I have always believed in the saying, “It’s better to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission.” It’s a way of life. It’s not about abusing situations but about knowing when to push the boundaries. It’s about knowing that the overwhelming number of people in life are naysayers and “no sayers” and sometimes you gotta just roll the dice and say WTF.
So I have a short story to exemplify my credo and my friend Tyler Crowley has been telling me to write this story for a while so here goes.
Having grown up in Northern California and living near a Japanese family when I was really young, I always had a fascination with Japan and wanted to live there. And during the 1980′s in California there was also a period of explosive growth of sushi restaurants (introducing Americans to a little bit more of the Japanese culture) as well as a growth in the Japanese economy that had all American companies trying to understand Japanese processes and business structure (Kanban, Keiretsu, etc.). Both Tyler & I are Nihon-philes.
In 1999 I was working in the London offices of Andersen Consulting. I had been working on marketing & strategy initiatives for European telcos for the past several years helping them to think through and design Internet offerings. I had just completed a project for Marconi Communications (then, the Lucent of the UK) and was looking for my next assignment.
I heard word that a new project was starting in Tokyo to work for the board of directors of a very large and well known Japanese electronics company to work on their Internet strategy looking at media, devices and networks. It was right up my alley in terms of skill sets and interests. But there was tons of client demand in Europe for Internet projects and very few people with real experience and so my senior partner in the London office was talking about 3 or 4 projects he was considering me for in Europe. One in particular was in Switzerland and working for the telco there on a “death march” project for which several of my friends were already complaining.
I knew that my request to apply for the Japanese project would fall on deaf ears locally so I knew better than to ask. If I asked and my partner predictably told me “no” then the only way to go would be to directly defy his instructions – never a great idea in business. So I didn’t ask. I looked in the worldwide directory to find the partner in charge of the project who happened to be based in San Francisco. I emailed him a copy of my internal resume with my relevant experience and asked to have a phone call. He responded positively. He told me all about the project and the goals and told me it was likely moving ahead. They had an internal kick off meeting scheduled for early April and the client would likely sign off on the project shortly thereafter). He told me that he was leading the project globally and gave me the name of the lead Japanese partner.
He then said, “we would love to have somebody with your skills on the project.” I knew that this wasn’t a direct “offer” to work on the project but I knew that if I didn’t take matters into my own hands I’d never get to Japan. So I flew out there speculatively without asking anybody. I knew that worst case I’d have to eat the expenses for the flight & hotels and have to eat some “humble pie” for having been dumb enough to show up. But show up I did. I arrived at the Andersen Consulting offices on Monday morning and asked for the lead Japanese partner of the project.
He was flabbergasted. ”What are you doing here?”
“Um, I spoke with the SF partner on the project who told me that you’d love my skills on the project.” It certainly helped me that a little bit was lost in translation. They didn’t know what to do. They sat me in an office and scrambled around. Eventually they came out and said that the project wasn’t yet sold and that they hadn’t expected me. But since I was there I might as well stay for the week and get some work done helping them. Naturally I worked my arse off that week and by the end of the week we had produced the final output of our proposal. By then I knew the local team well and they realized that I had done several relevant projects in Europe. They also knew that I was from NorCal, which in 1999 was a huge bonus to foreign companies thinking about Internet strategies.
They asked me if I would stay 6 months and do the project with them. I did. I faced a little bit of the wrath from my partner back home but by then the SF and Japanese partner were telling him for me how critical I was to the project. He begrudgingly agreed. At the end of the 6 months the lead partner from the Japanese office asked me to transfer permanently to Tokyo. I was at the end of my career with Andersen Consulting so I turned him down, returned to London and started my first company.
Had I asked my partner in the first place to go to Tokyo the answer would have been “no.” Had I asked the Japanese team the answer would have been “well be in touch.” You know how that usually ends. So I took matters into my own hands. I knew that I had the skills to do the job and I wanted to make it happen. Once you’ve asked for permission and you’re told that you can’t do something you HAVE TO live with the results. So in life I’ve always operated on the principle that “it’s better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission.” It has suited me well in life.
Does that mean that I condone this kind of behavior with portfolio companies in which I invest? Absolutely! How else could I sign up the the JFDI credo? See I still look for people who act with good moral intent and want to do the right thing. But if you’re waiting around looking for permission from me? Naw, that would be hypocritical.