I met Andre Norman at a gathering of small business leaders earlier this year at MIT. It was a strange environment to listen to one of the former top gang leaders in the Massachusetts prison system. He had been in for 14 years and had been convicted of everything from attempted murder to rioting.
How Andre went from prisoner to a business leader really resonated with the CEOs in the audience. He believes all small business owners can relate to his message since it is so extreme:
“I am in a place where I either get it right or die. I'm in a maximum-security penitentiary, I'm around extreme, crazy and violent felons, I'm one myself, and what I chose as a course of action just seemed so unreasonable. How can a guy doing 25 years in jail with a double attempted murder conviction in jail say he wants to go to Harvard and he can't read; that defies logic. In theory, it shouldn't have happened, it shouldn't have worked. So the fact that he really spent 14 years in prison and he really taught at London Business School shouldn’t be possible!”
According to Andre, the keys to be a gang leader are oddly the same ones that make small business owners successful:
1. Stay true to the vision
Every small business owner has a vision that gets shaken—sometimes daily by the market. Andre describes his:
“What I saw in maximum-security prison, wanting to go to Harvard University , nobody around me saw that because the vision was for me. And I stayed true to my vision, and I didn't worry about other people not understanding it because it wasn't for them to understand. So I say to business owners now, if I can go from a maximum security penitentiary, illiterate with no family, no money, no support, and make it to London Business School, make it to Harvard, make it to MIT, make it to Saudi Arabia and Australia, and the other 20 countries I've been, and have the impact on peoples lives and businesses that I have with nothing, and no help, what could you do?”
2. Get a mentor
Andre met Don Shaffer, the institution’s Rabbi.
“He was a willing teacher, I was a willing student, and he's like my number one mentor to this day. And he just took the time, he taught me not so much religious studies, but he taught me humility, he taught me forgiveness; he taught me the things that I hadn't learned in life.”
3. Learn humility
Andre believes it’s key because:
“Being successful is not just making money. It’s about impacting people's lives. So if my only objective is to making money, I don't need to be humble. But if I want to impact lives, then I need to be humble, and I need to be able to put myself in their position, and become approachable. In my last line of work as a gang leader, I wasn't exactly approachable."
4. Assessment of people
Hiring, training, managing and firing are critical to any organization. It is even more important in prison. As Andre says:
“If you make a bad assessment of people in a business deal, you’re going to suffer a loss of some kind. In my line of work, being in prison, I had to do assessments, and if I did an assessment wrong, I got killed. Because these are people that you're networking are murderers, robbers and violent people. So I had to decide who wanted to kill me. I had to decide who wanted to rob me, I had to decide who wanted to harm me, and I do that through conversation and interaction because no one's just going to tell you. What are their motivations, what are their criteria, what are their strengths? I watched their mannerisms, their attitude, their dispositions, what—everything said means something. If somebody said, 'Hey you want a candy bar?' 'No, thank you.' But even the offer of the candy bar is a bad thing. So it's not just that you said no, but how did you respond to the no.”
5. Train your employees
Andre describes his workforce issue which is much more difficult than most small business owners face no matter where they are located:
“My workforce was all illiterate, all criminals, all low functioning, all traumatized people. And I had to train them to run my business in jail. And if they didn't do it right, I suffered with a knife in my back. So I had to train people who were not MBA's, who are not high school graduates to do high functioning jobs.”