longer term. I also similarly categorize the trend where several independent consultants join up semi-formally under an umbrella brand to support each other as a quasi-firm to be but an evolved extension of this use of client attraction via a personal network. To me, if a company can’t prove its ability to sell its product to new customers where a prior relationship does not exist  (or in the case of consultancies: provide consulting services to new clients), then it’s a bit of a zombie company with an expiration date.

The other aspect to this for me was more personal. I was looking to build a company which I also wanted to become my new career. In the early days of Independent SP, I often was asked: ‘Have you ever thought about going back to Shell or Barrick and do consulting work for them?’ That was the last thing I wanted to do, not just because of what I’ve just shared above, but because of a perhaps a stubborn saving-face perspective I held: If I went back to consulting for companies that I used to work for, to do work that I would have done had I still be working there, then why did I leave the company to start something new in the first place?

Now, having said that, it was indeed a secret desire of mine for Independent SP to work on a Shell project one day (perhaps an anticipated sense of satisfaction of coming full circle) and I had put that goal in Independent SP’s first 5-year plan. I was proud that this goal, along with another one (to be discussed in a later post) would happen in 2016 but admittedly, not in any way I would have expected.

Over the past five years, I’m proud to say that Independent SP’s client list is built from all new business with companies, organisations, and governments I’ve never previously worked or associated with. It’s perhaps a little strange that I value this as highly as I do but I think it’s because primarily it helps me feel confident that Independent SP can stand on its own – which of course means that I can stand on my own (I think this feels closer to freedom). Yes, the majority of our projects have been won through our started-from-scratch hard built reputation (word-of-mouth from one current client to a new client)  or through winning competitive bids. However,  I’m  most proud that after 5 years of business, Independent SP has an across the board (including both confidential and non-confidential projects) repeat client rate of 82% and an average of just over 3 projects per client. This I believe I owe to an approach to business and a respect for clients that I learnt from Ed back in those Northern British Columbia days.

 

  1. Business is personal.

Business is personal and consulting is the most personal business – well, ok, perhaps not the *most* personal (I’m thinking medical doctor…but you can go wherever your own mind takes you on that). My experience is that those who exclaim “it’s business, it’s not personal” are both not consultants and the asshole in the room. We’re human, and everything is personal. Saying that business is not personal, is the Monopoly game equivalent of trying to give yourself a get-out-of-jail-free card while everyone is watching you steal it. The phrase is just too often used to justify inconsiderate acts of unkindness at its best, and less than ethical behaviour at its worst.

I know from past experience that some people will argue strongly with me on this point, like really strongly, but that’s ok, because it’s nothing personal, right?

Kind regards.

[Ok, I’m being asked to clarify this ‘Kind Regards’ part. Let’s just say that at one of the organisations I’ve worked which – which shall remain unnamed – the phrase ‘Kind Regards’ was widely known to only be used when you wanted to tell someone off. Additionally, if you received a message that ended in ‘KR,’ that was the equivalent of ‘FU’.]

 

  1. Address personal uncertainties/insecurities.

Starting out on your own is a game of confidence. I don’t remember where I first heard that, but, I have to more-or-less agree. However, I think that the more correct descriptor for a good consultant is self-assuredness, not self-confidence. Confidence can be faked and although often bizarrely misinterpreted, arrogance is also neither confidence or competence but rather disguised insecurity. Experienced clients see through it all. After having sat on the client side of the table for years, I honestly believe one gains a pretty good sense about when a consultant knows what they are talking about, and when they’re just bull-shitting you. Being confident means you think you can do the job – and you want others to think that you can do it. Being self-assured means you unquestionably know you have the skillset to do the job while being honest about both your strengths and limitations. That nuance is the difference of both the starting point and the quality of the conversation at the client’s table.

In this light, it took me a little while to identify my largest uncertainty/insecurity as I was stepping back into the role of consultant. Fundamentally, I came to realise it stemmed from my lack of having a graduate degree. I was often wondering: Was there something that I lacked from the Academic world that would impact my ability to deliver and compete as a consultant in the field? Or more honestly: Would clients hire me as who I am and are the paper credentials I bring to the table enough?

Let’s call it what it is: bias. In my experience at Shell, there was a clear bias towards hiring grey haired PhDs (or – not joking – former, retired Shell staff). If you couldn’t find one of those, we’d turn to the larger consulting firms were it shifted to middle-aged professional consultants of any gender with PhDs. Consultants with Masters degrees were usually junior or mid-level in the firms we most often worked with. In fact, when I started thinking about it at the start of Independent SP, I remember realising for the first time with a shock that I myself had not ever hired anyone like me when I was at Shell or Barrick.

To address this, I made the decision that Independent SP’s first internal project would be a systematic bibliography of all the academic and grey literature on Social Performance and Community Relations in the Extractive sector that we could find. To give the literature review a framework, I used a process model that I had bouncing around my head which I came to call the Natural Resources Community Relations (NRCR) Process Model. I called Independent SP’s first project The Synthesis Project, later renamed Project Synthesis. In short order, Independent SP purchased a ProQuest team license and brought onboard five really motivated interns…all with graduate degrees from top tier universities of course, again, not joking here.

The Project Synthesis team combed through hundreds and hundreds of articles and then the citations within articles to ultimately identify 228 which we considered the most relevant providing academic and practitioner perspectives on our field. The project began in October of 2013 and finished with a draft report in April of 2014. I sent the project report out for review to some trusted colleagues (all academics and former bosses) to gauge reaction. It seemed to not have any obvious weaknesses and I felt I had developed both a model and a knowledge  in the academic sphere of my chosen field.

The Project Synthesis Report and its associated spreadsheet // Photo: J. Kuschminder

The NRCR model, field tested and – in my opinion, very intuitive – was made public in 2015 to overwhelming silent applause best described as the vacuum of space.  I continue to use it in several of my training workshops and its success in functioning as a community relations training model to me is now proven through multiple application. However, it remains – in my unbiased opinion – an unacknowledged diamond in the rough that I always appreciate feedback on:

  1. Leave breadcrumbs.

Opportunities in my career have usually resulted either as a result of follies of mine… An example:

When my anthropology advisor asked me if I had an area of geographic interest for my studies and I earnestly responded anywhere that wasn’t the cold of northern Canada, only to later see the words ‘Arctic Specialist’ lightly stencilled under his name on his door as I left his office.  This act of ignorance played a key role in his decision to send me to study and do fieldwork under a professor colleague of his in South America for a year. 

…or by seeing an opportunity in a decision that may look like it’s going to take me in an opposite direction from where I want to go, only for it to turn out to be a short cut. Another example: 

While I was still working with the Indigenous First Nations Community in the Oil Sands, I had made the decision that I wanted to work with an oil company next and I figured that I probably needed to get a Masters to do it. However, leaving my Masters to take the opportunity to work in Northern BC resulted in my becoming a consultant to Oil and Mining companies. This ultimately put me on a consulting project where Shell was a client. It was the experience I had, rather then the Master’s knowledge that resulted in my being offered a position at Shell 6 months before I would have graduated from the Masters I had left —  and at a much more senior level position then I would have entered as a recent Masters graduate had I stayed in school and been hired into the company in a more conventional way.

I like to say ‘leave breadcrumbs’ because in my experience the alternative paths and routes to get to a new/next stage in one’s career (or life) are not usually obvious and as you blaze your new path forward don’t forget where you came from or how to get back. 

  1. Fail Fast.

I often get asked about how I stared Independent SP, but usually by people who don’t really want to hear what I have to say. Rather, what they want me to day is to  confirm that it’s easy. That anyone can do it. That it’s an option any one of them has. I honestly believe that it is, but never will I ever be able to say that it is an easy or always comfortable path.

When I started Independent SP, I had absolutely no qualms about folding up shop and returning to work for a multi-national company. In fact, I thought that it was just a matter of time before I did. In the months after leaving Barrick Gold, I had three recruiter calls inquiring about my interest to work for an international pipeline company, a mid-sized mining company, and a different major oil company. That was the market then, and I wanted to know if Independent SP stood a chance of surviving before such opportunities dried up.

I’m not sure where I first heard or was taught the notion of fail fast but I’ve had it for most of my career – even from the earliest days. Maybe it came from the farm where spilt milk was not to be cried over. Fail fast does not mean do not give it your all – which I find it is often misinterpreted to mean. Rather, fail fast means don’t be shy in evaluating success or failure and act quickly on your determination. If something is showing success, quickly invest further in it, if it is showing signs of clear failure, drop it like hot plate out of the oven and don’t look back. Grab the broom, clean up, and use the oven mitts next time. For those who have known me, you have likely witnessed this and I know it can come across both harsh and sudden,  When I drop something in the name of failing fast, I’m aware that to others it often appears to be abrupt and sudden – which it is by design, but I feel it never lacks extensive consideration.

One of my most valuable business lessons from working at Shell was ESSA. I don’t know if they still promote this approach internally but from the moment I heard it, it has influenced my approach to my work and Independent SP:

E= Eliminate

S= Simplify

S= Standardize

A= Automate

ESSA is fairly self-explanatory and hardly a new concept these days, as versions for driving efficiency via elimination, simplification, standardisation, and automation are common in many industries. But in my ESSA training at Shell, there was a phrase regarding accountability that caught my attention even more than ESSA as a whole:

‘Step up or step back.’  

To me it’s a beautiful way of saying, accept accountability and responsibility for taking on a job or get out of the way of those who have taken on what you have not – and if you step back, be quiet and realize you’ve lost your voice in the process. There is rarely space on a truly important task or project for backseat drivers who are inputting opinions but do have any risk in a poor outcome. Some call their back seat driving collaboration, but too often the fine line between actually being collaborative and just being plain patronizing (formal definition) is not respected enough.

In the context of failing fast, I found both ESSA and Step Up or Step Back to be highly applicable, and in my experience, failing fast is rarely – if ever – regretted and usually accompanied by a sense of strong relief. I have however found it difficult to work on projects with individuals who have a very different perspective from even the basic KISS principle (Keep it Simple Stupid) or with those who blur the lines of accountability in order to maintain influence on a project without meeting commitments they have made by signing up to be a part of it in the first place.

It’s interesting for me to be reviewing these rules that I outlined for Independent SP five years ago – and to be honest, a little weird sharing them publicly. I find that I’m still staunchly in support of them, but I recognize that they also need to evolve for the next five-year plan. For instance, I’m actively learning – sometimes the hard way – that while the corporate environment rewards such concrete perspectives  my return to consulting has me re-learning the overlooked lesson that a need for increased empathy and flexibility is required when working with almost all clients – an important consideration that has found its way into Independent SP’s next 5 year plan.

— Thank you for reading this post!

 

Annex:  Independent SP’s Guiding Principles (v. 2013)

Boldness and Innovation

We understand that an extractive project is a delicate social intervention on community systems. It is important to proactively manage these interventions to avoid conflict and to build meaningful relationships. We find innovative approaches to complex problems and offer on-the-ground experience to help you confidently succeed.”

Impartiality with Integrity

We respect all parties with whom we work, always maintaining confidentiality and our own accountability. We are particularly sensitive concerning human rights issues and vulnerable groups. We are an independent organisation working fairly with all sides of the dialogue table – companies, communities, NGOs, and government – to promote collaborative, long-lasting solutions with fairness and integrity.

Context Matters

Contextual understanding is crucial to respecting, understanding, and meeting the needs of all the parties with whom we work. We also realise that no two communities or extractive projects are the same, and each is respected individually.

Understanding context is crucial to ensuring proper respect and needs of all parties are appropriately met.

Confidentiality

The projects of our clients and partners take place in complex and sensitive contexts, and we respect their needs for confidentiality. We never share their information anywhere outside of our contracts.

Communities are a Source of Guidance

We recognise that the perspectives of communities affected by extractive projects are necessary sources of guidance for improving projects and practices.

Local Knowledge is Effective

When available, local community capabilities for decision making, economic development, social change, and conflict resolution can be the most effective and sustainable foundation for appropriate approaches to engagement, consultation, and local involvement.

Passion

We are passionate about both the need for meaningful relationships between communities and companies based on appropriate consultation and involvement. We work to meaningfully contribute to the field of Social Performance and Community Relations.

 

This post is part 1 of 8 in the blog series Independent SP – Our 5 Year Review

Post 02: Independent SP’s 5 Rules of Operation
Series 01: Independent Social Performance – Our 5 Year Review
15 January 2019
By: Jordon Kuschminder

±27 min read

This entry is part 1 of 8 in the series Independent SP – Our 5 Year Review

This is a conversational blog written and maintained by Jordon Kuschminder, founder and executive director of Independent Social Performance Pte Ltd.  The purpose of this blog is to provide updates regarding Independent SP’s activities and announcements and to share personal musings that are not intended to represent the position or opinion of either Independent Social Performance Pte. Ltd. or any of its past or current clients.

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