Trash white old executives

A dark day

I was sitting in a dark meeting room on another rainy afternoon, facing two C-level executives, and remembering an old feeling of helplessness when working in small companies I had been confronted with similar corporate thugs. "Déjà vu", clearly, but this time it was happening within the mighty realm of Sirris, with no consequences to fear and plenty of time to observe, learn, then share with you the wisdom born out of bad experience. “Time to write a riveting article”, I thought.
 

The background

A while ago, my office held a meeting with two ageing C-level executives[1] from a well-known company. For the sake of privacy let's call the company ACME, part of a larger conglomerate. The kind of big-name company any budding entrepreneur would love to add to its roster of customers.

Through mutual contacts, ACME executives and I got in touch to discuss strategic partnering of small, innovative, and technology-driven ventures, with large established players just like them, with an eye on mutually beneficial cooperation. ACME had taken stakes in some Belgian organizations supporting emerging tech startups, this being pretty impressive considering how slowly large companies generally move towards tech innovators.

In previous experiments run by our teams, we had successfully organized a few workshops we called "technology speed-datings". By testing our own original methodology, we led the partnership process, helped large companies tap into the innovation potential they didn't possess, and gave to innovative SMEs[2] the chance of building tangible business with prestigious names. Besides the obvious business benefits to the participants, we had had the chance of checking and validating an objective, rigorous definition of the usually vague "strategic partnership" concept. I felt we had grounds to be proud of what we had achieved.

Back to my story. There I was with colleagues Thibaut and Sven, welcoming two seasoned executives, looking forward to an enlightened exchange of ideas, and hopefully the chance of bringing together ACME with amazing tech SMEs.

I quickly presented Sirris[3], underscoring our focus on R&D, and on honest exchange of knowledge with industry, our duties of neutrality and confidentiality that had helped us earn the trust of our 2500-plus industrial members. I outlined our strategic partnership method, and much to my surprise, our guests gently dismissed the importance of thoughtful, structured methods in general. What mattered to them, they claimed, was simply to meet clever SMEs. I begged to differ, telling them that my very first experience (way back in the 90s at ESA[4]) had showed me how strategic partnering in tech seldom emerges from informal processes, and how our technology speed-dating method had confirmed the importance of a rigorous and pragmatic approach.

 

Oh, really?

"Not for us," they said, "we don't need a method - specifically your method, we would have to pay you - and surely we can achieve the same result for free". That was a major surprise. They were dismissing our work very bluntly, yet Sirris is a reputed research center and sells its services simply to cover costs on a not-for-profit basis. Did they have research capabilities that we did not know about?

Jeremy (the first ACME executive) went on:

-          In the past we helped company SprintKud[5] build the outstanding products that made them famous. We literally drove their product development.

Jean-Claude (the other ACME executive) said:

-          What bothers me is, we were paying customers - albeit at a preferential price - and to this day we still are. We didn't get a piece of the action when SprintKud became an international tech star; we had failed to appreciate their potential. In the future, I intend us to be part of innovative ventures, and even own them. We currently don't manufacture tech products but that's no reason to hold us back.

ACME is no manufacturing company, and Jeremy probably didn't perceive the risks and the excruciation of running a manufacturing tech startup.

I asked:

-          Why don't you set up an incubator and support hand-picked startups, then?

They replied:

-          ACME is the perfect customer for tech startups - and we want to be their sole customer for a while - but we are not familiar with managing contractual relationships with startups. And besides, we don't want to be bothered nursing startups.

I thought this was a bizarre answer, as ACME has plenty of legal experts who are familiar with licensing agreements, and if you expect a piece of the action it’s only fair to get your hands dirty. Then it occurred to me that this could make sense in a different way: "Envy, then greed". Aha.

Colleague Sven asked what ACME was trying to achieve with their stakes in the Belgian startup-supporting organizations.

Jean-Claude answered:

-          Firstly, to get easily inside innovative tech startups. Secondly, to detect skilled personnel for our ranks. Thirdly, to communicate ACME to the general public as an innovative corporation.

The three targets made very clear that ACME was in this for these (purely selfish) goals - there was no hint of benefits to the startups. I saw this stuff as directly out of the darkest corners of the eighties, when corporate brand image – not content – was key, and projecting a positive image (no matter how rotten at the core) was worth spending tangible PR budgets. History teaches such image campaigns are expensive and temporary: a company can disguise only so long until it gets exposed as a phony.

Jean-Claude now took the lead:

-          Speaking of your previous experience with technology speed datings, can you tell us which companies were the recipients and what SMEs had gotten from them?

I politely replied:

-          Quite simply, the names of all companies involved are confidential. In general, tech SMEs have gotten into further talks, or have been invited to make offers, or even signed first contracts with the large players.

Jean-Claude insisted:

-          Nevertheless we want to evaluate what you did for companies that were satisfied with your services.

 

I retorted that breaching confidentiality is a no-no at Sirris.

 

Winding to the end of the meeting, I asked all participants to define a to-do list of next steps. Jeremy and Jean-Claude offered these interesting items:

  1. Sirris sends in a short list of companies that were satisfied with the tech speed-dating services, and we will contact them to get their feedback on Sirris’ services.
  2. ACME will ponder what to do next, and when. We’ll call you when we are ready.
  3. If either side has anything else to suggest, feel free to get in touch again.

Lessons you must learn

As I wrote at the beginning of the article, there are lessons to share with you.

Lesson #1: principles come with their own tripwires – watch them. In this fateful meeting we were pushed into reneging our duty of confidentiality, and this alone was the omen of more trouble ahead. In the actions list, ACME executives clearly defined items to their full advantage, and to our complete disadvantage. But the first tripwire had dulled that bad surprise, and we had been forewarned. Do the same: breaching integrity, even on a small scale, is a very real warning sign of more trouble coming your way.

Lesson #2: don’t let hope blind you. When we came to the next steps, it was obvious what ACME offered was predicated on putting ourselves entirely in their hands, and on bowing respectfully to their arrogance.

Lesson #3: hierarchical position is no indication of personal integrity. All SMEs hope to get near to the highest decision-making levels, yet this exposes them to damage caused by dishonesty multiplied by the decision-making latitude of their “prestigious” counterparts.

Lesson #4: stand firm on integrity principles. I can only imagine the magnitude of the damage to Sirris had we reneged on our duty of confidentiality. I cannot see any counterpart that could even barely lessen the damage: earning the trust of our members had been a 60+ years long process, and I bet losing it all could be a matter of a few months, perhaps even a few weeks. And rebuilding that trust ? First-hand experience tells us it takes something along the lines of - say - 60+ years.



[1] CEO, COO, CTO, CIO, CFO, etc.

[2] Small and Medium Enterprises

[3] A Belgian national independent not-for-profit research organization in applied science and industrial technology

[4] European Space Agency

[5] SprintKud - another fictional name for the sake of anonymousness - is an amazing worldwide tech success that became an indispensable feature in so many consumer products. Imagine something as pervasive as Bluetooth.

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