Unorthodox Brilliance, Pragmatic Lessons
Ernesto Sirolli’s Highly Human Approach
As important as speaking up and asserting one’s ideas are to career development, these skills have traditionally been overvalued when compared with listening, observing and empathizing.
In the past, these skills often got dismissed as feminine, viewed as soft skills as opposed to leadership skills.
This is no longer true. Values that were once associated primarily with women have now found their place in mainstream management practice.
I believe I played a small part in supporting this change. In the late 80’s and early 90’s, The Female Advantage and The Web of Inclusion highlighted the benefits of women’s ways of leadership and showed how evolving organizations could benefit from understanding them.
But I was hardly the only one assigning value to these skills. On the other side of the world, one of the best and most influential practitioners of workplace listening, observation and empathy was working hard in places as far flung as Kenya and New Zealand. I’m talking about Ernesto Sirolli.
Known for his wildly popular TED talk entitled simply, “Want to Help Someone? Shut Up and Listen,” Sirolli demonstrates that greater business impact comes with less talk, more listening, and keen, empathic observation.
Born in Rome and having worked with multiple NGO’s all over the world, Sirolli has dedicated himself to helping people find the resources they need to start businesses and make them thrive. He and the people he’s trained have helped launch more than 40,000 enterprises in 250 communities in 25 countries. Curiosity, commitment, and the willingness to spend time in some of the most remote locations on earth have given him unusual insight into what successful entrepreneurs do well-- and what it takes to help them succeed.
I had the chance to interview him several years ago for Strategy and Business Magazine. Sirolli recounted to me his early experiences working for an Italian NGO that specialized in economic development in impoverished communities in Algeria, the Ivory Coast, Somalia, and Zambia. “Everything we touched, we killed,” he said. “Every project we did, every single one of them, failed.”
He described, for example, how his team decided to teach Zambians how to grow food in the beautiful fertile valley where they had always lived as pastoralists, shepherding animals but planting nothing. The team imported seeds from Italy—tomatoes and zucchini— but the locals didn’t seem interested. The team tried to pay them money to plant, but there was little in the valley available for them to spend money on. Finally, the NGO started importing whisky and beer to coax the locals into the fields. “We kept thinking, what is wrong with these people?”
It soon became apparent. The tomatoes appeared on the vines, huge bursting fruits that put the most bountiful Italian crops to shame. The team was joyful, until one morning they awoke to find every single one of the plants gone. Hippos had swarmed up from the river and begun gorging. The Italians ran to tell the Zambians what had happened. “Of course,” said the people. “That’s why we don’t plant in the valley.”
“Why didn’t you tell us? ” asked the Italians.
“Because you never asked,” came the response.
“The experience was painful,” said Sirolli. “I thought we Italians were good people, and I wondered how we could fail so badly. So I began looking around at other projects that had been done in Africa—by the English, the Americans, the French— hoping to get ideas. And I realized: well, at least we had fed the hippos. Other million-dollar projects just left rubbish behind. Everywhere I saw the same problem: Our well-intentioned efforts failed because we didn’t listen to the people we were trying to help.”
It led Sirolli to 3 important conclusions that he has used in his work ever since, and which can be applied in any situation in which entrepreneurial activity is key, from big corporations to tiny non-profits:
First, effective development ideas need to come from locals- or people on the ground- rather than from outside “experts,” no matter how well meaning or informed these experts might be.
Second, most efforts to motivate people are fruitless; instead, those trying to help an enterprise must wait until entrepreneurs ask for help, then connect them with the resources they need.
Third, entrepreneurs should never be encouraged to act in isolation on their dreams, since doing so will increase their chances of failure and cause them to question their own capacities.
This last idea is paramount and informs Sirolli’s ideas about development and the nature of enterprise. With a methodology developed over years of challenging real-world conditions, Sirolli pushes back against what he sees as the all-too-prevalent myth of the celebrity entrepreneur as go-it-alone individualist. “The business media is often publishing hagiography: hero stories about geniuses who do it all on their own,” he says. “But when you look at the real story, whether it’s Steve Jobs or Bill Gates or Sam Walton or [Thomas] Edison or the owner of a chain of dry cleaners, you see none of them did it alone. They all had groups of colleagues who could do the things they couldn’t do. The way it’s presented is very dishonest. My work now is to oppose this fake mythology and show that enterprise really succeeds when the right people come together.”
It led Sirolli to co-found the Sirolli Institute, in Sacramento, California—a global social enterprise dedicated to revitalizing communities by fostering entrepreneurship. In his view, this is a calling of the highest order: if communities or enterprises devastated by industrial decline, war, isolation or disruption in global supply chains are to grow and create jobs, entrepreneurs need to succeed. Young people, he notes, are particularly inspired by a vision of responsive growth, of working with what they find to create products and services of distinctive value.
To support entrepreneurs and help them find what they need to thrive takes an open-mind, courage, conviction.
As Ernesto Sirolli points out, listening, observing and having empathy are primary business tools that get you there.