Would you like to create a great venture and change the world, without having to do much work? If so, you need disciples.
Bruce Henderson created the Boston Consulting Group through a few disciples. Bill Bain started Bain & Company, another hugely important and successful business – and catalysed an even more valuable firm, Bain Capital – through another handful of disciples.
Not only did they achieve a great deal, but they did it without excessive personal effort. That is the joy of disciples.
Without their first four or five disciples, Bruce and Bill would have achieved very little. If you want to achieve 100 times more than you have so far, and really enjoy doing it, please listen carefully.
What does having disciples mean?
It means selecting four or five truly exceptional people, whom you train to execute your idea to a higher standard than you yourself could do.
The exceptional people need not have been very successful in their careers to date. It is better if they haven’t been. Look for raw talent and potential, not track record. Look for youth and energy. Look for people who can listen and learn, and who will do exactly what you say. Exceptional intelligence is valuable. Track record and attitude you can do without.
It means having a very close business relationship with the disciples. You must like and trust them. They must like and trust you. You help them; they help you. You set the expectations of what they will get out of collaboration at the outset. Then you exceed the expectations.
But – please note well – it is not an equal relationship. Equality is great in society, but it rarely works in business. A genuine partnership is based on equality. A genuine and durable equal partnership – as opposed to a partnership in name and law – is as rare as a sociologist who can write simple English. I have been in partnerships. I have even co-founded one. Humans have two characteristics that make partnerships difficult – some people are pushy animals; and nearly everyone needs a clear pecking order. Partnership is too idealistic, too volatile, and ultimately not meritocratic. Every partnership wastes enormous energy setting and resetting the pecking order.
With disciples, there is no problem. They may compete with each other – within reason, that is good. Disciples do not compete with the founder, the boss. If they do, their heads must go.
What do you need to attract and keep great disciples?
When I worked in Bain & Company, apart from Bill, nearly everyone was in their twenties or thirties. One exception was a gnarled veteran of business called Chris Cadell. As we were walking down the street one day, Chris turned to me and said, “Why do the likes of John Halpern, Ralph Willard, and Mitt Romney work for Bill? They are all exceptionally talented. They bring in most of the business. Bill has no clients and does no consulting. Why do they work so hard for him?”
There was a good answer. The Bill Bain I knew had flaws, like all of us, but unlike most of us, he had two fantastic virtues.
One was the marriage of astounding creativity and extraordinary commercial sense, a rare combination. There are creative people who can come up with a formula or a business idea. And there are people who are great at maximizing the profit from the formula. They are nearly always different people.
Bill could do both. So too, in a completely different way, could Bruce. So could Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. They had vision and the ability to put themselves in the sweet spot where profit margins could be massive.
To have disciples, you have to found something that is going to change the world. To keep disciples – in business at least – you have to make it hugely profitable and able to grow fast.
The other virtue Bill had was clarity and complete lack of ambiguity. He was the boss and intended to stay the boss.
I remember my first partner’s meeting at Bain. Fancying myself as a partner – which to me, in my naivety, implied some sort of equality – I decided that my client work was a higher priority and that I could turn up late to the meeting, or perhaps just call in, rather than flying over the Atlantic to Boston. One of the other new partners, Iain Evans, kindly called me and whispered – so he couldn’t be overhead – “you better get over here right away.” I did, and when I arrived at cocktails Bill Bain made a beeline for me. I was gratified, but not when I heard what he had to say.
“You had a client emergency, Richard?”
“Not an emergency, Bill, more a problem that urgently needed sorting out.”
“Aha. I just want to be clear that unless the world is ending, I want all my partners at the monthly meeting on time please.”
I was never late for another partners’ meeting, and neither was anyone else. It was one of Bill’s main ways of keeping control.
Why is it so great to have disciples?
One – disciples do it better.
There is a division of functions. The guru thinks. The disciple executes.
You know the saying, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.”
The dictum is true, but thoroughly wrong-headed. In life and in business, teaching – really great teaching anyway – is much more valuable than doing. Superb teaching requires terrific insight and thought, as well as the ability to communicate and inspire. Doing does not.
Is great teaching easier or harder than great doing? It is both. Terrific teaching is rarer, and requires a particular type of brain. But it is less arduous than doing. Being a founder/guru is rarer than being a disciple, and more valuable. But it is a nicer life too!
If you have to think and do – say you are a one-person band – you are unlikely to do either superbly. In particular, you probably won’t be incredibly demanding, because the person who is going to do the incredibly demanding task is you. The only exception is the genius who is also a sole trader – the artist, the musician, the philosopher, the inventor.
Not only is the division of function useful. It also means that entrepreneurs can choose disciples who are better than them at execution.
Two – having disciples gives you a great life. Bruce Henderson did the thing he really wanted to do, which was to think and write short, controversial “perspectives” on business issues. The rest of the time he travelled between his offices and had a ball. Bill Bain worked far fewer hours than anyone else in his firm, and did what he was incomparable at – honing his business formula, choosing great people, and controlling them. He loved being the boss, and he did it incredibly well.
Three – a great life is necessary for creativity. As Bill used to say, action drives out thought. If you too busy working, you can’t dream up the next big thing. If your feet are on the desk, or even better, taking a leisurely stroll in beautiful surroundings, you can.
True, there are dangers with having disciples. The issue of control is paramount. But that is a whole different blog.
Two Closing Questions to You
Are you equipped to have disciples?
If so, go ahead. Your life and effectiveness will be totally transformed.
If not, what would it take to equip yourself?
If you can equip yourself, even if it takes years, it will be well worth it.
I am giving a 3-day conference for entrepreneurs in Chicago this month, from the 28th to 30th. The first day is dedicated to the subject of “getting off the hamster wheel” and having disciples is one of the six routes to getting off the wheel and transforming your business at the same time. For more information, click here. To book, click here.