Nothing is written in stone

“Nada esta escrito en piedra.”

“Nothing is written in stone.”

nothing is written in stone

By Gabriel Manjarrez

This is my favorite personal saying, and I use it frequently when talking to people inside and outside Mimoni. As I mention in a previous post, “The round room problem”, you need to be 100% focused on your model until you should not be. Here I want to talk about setting a culture that recognizes that absolutely everything can and should be improved. As a former consultant, a big lesson drilled into us was, “you have the obligation to dissent.” Notice that it is not the right to dissent, it is the obligation to do so. In Mexico, my partner and I drill into every single new employee that there is no sin worse than seeing something that can be improved and not doing something about it.

In most of Latin America, getting teams to do this is significantly harder than it sounds. We come from very strictly hierarchical societies, with historically little social and professional mobility. In a typical Mexican company, the quickest way to get fired is to disagree with your (or any) boss or to criticize the boss’ ideas. There is a sadly telling popular saying that translates as “he who sticks out his head, gets beheaded.”

It has taken us years to build a top and middle management team in Mexico that understands that the worst decision is the one you do not make and that no one gets punished for making the wrong decisions as long as they meet two criteria: 1) The decision was reasonable given the available information and 2) Lessons were learned from the mistake.

My partner, Pedro Zayas, makes it a point to always tell new recruits at Mimoni, “I could come up with a list as long as your arm about the things here that could be improved, including things that I have personally implemented. That does not scare me. Figure out the most impactful ones and how to change them. THAT would impress me.” This underlines the second key factor many times preventing ventures from growing in a country like Mexico: even when given a chance to dissent, the team’s focus is on the ‘gotcha’ part and not the ‘here is a solution part.’ It is much easier to safely say, ‘this is wrong’ and then not stick your head out by proposing some way of improving it (and possibly have it go wrong).

This reticence of managers or execs to point out inefficiencies and then make improvement decisions can significantly curtail the scalability of any venture. You end up with nothing happening unless the boss says so. I have many times been shocked by the difference in start-up meetings between the US and Mexico. In the US, typically everyone in the room will feel ownership (they have stock options, after all, so in reality they ARE owners) and will have no compunctions about disagreeing with the boss or the boss’ boss and speaking up if they feel strongly about it. Why bring someone to the meeting in the first place if you do not want them to open their mouths? Applause?

In Mexico a very tight script is typically obeyed, where only the boss speaks and everyone else takes notes, agrees and feel relieved that they themselves didn’t get called on to make a decision or have an opinion. It is this passing the buck upwards that any good entrepreneur must fight if she is to succeed in building a world-class team. The problem is that the hierarchical way is very alluring. The boss is always funny, always smart, always witty and never wrong. Hard to resist that kind of personal idolatry.

Even people with US experience fall into the trap of believing that they truly are always the smartest people in the room and that their own conclusions and decisions are the best possible ones.  Like a democratically-elected leader that after a while cannot relinquish power, mediocre CEOs thrust into this natural state of yes-men will make little effort to discourage the behavior. Anyone that is not with the program, quickly gets the boot, reinforcing the message. Bad for the venture, great for the entrepreneur’s ego and her inability to see beyond her own need to be right.

At Mimoni, our incredibly effective (and perpetually dissenting!) team came mostly from companies where they were frustrated at this status quo and wanted to work in a place where their ideas got heard and they could own the implementation. Now they get to live and die by their own sword and they love it. So do my partner and I.

We recently had a meeting with a startup in Mexico where their CEO was not present. I was impressed by the amount of hand wringing and non-decisioning taking place on their end for a fairly simple potential partnership. The exec team had been trained to not risk saying something or doing something that might later displease the boss. In their case, the worst decision is a wrong or unpopular decision and since no one is perfect, the only way to avoid that fate is by not doing anything unless directly ordered to do it.

It’s hard to grow any company that way, since then founding team’s skills become the strict limiting factor. The good news, as I will discuss in an upcoming post, is that if you are true to your word and create a culture of open communication, non-punishment and inclusive decision-making, you will quickly start getting the calls of great candidates looking for that sort of opportunity, especially if you do it an environment, like Mexico, where few others are willing to foster that culture (and actually mean it).

Gabriel Manjarrez is co-founder and CEO of Mimoni, Mexico’s first online short-term credit provider for the unbanked.

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