Stay true to your value proposition
In a highly competitive industry such as management consulting, you need to have a clearly defined value proposition for your service. This is your signal to the market as to your competitive differentiation.
At Kuroshio, our value proposition drives our hiring practices — we only hire seasoned consultants and industry executives who have lived experiences of transformations; we do not hire individuals who only have theoretical knowledge of how to go about transforming organizations, nor do we stack our teams with junior analysts whose rates we mark up to make margins. We are firmly committed to delivering successful outcomes to our clients and sharing our own experiences in having led large-scale transformations (the good, the bad, and the ugly).
Being a founder, entrepreneur, or business owner can have many exciting and thrilling moments. But it is also punctuated with periods of doubt, slump, and anxiety. So how does one successfully and healthily ride the highs and lows of Entrepreneurship? In this series, called “How To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur” we are talking to successful entrepreneurs who can share stories from their experience. I had the pleasure of interviewing Krishna Kutty.
Krishna is a strategy and operations executive with 17+ years of experience. She supports clients across North America with strategic planning, business and operating model re-designs, product strategy and innovation, and transformations (digital, functional, operational), as the Managing Partner & Co-Founder of Kuroshio Consulting Inc., a boutique management consultancy based in Chicago.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I am a strategy and operations management consulting executive, who leads large-scale transformations for client organizations. I left industry to become an entrepreneur because we recognized a niche — where organizations were paying enormous consulting fees that resulted in reports that garnered dust because they were not rooted in the organization’s context or environmental constraints, and so could not be implemented effectively or efficiently. Having lived experiences (and not just having to lean on theory), my business partner and I felt there had to be a better way to pragmatically support organizations with their strategy and transformations, and so we set up our own consulting practice. We now offer a range of advisory services, with recent engagements entailing designing digital engagement and virtual care strategies for hospital systems, advising pharmaceutical, financial, and automotive organizations on how to accelerate their product strategy and innovation initiatives, and developing corporate strategic and organizational effectiveness plans in the oil/gas sector.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
I started my own consulting practice because I had back-to-back experiences with employers who espoused wanting to radically transform but wouldn’t assign the funds or take the actions necessary to enable true transformation (they just wanted incremental change, and while there is absolutely nothing wrong with that approach, it just isn’t where my passion lies). Those two experiences solidified my desire to set off on my own — I could then find client organizations who really did want to transform across multiple industries, without being tied to one particular employer.
In your opinion, were you a natural born entrepreneur or did you develop that aptitude later on? Can you explain what you mean?
I definitely developed the itch to be an entrepreneur later on in my career. I was perfectly content with learning and growing within industry roles for a long time. Having worked predominantly in leading large transformations though was helpful, as it very often required out-of-the-box thinking to generate innovative services and product ideas. As stated in the response to the previous question, a specific set of back-to-back experiences really led me to entrepreneurship — and it has been the most rewarding experience.
Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?
I get my entrepreneurial genes from my grandfathers. My paternal grandfather owned a series of businesses (bicycle repair shop and produce stand) and my maternal grandfather owned a bakery, just around the time that India was gaining independence. I can’t imagine the type of hardships they had to endure, especially as they were located in small villages where the economic outlook was poor, and they didn’t have the privilege of having a business degree to lean on and so had to learn through doing (and making mistakes along the way). I attribute my ability to take risks, as well as my resilience, as a combination of their genetic contributions and the supportive environment that my parents created, as immigrants who moved across the world in order to give their children better opportunities.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
At Kuroshio, we are devoted to helping our clients solve their most pressing issues — from strategy (corporate and product), to organizational effectiveness, and to transformations (digital, functional, and operational). We don’t believe in throwing around big buzz words, forcing generic consulting models that aren’t tailored to our client organization, or charging fees for partners who haven’t contributed an iota to a client engagement. We do believe in providing practical and sustainable management consulting services, at a reasonable fee, with a team that will support our clients from start to finish. Having worked at the Big 4 consulting firms or as industry executives, our team consists of seasoned consultants with a minimum of 10 years of experience. We started on this journey with the desire to offer pragmatic advice that would drive meaningful outcomes for our clients — not just generate recommendations that would become shelf-ware because the recommendations weren’t rooted in the client organizational context or previous practical experience. We have continued to hold true to that path, and it has been reflected in our consistent pattern of increasing revenue metrics.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- In order to sustain a modicum of momentum, especially over the course of multiple decades, I believe that you have to be passionate about the work you do.
- I wouldn’t have been able to sustain the long durations of concentrated effort (and little sleep), in order to deliver on client outcomes, without an underlying passion to help our client organizations get to their desired outcomes. This has meant being choosy about the clients we agree to deliver services to — saying no to a revenue stream is a tough thing to do, but one that we believe serves us well.
- As you are working for your yourself as an entrepreneur, self-motivation is critical. You no longer have a Board of Directors, shareholders, and other expectations (e.g. defined performance measures on which bonuses are based) that are part of traditional corporate culture.
- As a co-founder, I have to on a daily basis, reinforce my empowering beliefs, be ruthless with my time management, and create an action plan. That is, I have the freedom to build my own motivation factors — but also, need the discipline to carry them out.
3. Relationship focused
- Building real relationships takes a lot of investment — in time and in energy, and I believe it is grossly underrated. Entrepreneurs need a level of tenacity to survive, but not to the point where you are being a pushy salesperson, desperate to land a deal.
- I root my tenacity in my desire to build long-standing relationships, both with our clients and our network of partners, while making a decent margin. You will not win every deal, but you can leave a lasting impression with people, who may call you in the future, because you cared.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
“When you start a new position, spend a year learning, the next year mastering, and the year after improving” — this is possibly the worst piece of advice that I have ever received, while I was still in an industry role. I find it best suited for those interested in middling performance or being average.
I don’t believe ambition is meant to be tamped down — especially if you are willing to put in the work (and that latter bit is critical because ambition without real effort is unlikely to net you anything). Now, I’m not saying that this is purely about title-chasing (those who have done so just to get a pay bump often end up sacrificing what they loved about their work) but if chasing a position will enable you to take on additional initiatives that fill your work cup (whether that be an increase in breadth or depth of responsibility or learning about a new area), while benefitting organizational goals, then pursue this without apology. And I have taken my own advice on this many times, with mentors who supported me every step of the way.
Never empower others to set ceilings for you.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them create a work culture in which employees thrive and do not “burn out” or get overwhelmed?
Management consulting requires serving the needs of your client organizations and this regularly means weekly travel and fluctuating weekly hours (sometimes this can mean 60+ hours/week — this is the reality). In this industry, you have to be able to self-regulate — that is, you have to be emotionally mature enough to know your limits and know where your thresholds/bumper barriers are before you hit your limit. As schedules vary significantly, you have to be flexible in finding time for self-care (e.g. waking up earlier to squeeze in a workout or taking that 30-minute break during the day to meditate) and for loved ones. That being said, we are big believers in ensuring that our team takes scheduled breaks without interruption (i.e. no work calls or check-ins whatsoever) and continue to prioritize important life activities (e.g. pet birthdays).
What would you advise other business leaders to do in order to build trust, credibility, and Authority in their industry?
You have to start by establishing authority — aka competence — in your subject area. Publish articles showcasing your thought leadership, speak at industry events, host webinars, and share the types of results you have driven for your clients. Make the case for your brand through sound evidence. Credibility will then flow through your client referrals and recommendations. At Kuroshio, we start with delivering outstanding results to our clients while forging strong relationships, and this shows in our referral rates from our network of existing clients. Finally, trust will be extended by potential clients, when you are role-modeling what you say about your brand and what your existing clients say as well.
Can you help articulate why doing that is essential today?
Research has shown that clients exhibit loyalty when they trust a brand, even if another brand enters the market. Creating a genuine connection and delivering outstanding results, provides the basis of a strong client-brand relationship, and this will allow your company to thrive in the long run. Most businesses have had to make significant decisions (pivots) during the pandemic, and as a consultancy that provides strategic planning and transformation guidance, clients need to be able to trust that Kuroshio has the expertise and the experience to help them navigate turbulent waters and land on shore successfully. Building trust should be a foremost consideration from day one for any entrepreneur.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
- Offering unsustainable pricing discounts
- Faced with pressure to make early sales, founders often offer price discounts to close initial deals, without considering long-term ramifications.
- For example, if this is a client organization you think you will be providing support to on a multi-year basis, there may be expectations for further reduction on renewal terms (a very common procurement expectation). And so, if you have discounted your initial rates to such an extent that you can’t even cover your costs, you will be left in a poor position in future renewals.
- Be hungry for deals, but not so hungry that you haven’t done a thorough analysis of your baseline costs and your client context, before coming up with your pricing approach.
2. Trying to be the smartest person in the room
- Demonstrating your capabilities and knowledge as a founder is often key in the initial stages of a company, however, you should endeavor to hire individuals who are smarter than you.
- Taking a short-term view, to soothe your own ego, may bolster your confidence, but it won’t help you develop an organization that you can delegate into. If you as the founder are really the smartest person in the room, how can you begin to delegate any work or grow in your own capabilities?
- Hire employees that are much smarter than you are and create a learning culture by role-modeling the behavior and learning from your teams.
3. Setting clear boundaries
- In forming stages of organizations, usually, when you have a small, tight-knit team of employees, you may unknowingly create a culture where boundaries are not clear (about communications and decision-making).
- In my case, I don’t enjoy lengthy discussions — I rely on my fairly decent memory and my meticulous organization capabilities (e.g. and so if you have sent me a text on it, I have read it, digested it, and would prefer not to spend the next hour talking about it) — and I make decisions quickly. Now, that may seem like I am impatient (which in truth, I can be), it is also part of my coping mechanism to ruthlessly prioritize what I focus and spend my energy on in our limited 24 hour days.
- And so, set boundaries and expectations — and gently nudge your teams towards your expectations as needed. They may not know how disciplined you are about retaining what they tell you, and they are likely trying with good intention to jog your memory — so you have to communicate with them.
Ok fantastic. Thank you for those excellent insights, Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview about How to Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur. The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. This might be intuitive, but I think it will be very useful to specifically articulate it. Can you describe to our readers why no matter how successful you are as an entrepreneur, you will always have fairly dramatic highs and lows? Particularly, can you help explain why this is different from someone with a “regular job”?
Stable income (for the most part) is the first advantage of employment versus entrepreneurship, as with entrepreneurship, financial security is not reliable, especially as you launch your business. As an entrepreneur, you often eat last — that is, any revenue generated goes toward paying your employees, office rent, corporate taxes, and other costs, before you take home a pay cheque. For those without some measure of financial independence, this can be a significant stressor. On the flip side, once your business does become profitable, the earning potential can be exponentially higher than working as an employee.
The second advantage of being an employee is if you are used to industry roles wherein you have predictable working hours and get compensated in some manner for overtime — that is definitely not the case as an entrepreneur. In initial stages, as an entrepreneur, you are often doing operational and strategic roles — and venturing into areas of the business in which you may not have much expertise (e.g. HR, taxation). The working hours are much longer, it can become increasingly difficult to draw clear boundaries and make time for a personal life, and there is definitely no overtime pay. That being said, once you have the resources to be able to have a team to lean into, this alleviates, and you get to focus on the areas of the business that you excel at.
That being said, there are a host of wonderful reasons why entrepreneurship is outstanding — you have full control over decisions that determine the success or failure of your company, you can be innovative without traditional corporate bounds, and you get to live your passion.
Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your own experience about how you felt unusually high and excited as a result of your business? We would love to hear it.
I personally get the greatest satisfaction from business development because of the opportunity to build relationships and explore new opportunities. Kuroshio has balance because my business partner has complementary strengths, and so, we take a one-two punch approach. Now that being said, we both excel at client service delivery, because you can’t be a management consultant and not do that, but we definitely play to our strengths. Contributing to the double-digit growth of our business during a pandemic, while being able to create some fantastic relationships with our clients, has been very exciting. Recently, we secured strategic planning engagements with two mission-driven organizations, who are actively working on improving equity for vulnerable populations, and I couldn’t be more excited about that.
Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your own experience about how you felt unusually low, and vulnerable as a result of your business? We would love to hear it.
We had thought that our new prospects would dry up when the pandemic started, but remarkably, it has actually expanded our ability to serve clients. I am in a fortunate position that I haven’t yet felt unusually low or vulnerable. There are days wherein things don’t always go as expected or as desired, but this has never been over a sustained period.
Based on your experience can you tell us what you did to bounce back?
As the world had to rapidly adopt remote work practices due to COVID-19, our business thrived because clients who were used to hiring fairly local consultants (driven by the need for in-person meetings and to reduce vendor travel expenses), shifted gears and were willing to consider partnering with firms outside their immediate vicinity. We were able to take advantage of this shift in perspective, as our consultants have on average ten years of remote work experience with global teams, and so we had a tried and tested set of best practices. Our footprint has rapidly expanded, and we now support clients from coast to coast.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Five Things You Need To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur”? Please share a story or an example for each.
I would encourage entrepreneurs to do the following five things.
- Build a support coalition
- Have a group of people that serve as a safe space for you to share challenges with, get diverse perspectives from, and help with problem-solving
- I belong to several professional networks which allow me to connect with other entrepreneurs and industry leaders who invest in each other’s success.
2. Start with self-discipline
- Being disciplined about self-care (mental and physical health) is critical. I encourage entrepreneurs to set aside time every day (even if it is only a few minutes) for self-care activities.
- My daily self-care includes spending at least 30 minutes exercising, and the discipline of building this into my schedule has permeated into my work life as well, where I intentionally block out my day to tend to priorities.
- Motivation will wane (for self-care and for doing certain tasks for your business), but on those days, your discipline will save you.
3. Perpetuate action
- There will never be enough information to mitigate all risk, so lead with action.
- Decision-making under uncertain conditions is the norm for entrepreneurs. I have had to learn to set risk thresholds for my company, and then work with the information that I have, at the time that I have to make the decision, in order to progress.
- Remember that being stuck in analysis paralysis mode will create team churn and consternation, which often lead to worse consequences than making the decision.
4. Brace for rejection
- Learn to handle rejection well by learning from every opportunity. Ask for feedback, don’t get defensive, make the changes you believe are appropriate for the future (you have to sift through feedback to make it actionable and relevant to your business direction), and then move on.
- Dwelling and sulking are not going to change the result, and one of the most important lessons that I have learned, is to let go of each day and start afresh in the morning.
5. Stay true to your value proposition
- In a highly competitive industry such as management consulting, you need to have a clearly defined value proposition for your service. This is your signal to the market as to your competitive differentiation.
- At Kuroshio, our value proposition drives our hiring practices — we only hire seasoned consultants and industry executives who have lived experiences of transformations; we do not hire individuals who only have theoretical knowledge of how to go about transforming organizations, nor do we stack our teams with junior analysts whose rates we mark up to make margins. We are firmly committed to delivering successful outcomes to our clients and sharing our own experiences in having led large-scale transformations (the good, the bad, and the ugly).
We are living during challenging times and resilience is critical during times like these. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
I define resilience as having the capacity to adapt in a positive way to unfavorable situations. I think this starts with having an internal locus of control, where I fundamentally believe that I am in the driver’s seat of my own life. My belief in self-efficacy, that is, my confidence that I can exert control over my own motivation, behavior, and environment, to produce specific performance attainments, is an important component of my resilience. Simply put, resilient people don’t put the priority on incessantly complaining (having a woe is me attitude), but they do take actions so that they get themselves out of the unfavorable situation and learn from it.
Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Would you mind sharing a story?
There are so many experiences, unfortunately. Having maneuvered through my career as a young woman of a visible minority group in predominantly male-dominated industries definitely contributed to building my resiliency. I have had the misfortune of working in environments where pornography was intentionally left at workstations, where I have been called ethnic slurs by senior leaders, and where I have been asked to be the secretary as the only young and female attendee among my peers at leadership retreats. The world is not a fair place, but I am heartened by the various diversity, equity, and inclusion programs that are becoming embedded in corporate culture across all industries. In addition, I ensure that in my own consulting practice that we have no tolerance for any discriminatory behavior and try our best to lead by example.
In your opinion, do you tend to keep a positive attitude during difficult situations? What helps you to do so?
I don’t let deterministic thinking influence how I see the world — while I do have a natural disposition towards positivity, I wake up every day and intentionally choose positivity. Now, this doesn’t mean that I don’t have days in which negativity creeps in, but I do remind myself that my attitude to the circumstances at hand is really my only true choice. Meditating for a few minutes every morning helps ground me in that intentionality.
Can you help articulate why a leader’s positive attitude can have a positive impact both on their clients and their team? Please share a story or example if you can.
I believe that positivity creates resilience, and frankly makes life more palatable for me. The road to success as an entrepreneur is a mix of wins but also challenges — an optimistic perspective ensures that the challenges don’t kill your morale and more importantly, your team’s morale. The ability to adapt and bounce back after a setback is a crucial skill and modeling this is as a leader allows your team to brave the challenge with you. A simple example in the consulting industry is win-rates for proposal responses — these are notoriously low, especially if you don’t have an existing relationship with the client, but it doesn’t mean that we don’t continue pursuing these opportunities and putting our best foot forward. Even if we don’t win on our first response, it is a chance to get our brand name into the market with a new client — and one rejection doesn’t mean no forever, so there may be future opportunities in which we do win work.
Ok. Super. We are nearly done. What is your favorite inspirational quote that motivates you to pursue greatness? Can you share a story about how it was relevant to you in your own life?
“Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” — Oscar Wilde
This quote reminds me that as an entrepreneur, I can’t be anything but myself. Throughout my career, I have been told that I am “too much”, “too ambitious”, “too opinionated”, “too assertive”, “too [insert word here]” — that is, I was told that I needed to conform to “the norm” — that is, to what those individuals and/or what society at large expected of female leaders. These days I reject all such labels, and see those comments as coming perhaps from a place of fear or insecurity on the part of the person delivering the message, and I don’t let it impact my forward momentum.
How can our readers further follow you online?
You can follow me on LinkedIn where I share insights. You can also check out our website, for perspectives from team Kuroshio, along with publications in which we have been featured.
LinkedIn URL: https://www.linkedin.com/in/kmkutty/
Website URL: www.kuroshioconsulting.com
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!