Top Chef Impact Investment: A Tasty Skills Building Exercise

The ability to make time and budget constrained decisions in foreign territory on the basis of limited information is perhaps the essence of due diligence work and a significant part of what being an emerging markets investor is all about. Investment managers doing field work need the savvy of an intelligence operative, a strong understanding of context (political, economic, cultural), a well-developed sense of curiosity and the ability to connect random bits of information into a cohesive analytical framework.

Early in my career, a mentor assured me that within 10 years I would have developed the “banker’s nose” that reflects these skills. When building my team at ACCION International, I knew we didn’t have 10 years to wait while everyone developed their skill sets. Still, how do you approach teaching due diligence skills if not by having junior staff shadow senior staff over time?

In the summer of 2008, the 15 members of my team (and our brilliant facilitator, Dr. K.C. Soares) were converging on the Raystown Lake Resort & Conference Center for an intensive week of work, training and global team building. At the time, I owned a “farm” not far from the Lake and wanted to host my team as a gesture of hospitality (despite a 3 hour drive and the need to check in to the conference center by 3pm). In order to make everything work cost effectively, I asked several DC-based staffers to drive, making sure we had enough cars for the total number of people. Note to self: next time pay attention to how much luggage might also have to fit in those cars!

To make the drive out more fun, and a good team building challenge, we decided to have a Top Chef style pot-luck lunch at the farm before continuing on to Raystown Lake. Each car was assigned a part of the meal, given budget and info on places to shop en route and told to be creative, bearing in mind that we needed to include vegetarian options for about a third of the team. This Top Chef challenge gave each group the chance to work as a team, figuring out what dishes would work with dietary requirements, budget allowances and the limited time frame we had to prepare and eat lunch before checking in at the conference center. They also had to adjust their plans when the local markets they visited failed to have the same diversity of options as the urban supermarkets some of them were accustomed to.

The results of this exercise were certainly interesting. One team – and K.C. – arrived at my farm before I did and was well on the way to completing their contribution to the meal (dessert – strawberry brownies!) and a bonus dish. One team arrived so late that they barely had time to gulp down some of everyone else’s dishes before we had to get started for the conference center. Every team exceeded the terms of their assignment, so we had plenty of food and beverages despite the late-comers. Almost everyone came in at or under budget – and the team that didn’t took the $13 hit out of their own pockets.

At the time, I was stressed out about the results, and felt a bit bad about the whole exercise. It was clearly a tough challenge for this great bunch of people, many of whom had not yet met in person (working remotely – or completely new to the entire team). Upon reflection, however, I would absolutely run a revised version of this challenge again! As a due diligence skills training exercise, it’s far more entertaining (and easier to set up) than creating case studies and mock data rooms.

The timing was admittedly too tight, but the global team members in each car DID work together to achieve a complex goal. Even the latecomers’ car – a delicate grouping to which I had gratefully assigned my number #2 – were o.k. with the disagreements and decisions (or indecision) that resulted in their tardiness.

I felt bad that my number #2 didn’t get to shine, because he certainly deserved to! No matter how high the performance bar was raised or how many hats he had to wear as we grew, he’d been stepping up to the plate. And yet, his driver was a fellow countryman and the dynamic they worked through that day was illustrative (and helpful) with regard to some of the tensions that hadn’t yet been worked through in the office. That’s as important an outcome as completing the assignment on time and under budget – at least in this type of exercise!

All in all, our “Top Chef ACCION Global Investments” challenge was almost as fun, provocative and productive as I could have hoped for. Our team retreat was phenomenal. We worked hard, came together around strategy and process, played on a budget ($17 p.p. dinner cruise on the Lake, $3 miniature golf), saw a part of the US new to almost all of the team, US or foreign and contributed to the economy of south central Pennsylvania, the foothills of the Appalachian mountains.

I don’t, of course, credit the Top Chef challenge with the success of the entire team retreat. K.C.’s brilliant facilitation and the can-do spirit of my staff, new and old, is what made everything work so well. It was, however, an activity that yielded insights for me as a manager for many months. As a change of pace from more academic training activities – and as a way for geographically diverse staff to interact and rapidly advance their working relationships – it was also definitely worthwhile.

After that week, everyone went back to their home country offices and our routine of email, video, Skype and coordinated field work resumed. We smashed it out of the ballpark that year, exceeding our revenue goals and coming in under budget and went on to create hundreds of millions of dollars in value for our industry with a nine-figure payday for our own organization. The lesson I learned from Top Chef was that not all learning needs to happen in a classroom, but all team building requires face-to-face work, as well as clear communications, policies and practices. Access to good, appropriate technology helps. So does fun!

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