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Nilofer Merchant

October 2, 2015 by Speakers' Spotlight

Nilofer Merchant: The Era of the Individual

A bestselling author on innovation and collaboration, a TED speaker, and a business leader with 20 years of experience, Nilofer Merchant challenges audiences to do more than just think differently—she helps them to do what it takes to succeed in modern times. Merchant has personally launched more than 100 products that, in total, havenetted 18 billion dollars. Her leadership and business models encourage innovation and growth, and she collaborates with teams to create this enduring advantage. Offering prescient guidelines for taking the future into your own hands, Merchant brings her world-class pedigree to any stage. In advance of this year’s Nordic Business Forum, Kauppalehti sat down with her to talk about her life and career thus far:

Nilofer Merchant, also known as the Jane Bond of Innovation, takes a seat in the café Les Deux Magots in Saint-German-des-Prés, Paris. The former executive from Silicon Valley has moved to Paris to work on her third book.

Paris has always inspired creative people. The Latin Quarter where the café is located became famous in the 17th century as a place where intellectuals and artists representing different art forms met each other.

The bohemian artists used to do their creative work in confined and chilly apartments, called chambre de Bonnes. Then they would gather in cafés where they sat and discussed their unfinished ideas together.

These multidisciplinary conversations gave birth to masterpieces and some of the history’s most beautiful art. The power of collaboration and connections helped artists to exceed themselves. Merchant urges the same kind of thinking into business life.

Merchant’s eyes sparkle as she’s talking about her upcoming book.

”Isn’t it funny that I’m writing a book about power here, in a country which has struggled so much around that theme?”

Merchant is one of the keynote speakers at this year’s Nordic Business Forum seminar in October. Her thoughts are groundbreaking and radical. She got the Thinkers50-award in 2013. She was rewarded as the number one person most likely to influence future leadership in both theory and in practice.

The acknowledgement made Merchant think harder about which direction she wanted to change leadership. It was clear to her that in each time and in each place there are people left unheard, whose ideas are seen worthless.

“If we’d start to use ideas according to their value and not according to who presents them, we’d access the next level of innovation.”

“Ideas are everywhere”, Merchant says. She has launched the term “onlyness”. It means that we all have our own, one of a kind place in the world where a person’s unique history, experiences, skills and hopes combine.

“Everyone has unique ideas no matter what you do in your organization or what is your status in society. Nowadays businesses no longer create value with machines or capital but with ideas. The ideas are our greatest assets.”

According to Merchant the reason why we don’t exploit this endless source of innovations is that we don’t tap into the ideas. The leaders need to get the unique ideas out of their employees.

Not everyone has been happy that old ways of thinking have been shaken up. Merchant’s thoughts have gotten her into trouble. She has made academics furious and she has even received death threats.

The social era has replaced the industrial era. All old assumptions are tumbling down. The only thing that matters is an idea which people can collectively carry out and take onto the market.

“Together we can create a bigger and better idea. Relationships are to the social era what efficiency was to the industrial era. It enables businesses to grow.”

Merchant, now in her forties, has over twenty years of experience in business life. She has worked in several big tech companies.

Her career kicked off when she was in her twenties, working as an admin at Apple. One day the leader of the North American business unit stopped her in the corridor and asked if she could solve a problem.

The manager gave Merchant an Excel spreadsheet and told her that the growth figures of one of the business units weren’t satisfying. The margin was high, but the growth was low. Someone had to figure out how to grow this business.

“Though I didn’t understand a word he was talking about, I remember saying, yes, I can definitely help you.”

Merchant told her boss about the conversation. Her boss told her that the same manager had already offered the project to everyone else, but no one would touch it. The whole business was considered stupid and nobody knew exactly why it even was profitable.

Merchant had however promised to solve the problem and she intended to do so. She figured out that the best person to tell how to grow a business would be someone who had already done it.

“So I called every possible person who had grown that product’s revenue. I called the sales representatives across the country and asked what it takes.”

A couple of weeks later Merchant was in a big meeting room, surrounded by people she didn’t know, and she gave her first ever Power Point presentation. She introduced a proposal which she thought was the answer to the problem.

After the presentation the leader of the US region, Jim Buckley, said: “You should lead this effort.”

“I said, no, no, no. You should choose someone who knows what she’s doing”, Merchant says.

Eventually she ended up leading the project. It became a huge success. The revenue skyrocketed from two million dollars to 180 million dollars in just one and a half years.

Apple hadn’t beaten its’ competitors in that segment before so it was celebrated as a great victory and Merchant got credibility inside the company.

Years afterwards Merchant ran into Buckley who said: “The reason why I asked you to lead that effort was because I saw you were committed in solving the problem and no one else was.”

“It was a good lesson. Commitment is very important in turning ideas into reality”, says Merchant.

After the Apple years Merchant worked in start-ups and tech companies. The word spread about her ability to scale business.

Her career took off because she was always raising her hand, taking on new big challenges. That taught her what it takes to crack tough nuts.

“In understanding and solving complicated problems you need to tap into the knowledge that comes from the sources working very close to the problem.”

At one point all the major tech companies including Hewlett-Packard and Logitech wanted services from Rubicon Consulting, a company Merchant had founded. Merchant’s team had grown to nearly 30 employees and the company’s revenue had risen to millions of dollars.

Their job was usually about making U-turns.

“We basically always showed up after the company had already failed.”

Merchant got feedback that when she was around, people worked well together, but after she left, it wasn’t like that anymore. No one could really tell why.

Merchant says that she always made sure that people were having the right kinds of conversations. She calls them “having a fight”.

“You don’t address the right problems until you have the fight. In many companies people couldn’t throw themselves into a proper conflict. And that is why the collaboration failed.”

Merchant also taught leaders to ask better questions. That doesn’t come naturally for most of people, she says.

“Listening is a leader’s ability number one. Up to 40 per cent of leader’s capacity to lead comes from the ability to listen. And this is driven by the ability to ask questions.”

Merchant’s career is breathtaking. She admits that she used to work like a dog in the past. Work went ahead of her family and she didn’t have enough time for the most important people in her life.

“It was quite odd that my clients knew that they meant a lot to me but my children didn’t necessarily feel that way.”

Merchant remarks that nowadays the world is so full of opportunities that people are constantly afraid of losing something.

“I once bought the idea that more is better. It’s not. The whole notion of chasing the next big thing is a leftover from the past times.”

Her pace has since slowed down. Merchant has started to take better care of herself.

A couple of years ago she launched the walking meetings in her Ted Talk. The idea has since spread worldwide. For example Apple’s CEO Tim Cook quoted Merchant during the Apple Watch launch saying that sitting is the smoking of our generation. Barack Obama now does ”walkntalks”.

“I woke up and realized that I have a company, clients, a husband and children, but I can’t take care of myself. Why am I always the last?”

Merchant recommends everyone to learn how to say “not now” and to do only the things that have to get done right now. Squeezing things in and being greedy won’t get you far.

“Being busy is a way to keep us frantic instead of being satisfied. You don’t do stuff so you could do more. You do stuff for a reason.”

Merchant never really wanted to be a writer. Her first book The New How started shaping as she wrote down thoughts about how to break silos inside organizations so that companies would do better. The book discusses a common problem, the air sandwich.

Merchant leans forward in the restaurant table and starts to explain the weird sounding term.

She had noticed that many companies lacked questions, conversations, shared understanding and problem solving. Without them there is only the top telling the bottom what to do, and everything in the middle is missing.

That kind of a company is lacking discussions, tradeoffs and shared understanding which, like that stuff in the middle that makes a sandwich good, makes a company strategy into reality.

“If employees understand why they are doing something they pretty quickly come up with many ideas how to reach that goal. But if they don’t know that, they’re just following your orders.”

“And when you act like your duty as a leader is to be the source of all the answers, you’re saying to every smart person in your organization, you can go, I don’t need your smartness.”

“It’s a loss for everyone. To that person himself, to leadership and to the organization, because I have never met a person, that hasn’t got a creative idea.”

After the first book Merchant wrote regularly at the Harvard Business Review. She wrote a piece about how the famous Porter model isn’t good enough anymore.

The Porter model, created by the distinguished business consultant and professor of economics Michael Porter, is about building competitiveness and a strategy. Porter’s work has been widely considered as the Bible of strategy.

The idea of questioning the model came when Merchant was invited to a board of one of the Fortune 50 -companies. She asked if she could come and sit in one of its meetings.

The board thrashed out how the company should build bigger moats around it and control things more in order to hold onto its competitive advantages better on the market.

“As I listened, I knew that someone had to tell these people that everything that they are doing is strategically wrong in a modern world.”

Merchant tried to find someone who would have had written about the social implications in the business strategies but she couldn’t find it. Even her friends couldn’t help her, but they suggested that she should write about it.

Merchant wrote her thoughts on her blog. After that she started getting death threats.

“Who sends death threats when you’re writing about Porter’s strategy model?” she asks.

Apparently a lot of people took the critique hard. One of the threatheners was working at Harvard.

Because of the fuss the Harvard Press editor at the time ended up reading all of Merchant’s pieces and urged her to finish her thought.

“If you’re going to challenge the Porter’s these, you better write a book”, he said.

And Merchant did. The book 11 Rules for Creating Value in the Social Era came out and the Fast Company ranked it among the top 10 business books of 2012.

The book adresses the structures of how business changes because of the social era. Before that book, the word social was mostly used talking about social media in the marketing department.

After the interview Merchant suggests that we take a walk by the river Seine. One has to ask about her nickname Jane Bond of Innovation.

During her years as a consultant Merchant used to get the oddest nicknames. People came to her and said: you’re the MacGyver of problem-solving. Someone compared her to James Bond.

Merchant mentioned about it to her friend who said, you’re not James Bond, you’re Jane Bond. The name started to live a life of its’ own. Merchant avows herself as a big fan of Bond movies and she says the nickname describes well what she does.

“I’m a former executive, a writer, a professor, a researcher, a speaker and so on. Every title is too narrow. So, I decided to have a bit of fun with it.”

Merchant kisses on the cheeks and hands out her business card. On the back of the card it says: Be Kick-Ass. It’s what she does and what she teaches.

“For hundreds of years we have had to be standardized, to fit in, in order to get power. In the new era the authenticity and personal abilities, to stand out, are the key to success.”

Kauppalehti/Fall, 2015