Do you enjoy diversity?

Once upon a time, there was a professor who enjoyed hiking in distant countries, while embracing great discussions in a good community. It is not just the heights that attract him, but most of all, he enjoys the journey itself. To be honest, this gentleman looks as if he was constantly in Flow – focused on his tasks, always finding and assigning himself new challenges, is goals-oriented, and well-tempered. I have no idea, whether it is thanks to his daily energizing bicycle rides to his office at the Estonian Business School or perhaps just a result of a very well-balanced life. Nevertheless, after having well settled in his own life, he contributes a lot to the wellbeing of the people around us – through training the new generation of entrepreneurs and investing as an Angel Investor in promising start-ups. It is my pleasure to introduce you in this interview a man, to whom no mountain is high enough and no challenge too difficult to try out – an entrepreneurship professor of Estonian Business School, Tiit Elenurm. Today´s interview focuses mainly on the topics related to cross-border cooperation.

Q – To start with, what is your association with Flow?

A – The first metaphor that comes into my mind with Flow is a flow of ideas that runs through everybody before any decision making – quite an intense process… Another association is related to a river – our life is about finding and battling on our own river and while doing that you should not fight against the Flow – let it just take you where it flows to. Nevertheless, from a theoretical perspective, Flow is a tricky thing. Before the current interview, I got myself more familiar with the  Flow theory and have to tell that I do not fully believe that in entrepreneurship flow only means creativity and supporting the enthusiasm of team members. It may also assume pivot, learning from failure, and readiness to leave your comfort zone. When enjoying your business and team harmony too much, you might be out of business the very next day, especially during an economic crisis. Therefore, the dilemma for me is less about enjoying what you are doing in a pleasant team today, but more about getting out of your comfort zone to enjoy long-term success. I like the point made by my TallTech student and later City mayor of Tallinn Jüri Mõis, who fired several employees of the city administration. As a result, these people could see life outside their comfort zone, and several of them became successful entrepreneurs. 

Q – I have known you for years as a great adaptor. How has COVID-19 changed your teaching practices?

A – To start with, I am very impressed with the Global Hack, where the intention was to find new start-ups to change the world. This innovative event involved more than 6000 participants who together generated 500 ideas. I use the outputs of that event as an input in my teaching. Thus, I too, have asked my students to analyze what kind of ideas fly after COVID-19, but in addition to this, I also think what kind of team they would like to join to develop some of the Global Hack startup ideas I feel that I need to prepare my students for new opportunities. Especially, as history has shown, start-ups in Estonia need to be international – the most successful start-ups have team members representing different cultures and different markets. Also, the well-known Estonian start-up success story of TransferWise started by an international impulse outside Estonia.

Additionally, to content-related changes in curriculum and assignments, I also see a growing need for mastering the non-verbal communication. Lately, there have been lots of discussions about the importance of showing your hands during online meetings. Perhaps we will soon be using 3D cameras to show both our faces and hands during online video conferences that also requires new skills. Speaking of new skills, the “Nordic Angel program” was using online tools <Startup Includer> before the COVID-19 and helped business angels in the Baltic and Nordic countries to co-operate cross-borders find the best start-ups for their investments. Now start-ups need even more skill to make virtual pitches, which again requires a new type of skills.

Q – You offer very interesting courses to young entrepreneurs, please tell more about them?

A – While hiking, I have met many people who are constantly conquering the peaks while sometimes risking their lives; while in the business world, I know some serial entrepreneurs, who have set up 10 companies during their lifetime and adapted their business models so much that they are even able to enjoy the failure. I feel that the most important thing in this life is to find the self-development path that you are ready to enjoy. There are many different types of entrepreneurship. One size does not fit all. This is what I also try to teach my students.

Currently, I am teaching international business courses, where students work in X-Culture global project teams. My students make online teamwork – teams help some companies to enter foreign markets. The X-Culture principle is that all teams consist of people from different countries only. The students’ task is to create synergy to help one particular company to find the best foreign markets for their business. Some students enjoy it, especially those who are very open-minded and like to expand their international network. These students, like athletes, want to be challenged. On the other hand, some students who want to achieve predictable results or study for grades, complain that students from other countries are unpredictable. It seems to me that there is a basic difference – for some of the participants, it is all about teaming with like-minded people (usually these students are looking for positive feedback), for others it is all about differences as a source of synergy and creative solution. It is essential to train students to overcome challenges caused by uncertainties. Therefore, the most important skills for future entrepreneurs are open mind-set (accepting diversified views) and trust-creation, followed by more technical things (adapting to different time zones, etc).

Q – In Estonia, we often use the slogan “enriching diversity”, but somehow still doubt in its practical value. You have run and studied cross-border cooperation for some years now – what is essential for successful and enjoyable cross-border cooperation?

A – I believe mental integration and knowledge sharing in digital societies start online. Even after the COVID-19 crisis you first have to establish an online contact before you fly to Australia for a face-to-face business meeting. Online networking assumes expressing emotions and small talk but at later stages, it should not be an online coffee-corner only, some of it needs to be structured online with the knowledge management principles for real knowledge sharing and ideation. 

Trust inside a community or even more in a team and find some joint Flow are the key drivers for any cooperation. In a narrow-minded community, people only like each other and do not challenge each other.  It is easy, but usually, this does not bring about any significant results either. Therefore, I always encourage my students to embrace the differences. I want my students to experience diversified teams, where all complement each other, and sometimes for a real synergy to emerge no charismatic leader is needed. Leadership roles can be distributed and situational. I help my students to decide if they are more a leading or the following type of people or individual innovators vs co-creators. I have created a questionnaire to position themselves in this space. This consists of a list of skills to some extent similar to the FLIGBY skills feedback, with the biggest difference being that it is fully self-reflective. Understanding, where the students are right now with their mindset, they are more prepared for a decision to leave their comfort zone, learn completely new things and hopefully in the longer run, learn to enjoy failures as well.

Nevertheless, before beginning any kind of cooperation, it is essential to know your partners’ competencies and priorities. Estonians usually build up trust step by step. Therefore, we often start with small projects in case we do not know the partners well. Trust is also about doing things on time, but on a more profound level we also want to be sure that our partners do not steal our ideas…

One more aspect of diversity. Some people are brilliant in creating ideas but unable to implement them, which should also be fully acceptable. We do accept that some people enjoy fighting to be the best (in sports) and others watch it. There are people who enjoy following a charismatic leader who just inspires, without giving any tasks. There are also some subordinates who just cannot have a boss. This should also be accepted, and such people feel the Flow when they are self-employed as many famous artists, but it applies also to growth ventures. Even Steve Jobs was some years ago kicked out of the company that he had founded himself. 

Q – What kind of skills are expected from the manager or coordinator of cross-border cooperation?

A – What I learned at Harvard Business School, is that there are two types of leaders. The 1st one is a charismatic leader, who is really good at formulating a vision and attracting people to join the team. People want to join this kind of “Julius Caesar” as long as the leader has a certain degree of acceptance of different opinions and rewards devoted followers. 

Another type of person does not have so much of a personal vision but is a good networker. Thus, he goes first to somebody who has the technology, then to someone who is a great marketer. As the 3rd step, he goes to someone who has some money and is looking for exciting ideas to invest in. After defining some common challenges, he turns to smart guys, who he knows being able to contribute. As a result, such a leader is a good integrator even for people who are smarter than the leader.

I would like to bring in one more skill needed for cross-border cooperation. A few years ago, I invested as an angel investor in CAPSTER. At this time, they were just about to start producing a nose flashing tool. Later, (when consulting the start-up) we found out how important it is to run it as cross-border cooperation as the product needs to meet some medical standards and some production had to be outsourced to Finland. Their road to international business success could be more rapid if also the founder team could include representatives of some large foreign markets. To conclude, in order to be an innovative start-up launched in a small open economy, you need to have international markets and trusted foreign partners as early as possible.

Tips by Prof. Tiit Elenurm:

Assess your entrepreneurial orientation – are you really interested in developing and implementing a new business idea or rather in fine-tuning an established business model and prefer to avoid mistakes that lead to more safe Flow for you?

If you develop an innovative idea, choose a business opportunity close to your heart and which helps you to get fully involved and energized in a start-up team. A team, in which positive feelings are shared, even if team members have different experiences and ideas.

Be aware of innovation-related risks and stay ready to learn from failure.

Q – To conclude, I would like to ask a personal-collegial question to you, our reader!

A – Two months ago, my colleague Oliana Sula and me, we created a new open Facebook group Challenges of online learning – COVID19. I was happy that many colleagues from several countries rapidly joined the group. But I am a bit disappointed, as its members are mostly passive and do not actively contribute to the messages and polls. At the same time, I know Facebook communities, where people are very active to express their views on current topics. How to activate academic people and researchers in online communities?  What is the online channel and format where such people want to change their experiences and ideas?  

So Please JOIN that group. Share your first thoughts with us here or in that group!
May the FLOW be with You!

By Marge Sassi, Flow Enthusiast, and FLIGBY lecturer at Estonian Business School.