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Generosity as Strategy

What if being generous was a better business strategy than clinging to control?

Many years ago, one of my first entrepreneurial experiences involved promoting training programs for adults working with “difficult” children in schools and community programs. When I and my colleagues entered this scene, there were already several large and established providers. Some were for-profit professional development machines with slick marketing and lots of market reach. Others were university-based and research-driven programs headed by impressive faculty and Ph.D.s with all of the credibility and government access that comes with brick and ivy towers. Finally, there was a small but powerful group of personality-driven gurus, whose value was wrapped up in promoting the work of singular geniuses who all had good stories about how they had “unlocked” some core insight about children and behavior.

But here were me and my colleagues. In comparison to the folks above we really were nobodies. None of us came from private industry. Few of us had advanced degrees at the time. Those degrees we did have were as likely to be in history, literature, or some other non-behavioral discipline from schools you probably never heard of. The only people we had access to in government were maybe the local town council or an aunt on the local school board. We certainly didn’t see ourselves as, and didn’t want to be, gurus. None of us meditated or looked good in beads and sandals anyway. So, what to do?

Our first great insight was, don’t compete in an area where we’ll never win. We weren’t going to out-ivy the ivy-leaguers, or leverage Congressperson Whoever to mandate program funding from on high. So, what were we good at?

First, we had real expertise. You can’t fake that. Most of us had actually worked with some of the “toughest” kids in the most challenging settings you can imagine: detention facilities, drug and alcohol treatment programs, tough inner-city schools.

We hadn’t spent our lives studying children. We had devoted our lives to engaging them and immersing ourselves in their real daily lived experience. We had the professional version of “street-cred”. We been there, done that, and had learned plenty worth sharing.

So, we’d lean on that as one differentiator. But even that critical factor wouldn’t be enough to break into the kind of work we wanted to do. Every market has gatekeepers and it’s not enough to have a great idea or expertise. You need to build a pathway into the network of relationships that control access into doing the work you want to do.

Then, we realized we had a huge advantage with which the other players mentioned above could not compete. It was actually a kind of super-power. We were willing to share.

Scarcity is a myth. It comes from the fear that there’s only so many customers, a fixed amount of attention (or love?) that the world can give, or only so much funding that will ever be available.

When the fear of scarcity becomes deeply engrained in entrepreneurs, they start doing irrational things. They treat potential collaborators as threats. They seek to control and bottle up the very ideas they set out to spread. Instead of growing a market, they choke it off and cling to their little slice of funding and attention like Gollum clinging to his “precious”.

The reality is… the amount of potential good that can be done in the world in infinite. Good ideas worth spreading are inexhaustible. And when you stop seeing those around you as competitors, you can start to view everyone you meet as a potential collaborator - each with something unique to offer.

And at that, we were great. We had to be. After all, we had functionally come from nowhere in comparison to the gatekeepers in this market. So, we had always needed to find allies, build partnerships, and check our egos at the door. None of us was living under the terrible illusion that we owned or had invented some entirely new idea about human beings and relationships. We had simply, through direct experience, learned how practice what we preached at a very high level.

This realization led to a completely different strategy that was superior both ethically and from a business-impact perspective. If all of the other groups were busy competing and throwing each other under the bus, we would be exceedingly (and publicly) generous.

Instead of blocking, we convened. Instead of owning, we shared openly. Instead of hogging the mic, we built a stage and made space for others.

We actively promoted that truth that neither we, nor our erstwhile competitors, had every idea and insight that others needed. So, we said, let’s not pretend. Instead, let’s do together the things that none of us can do separately. We’ll share first and hope you’ll do the same.

We weren’t perfect. Sometimes we didn’t practice the above as well as we should have. But when we didn’t, we did our best to own up to it – publicly if necessary. And this, was how we built a bigger movement and ultimately more positive impact, than existed before we got involved. That’s all we ever wanted. We became leaders in a field by practicing strategic generosity, instead of being just another competitor clawing for funding and attention from the world.

A few years later, one of the gatekeepers we contended with in the early days contacted me. He admitted that his organization had seen us a threat back then. Despite their impressive resumes and powerful networks in government, they feared that if we (a bunch of nobodies without the right pedigrees) could succeed, then it somehow meant that their research and life’s work was inherently “less”. Instead, he told me, it was only when they broke away from the fear of scarcity and took a leap of faith toward generosity, that their full contribution truly bloomed.

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