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Act Bigger than You Are

One secret of successful business and social entrepreneurs is that they act bigger than they are. Not bigger in the bad sense, with the arrogance and complacency that has made some banks, for example, feel they are above the rules. But bigger in terms of having the confidence to propel growth and set courageous goals.

Consider Brazilian entrepreneur Nizan Guanaes. Cultivating a larger-than-life presence is helping him grow a communications firm with impact and potential well beyond its size, country, and industry. About a dozen years ago, after selling a small advertising agency, he founded Grupo ABC, a communications group headquartered in Sao Paulo. After being advised he couldn't take those letters, he trademarked the whole alphabet (the Portuguese version).

Courage to claim the alphabet was just the start. Guanaes became one of the most influential people in Brazil by taking on big social causes, such as a successful campaign against teenage pregnancy. He was appointed a UNESCO international goodwill ambassador and became a major supporter of the Clinton Global Initiative.

Guanaes also stretches resources to make a big splash. Recently, the company booked an entire hotel in Cannes, France, and re branded it in its own name for the annual international advertising festival, and it featured President Bill Clinton at events.

Partners help increase the firm's impact. In the facilities of Grupo ABC's flagship agency, Africa.com, offices dedicated to major clients are often occupied by teams from competitor agencies, working with Africa.com employees. By working together, they give Africa.com and their major clients a much bigger talent pool.

Grupo ABC is now the 18th largest such entity in the world, with a major presence in New York and San Francisco, where it is working for digital pre-eminence. It also aims to move up the charts from it's 18th slot — Guanaes keeps a poster mapping the competition in his office — and to create a non-profit to mobilize companies for social innovation.

I draw four lessons from this case study:

Claim territory with a big impact goal. Dreaming of ultimate impact is a starting point for staking claims to getting there, like taking too much office space and renting it out until needed — or taking the whole alphabet, as Guanaes did. Lisa Foster founded One Bag at a Time to bring reusable grocery bags to consumers and save the environment; she frames everything in terms of her larger goal. One can own a big idea without having the resources to get there (yet).

Convene coalitions to increase impact. Grand goals too big for any one person or organization can be tackled by mobilizing others, including competitors. A small entity can act bigger by assembling a coalition of partners with complementary skills that can take on the giants. An individual can gain influence by calling meetings and naming issues. Coalitions are a form of social leverage, providing a multiplier effect to accomplish bigger things. Irish rock singer Bono partners with the United Nations on a quest to end hunger; that partnership gives him access to most governments in the world, an impressive reach for one person.

Create tangible value. There's a fine line between swagger and substance. Acting bigger than you are isn't just impression management. Some people try to act bigger by name-dropping or trying to associate themselves with important developments without actually making a contribution. To really act bigger, be able to get things done for a customer or a cause.

Give before you get. Entrepreneurs who emerge as leaders on a bigger stage often spend more time offering favors than seeking them. They contribute ahead of being recognized for it. This builds credibility as well as goodwill. A medium-sized Brazilian marketing firm couldn't entice the former President of the United States to visit if it hadn't already done impressive work to reduce teen pregnancy.

Go for the best. Don't wait to get really big to take over the hotel. If certain world leaders are not available, sign up others. Find the hidden gems and promote them. Lean startups don't have to settle for cheap. One small local non-profit created a visitors' program when it was barely operating and audaciously invited dozens of major CEOs and respected public officials to visit. The few who accepted became major champions, helping the organization begin to grow to more cities and countries.

Influence is often equated with size, but size isn't everything. What matters is the size of the idea. Acting bigger than you are requires confidence, but it is a path to impact — and one step closer to growing into larger shoes and casting a longer shadow.

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