Daniel Isenberg: An interview by Bob Morris

Isenberg 1Daniel Isenberg was raised in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and graduated from the University of Oregon and then Harvard University in Social Psychology (Ph.D.), after living and working in Israel from 1972-1976. He taught organizational behavior at Harvard Business School, and then moved to Israel in 1987 to raise a family and become an entrepreneur and venture capitalist. He has been involved for over 30 years in the field of entrepreneurship as entrepreneur, educator, private and angel investor, and policy advisor. He is an active participant at Davos and other World Economic Forum events, and has spoken or advised on entrepreneurship and entrepreneurship ecosystem development in over two dozen countries. He is currently Professor of Entrepreneurship Practice at Babson Executive and Enterprise Education. He has taught entrepreneurship at Columbia, Technion, INSEAD, and Reykjavik in addition to Harvard. Dan has four grown children and spends a lot of time in his home town of Woods Hole when he is not traveling. The title of his latest book is Worthless, Impossible and Stupid: How Contrarian Entrepreneurs Create and Capture Extraordinary Value, published by Harvard Business Review Press (2013). It was written with Karen Dillon.

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Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Isenberg: I have learned a lot from amazing mentors, including Professor Robert Freed Bales, who taught me how to observe behavior, Professor Fred Fosmire who taught me about eclecticism and complex thinking, Stef Wertheimer who taught me lean entrepreneurship 30 years before it became fashionable, but many many others. And I have learned a lot from my amazing students throughout the years.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Isenberg: The Ph.D. I did in social psychology at Harvard 19776-1981 had a huge impact on me, although I think investing in a Ph.D. is not something for everyone; you have to really love knowledge and its pursuit. One, it gave confidence that I can identify a specific, and know everything in the world there is to know about that problem, and then add on. Second, I met fantastic people, students and professors. Studying with the best in your field makes you realize, among other things, that ignorance is a normal state of affairs, even for the smartest people. I heard at a science lecture last night that we have scientific knowledge about one in ten of the species of bacteria that live in our guts, the human biome.

Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you when to work full-time for the first time? Why?

Isenberg: The most important thing that I learned about business was that in many ways science and business are identical, but in their definition of “truth” they are extraordinarily different: in science truth is what’s left over after you have ruled out the competing theories; in business, truth is somewhere in between making a sale and market value of a company.

Morris: From which non-business book have you learned the most valuable lessons about business? Please explain.

Isenberg: I have to say that I have learned almost nothing whatsoever from business books and I avoid them. The vast majority of them are a waste of time, restate the obvious, or glorify the storyteller in a revisionist history that is intellectually dissatisfying. I love reading history and serious autobiography when I have time.

Morris: Your response to this observation by Howard Aiken? “Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If they’re any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.”

Isenberg: I like this one and agree. The best way to make an idea valuable is to give it away. That of course is oversimplifying, but there is at least some real truth to it.

Morris: In Tom Davenport’s latest book, Judgment Calls, he and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”: organizational judgment. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.” What do you think?

Isenberg: I think that my friend Tom has defined what leadership is. He and I go back to the 1970s on the 13th floor of William James Hall at Harvard. Down the hall from his computing center was the social interaction laboratory of my mentor, Freed Bales. Freed coined the phrase “Great Man” theory as far as I know in the 1950s, but he would certainly agree with Tom that leadership is an interpersonal phenomenon, not just an individual one.

Morris: In recent years, there has been criticism, sometimes severe criticism of M.B.A. programs, even those offered by the most prestigious business schools. In your opinion, in which area is there the greatest need for immediate improvement? Any suggestions?

Isenberg: As in most fields, you have to distinguish between those doing it best, and the average. There is no doubt that those doing it best do it very very well. One common characteristic is that they keep experimenting with learning methods to make their curricula continually more effective. No doubt that one of the areas of further experimentation is in giving students more and more creative opportunities to practice what they are learning in a safe environment.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Worthless, Impossible and Stupid. When and why did you decide to write it?

Isenberg: When my son, Itai, said: “Dad, everyone should be reading about these amazing cases! They are completely changing my view of business and entrepreneurship.”

Morris: When and why did you decide to write the book with Karen Dillon?

Isenberg: Karen and I had worked very effectively together when she was the head editor at Harvard Business Review. She is fast, and I am fast, so our styles match. In March 2010 she said, “are you game to write a feature article for HBR on the entrepreneurial revolution? Oh, did I mention, you have to have the manuscript finished in three weeks?” We worked together to produce the “Big Idea” piece, “How to Start an Entrepreneurial Revolution” which appeared in June 2010. From that time on we formed a bond of trust that each of us would deliver, or exceed, the other’s expectations. There was a huge amount of data that we had to sort through to produce Worthless, Impossible, and Stupid; I would never had the courage to do that without Karen’s collaboration.

Morris: Given various barriers, frustration, misery, and heartache, why do the best entrepreneurs persist?

Isenberg: Well, part of that is post hoc observation. Of those people who persist, a few are successful entrepreneurs. As I argue in Worthless, Impossible and Stupid, creating or anticipating a novel product or service requires that the entrepreneur go against the grain. Going against the grain by definition means encountering and overcoming resistance and social friction.

Morris: Jack Dempsey once observed, “champions get up when they can’t.” Can the same be said of the best entrepreneurs?

Isenberg: Yes, although entrepreneurs have more of an option, or temptation, to exit, to stop playing the game, or change the game they are in. Champions in sports cannot.

Morris: As I indicate in my review for various Amazon websites, there are dozens of entrepreneurs whose experiences are of special interest to me. With a sentence or two, please explain what you think the most important lesson to be learned from each is. First, Robert Wessman’s generic pharmaceuticals company (Pages 12-15)

Isenberg: Robert illustrates for me the importance of fearless leadership that includes leading by example. Robert literally stared down a mob of 200 angry outplaced Bulgarian workers who had been laid off as he acquired their plant. And he did it with calmness, élan, and I am sure, respect.

Morris: Miguel Davila’s cinema chain (16-21)

Isenberg: How three “odd couple” can share leadership, argue like foes, yet collaborate in a way that brought out the best in each of them. All of my students think that this is the most absurd management concept, yet it worked. I love it when reality outstrips our simplistic notions of how people should behave.

Morris: Carl Bistany’s educational management ventures (72-82)

Isenberg: SABIS is turning educational mythology on its head. I pray that for my children’s children they will succeed in growing SABIS 100-fold, while becoming deservedly rich in the process. Again, treating education as a factory is not degrading to education, it elevates factory life to its deserved pedestal.

Morris: Will Dean’s adventure challenge events (100-107)

Isenberg: One of the most interesting things about Tough Mudder is that with all of the cash they have accumulated in just three years, they have created an internal venture capital fund to attract the most risk-taking and ambitious employees they can.

Morris: Vinod Kapur’s chicken farming (142-151)

Isenberg: How important it is for sustainability to make sure that everyone in the supply chain, forward and backward, makes a profit, no matter what the ultimate purpose is.

Morris: Iqbal Quadir’s Grameenphone (155-167)

Isenberg: Iqbal has parlayed his personal payout into a fantastic center at MIT for fostering for-profit technological entrepreneurship to solve some of the toughest problems in existence, such as water scarcity and the need for household electricity.

Morris: As I read your stories about these entrepreneurs, I realized that they seem very much like the friends and neighbors I have. In most respects, they seem normal, in some ways ordinary. I think what they accomplished is all the more remarkable because of that. Is that fair assessment? Please explain.

Isenberg: Yes, that is fair. We over glorify those (justifiably) heroic examples, such as Steve *** (yes, you guessed) which inadvertently makes a lot of people say, “Oh that’s not for me.” Yet Robert Wessman, who created and is creating billions of dollars of value, was seen by his high school mates as ordinary and “not most likely to succeed.” The most important difference between Robert and the rest of us, I tell my students, is that he believed that he would build a huge global company from the scrap of a failing generics business.

Morris: If there were a monument for entrepreneurs such as the one on Mount Rushmore for U.S. Presidents, which four entrepreneurs would you select? Please explain your reasons for each choice.

Isenberg: I think I would give up. Entrepreneurial success is frequently about teams of people, not individuals. So Mt. Rushmore would be misleading.

Morris: To what extent can – and should  -– those who work within huge organizations think and behave like an entrepreneur? Please explain.

Isenberg: Well, this is very complex, but I think the right answer is never. If someone in a large company wants to be an entrepreneur, she or he absolutely must strike out on their own. There is no substitute at all for having massive amounts of skin in the game. In fact, it is a completely different game. I have been there: being completely responsible for your own success and failure is a unique experience that being employed can never give you, certain almost never.

Morris: In your opinion, what are the defining characteristics of a workplace within which entrepreneurship is most likely to thrive? Please explain.

Isenberg: A workplace that you own part of. I do not think there can be real entrepreneurship in a workplace. Scott Painter, a serial Silicon Valley entrepreneur said it starkly in one of my Davos workshops, to paraphrase: There is room for only one entrepreneur in my ventures, and that is me. Anyone else who wants to be an entrepreneur should leave.

Morris: In your opinion, what are the defining characteristics of a [begin italics] country [end italics] within which entrepreneurship is most likely to thrive? Please explain.

Isenberg: Entrepreneurship tends not to thrive in countries, but in specific regions. Having said that, I would consider Iceland and Israel to be the most entrepreneurial countries I have spent a lot of time in. For Israelis and Icelanders, risk is in working for someone else. THAT is risky. Striking out on your own is safer. Of course, I am grossly oversimplifying. A country is a complex social system with lots of variation.

Morris: Let’s say that a CEO has read and then (hopefully) re-read Worthless, Impossible and Stupid and is now determined to encourage and support entrepreneurial initiatives at all levels and in all areas of the given enterprise. Where to begin?

Isenberg: Encourage the best and most talented of his or her employees to leave, and then support them afterward as an individual investor or mentor. Ellison did that with Beniof. That will ironically attract the best and most talented people to work for you.

Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in Worthless, Impossible and Stupid, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Isenberg: Don’t think of yourself as a small company. Small per se is not good. Small and growing dynamically is good. Think of yourself as a big company that happens to be going through a very short small phase.

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To read my review of Worthless, Impossible and Stupid, please click here.

Dan cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

Babson Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Project link

Dan’s Amazon page

Forbes blog link

Huffington Post link

YouTube videos link

LinkedIn link

Twitter link

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