Deep Smarts: The Knowledge Coach

In 1967, a young graduate of Bombay’s Indian Institute of Technology, Kanwal Rekhi, came to the United States to obtain a master’s degree from the Michigan Technological University. Thirty-two years later, a young Indian in Bangalore, Saumil Majmudar, started a small company. Those two events are connected by a trail of knowledge accumulation and hand-offs, of experience hard-won and generously shared.

After selling his company, Excelan, to Novell in 1989, Rekhi put his newfound wealth and entrepreneurial skills to work helping other ambitious South Asians. Two of his beneficiaries were K.B. “Chandra” Chandrasekhar and B.V. Jagadeesh, founders of a small company, Exodus Communications, who met him when they were days away from going broke. Rekhi bailed them out with $200,000—but he contributed more than cash. He helped them decide how to focus the company, and Exodus reached a peak market capitalization of just under $30 billion in March 2000. “Kanwal’s my guru and my mentor,” Chandra said.(Both Jagadeesh and Chandra subsequently left Exodus to found separate companies; some time later Exodus filed for bankruptcy.)

Chandra, in turn, mentored fledgling entrepreneur Rajesh Reddy, who was in India in 1998-1999 building a company called Unimobile, a provider of universal wireless solutions. As Reddy recalled his second meeting, Chandra “tore the Unimobile business plan apart,” noting that the revenue projections were unrealistic and the business focus was too diffuse—but still he invested in the company.

The chain of knowledge flows didn’t stop with the Rekhi-to-Chandra-to-Reddy exchange. Even after he moved Unimobile to the United States, Reddy kept in touch with people back in India, with the result that he was able to help his friend, twenty-eight-year-old Saumil Majmudar, with his start-up, QSupport, a technical support company for people with home personal computers. Reddy passed along knowledge he had newly acquired about selecting and dealing with the board of investors, honing a business strategy, building a strong core team, and managing cash carefully. The two of them also discussed mutual problems they faced, such as balancing loyalty to employees against incompetence and inability to scale up with the company.

Who can be a knowledge coach? Who can be coached?

Of course, much of the success of knowledge transfer depends on identifying not only what is to be transferred—but how. And the transfer will never take place without a willing, skillful coach and a receptive, able learner.

Leonardo da Vinci notwithstanding, no one is an expert on everything. An expert in one domain is a novice in another. When e-business burst on the scene, GE’s CEO Jack Welch was impressed by the strategy adopted by the CEO of GE’s Global Consumer Finance (GCF) division, who realized he was not up to speed in e-business. The CEO identified the brightest person under thirty in GCF and asked him to be his mentor. When Welch returned to the United States, within forty-eight hours he spread the word: All managers were to identify someone who could serve as an e- business mentor. According to Welch, the youngest and brightest would now teach the oldest.

There’s no rule that says the need for being coached stops when one has reached a certain age or level of expertise. Concert pianists and Wimbledon champions draw on the expertise of master teachers to guide their practice sessions. One forty-six-year-old senior vice president at Adobe Systems calls upon mentors within the company (including CEO Bruce Chizen) and out (a former supervisor from her days at Hewlett-Packard). And Chizen himself taps Intuit chairman Bill Campbell for advice and support.

So who can coach? Certainly some level of expertise is required, some knowledge that is worth transferring; beyond that, a desire to coach and some skill at dealing with people who may have little or no prior knowledge. We do not always have the luxury of an expert to coach us—or of reaching mastery before we are called upon to share our knowledge. Recall that there are several rungs on the ladder of expertise: novice, apprentice, journeyman, and then master. Each individual reaching a rung above novice has knowledge to impart to those on the lower rungs of the ladder, although it is likely incomplete. A nudge in the right direction by an apprentice may be helpful to the total novice.

In our entrepreneurship study, we observed extensive chains of knowledge transfer in which a coach’s protégé quickly became a coach to someone less knowledgeable than himself, who then coached a budding entrepreneur even more callow. The time between start-ups grew shorter and the smarts more shallow as they were passed down the line and across the world—but some value was always transmitted.

In interviewing Majmudar, we thought we had reached the end of the knowledge transfer chain. But no. He was coaching three of his friends who were starting up businesses in India! Several observations emerge from the story of knowledge transfer.

Experts can mentor novices, despite a very large gap in knowledge, if the experts are willing to coach and the novices can bear having their knowledge gap exposed. Some experts find the knowledge gap so great that they don’t know where to start—and/or don’t have the patience to begin with the basics. Rekhi’s approach is to give novices advice, often as rules of thumb, such as “focus”—and then send them out to put the rules into practice. If they are smart enough to act on his advice and come back to report on their progress, he will give them more assistance. If they didn’t get it or didn’t try his suggestion, he will not see them a third time. Thus he is building their knowledge base by forcing them to practice what he preaches! All along the ladder of expertise, people can coach those who are less experienced. They transfer what they have learned so far. No sooner do they learn something from their mentor that is reinforced in their own experience, then they can pass it along. In fact, the relatively less experienced apprentice may be better positioned to coach the novice because the apprentice understands the receptors, having recently been a novice himself. An expert coach understands this. Kleiner Perkins venture capitalist Vinod Khosla was mentoring the young start-up team at Zaplet. But Khosla also sent another of his protégés, Joe Kraus (founder of Web portal Excite), to talk with the founders. Although Kraus was only in his mid-twenties, he was able to draw on his recent experiences as an entrepreneur to assist the Zaplet team. In many of our organizations, such apprentice-level individuals with experience are underutilized as coaches. Coaching can help shorten the time to fill some parts of the knowledge gap. That is, when Rekhi passed along the knowledge it took him years to discover, Chandra’s learning curve was shortened; Chandra in turn shortened the period for Reddy to learn certain aspects of entrepreneuring, and Reddy quickened Majmudar’s learning process. Contrary to the old adage about a little knowledge being dangerous, a little knowledge here was helpful. Each coach was able to help those below him on the ladder, to frame their experience as it unfolded. That is, the coaches helped their junior colleagues grow more receptors. By the time the knowledge reached Majmudar, it was fragmentary and incomplete, to be sure. But because those pieces of knowledge passed along were rooted in the recent experience of the coach, this was not like a game of “telephone,” where the knowledge gets distorted by being passed along. Rather, the knowledge was truncated, limited by the experience of the mentor. So toward the end of the chain, the “coach” (Reddy) was still struggling with the same issues as the “protégé” (Majmudar). For example, Reddy had not yet solved the problem of how to hire people who would be able to scale up as the start-up company grew—and how to fire them if they didn’t. He had been given the rule of thumb—hire people who can scale, and fire them if they don’t—but he didn’t know how to do that in real time. (In fact, he gave Majmudar the opposite advice at one point—hire people who will be loyal to the idea and don’t worry about hiring for skills!)

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