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Portrait of Azran Osman-Rani

Five fundamental traits to achieving real impact in business

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Five fundamental traits to achieving real impact in business

Jan 12, 2021

Life lessons from irrepressible entrepreneur Azran Osman-Rani.

Three personal qualities leap from the page when you read Azran Osman-Rani's CV. He's a natural experimenter, having co-founded, led, and invested in game-changing companies in four different sectors. 

He's doggedly determined, having shepherded the pioneering flight brand AirAsia X from a risky startup to a billion-dollar IPO in just six years.

And he's emboldened by adversity, having emerged stronger and wiser from a near-fatal traffic accident, and investing – and losing – millions due to forces majeure.

Put simply, over the last 25 years, Azran has learned a thing or two about surviving in business. We spoke with him to discover five essential personal traits for achieving real impact. 

1. Embracing experimentation

Azran developed a habit of experimenting from a young age. By his own admission, he didn't fit in, and wasn't the most coordinated kid on the games field. In response, he became a keen observer from the sidelines of how others interacted, then funnelled his observations into new games of his own design that he sensed others would embrace. 

Since then, he's observed two factors that prevent people from adopting the same creative, experimental attitude: the fear of failing, and the comfort of success. 

We all fear being judged," Azran says. "Whether we're failing ourselves or others who have certain expectations of us. So our brains orientate us towards things that are familiar, comfortable, predictable, stable, and away from anything risky, unknown, and unproven.

The way Azran championed AirAsia X is a prime example of how to fight this fear. The notoriously high-cost, low-margin airline industry seemed set in its ways before Azran reinvented the model while still turning a profit. 

Azran points out that what appears to have prevented competitors from seeing the potential in the new business model was actually their success. 

"I noticed that once you've achieved some level of success, you get very fixated on what formed the basis of that success. And that can actually breed a complacent mindset. And I think these two things, fear and success, hold us back in their own ways from pushing further and challenging what we already believe in today."

How, then, does one keep pushing forward when barriers seem insurmountable? 

2. Remembering that you have more to give

AirAsia X wasn't always a smooth ride. Although it now operates in 26 markets and employs over 2,000 people, when Azran took on the role of founding CEO in 2007, the business model was unproven. He needed to pitch a plan to raise over USD100 million in capital, apply for licenses, and build a team from scratch. 

Little did he know that over the coming years, the business would face a global financial crisis, restrictive regulations, and active volcanoes and earthquakes in multiple regions. All considered, he says, his investment in AirAsia X turned out to be his best and worst – the share price collapsed after three major aviation disasters and wiped out his entire holding in the company. 

Eventually, Azran, and AirAsia X, succeeded thanks to a realisation Azran had about the way our minds react when facing what seem like impossible odds. 

When we think we're exhausted and at the brink of failure, our brains give up well before our bodies. For example, if I said you could run two back-to-back marathons, you probably wouldn't believe me.

But in fact, you would be able to do it if it was a life-or-death situation. You wouldn't do it very fast, but you could do it. But the brain tells our body to give up. And, generally, it tends to put these brakes on at about a 60 per cent level. Now, interestingly, top performers can learn techniques to push past that mental brake, to get to an 80 per cent level."

No matter what the specific challenge is that you're facing, the key to pushing past that 60 per cent barrier, Azran says, is to avoid being overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem. Instead, you should break the challenge into smaller pieces.

3. Focusing on just the first steps

Azran believes that mental resilience and curiosity aren't inherited, they're built like muscles in the gym. If you worked out for two hours on your first gym trip, you'd leave sore and dispirited. Instead, you should gain momentum gradually by focusing on one important thing at a time. 

Azran was forced to embrace this philosophy after a serious road traffic accident in 2018 that almost cost him his life. While cycling as part of his triathlon practice, he was hit from behind by a car at high speed. His injuries included a fractured skull and vertebrae, and three of his four limbs in casts. 

From tentatively walking on Day 7, to using a treadmill on Day 33, to running on Day 62, and eventually cycling again on Day 84, Azran's recovery quite literally involved focusing on one step at a time.

A single-minded focus was crucial to Azran's recovery, and many of his business successes, but he's also quick to point out the benefit of surrounding yourself with the right people.

4. Being inspired by a "personal" board of directors 

Azran acknowledges that he doesn't have all the answers, which is why he's such a believer in the power of strong teams.

"I've learnt that my job is to surround myself with people who have deep industry experience, deep functional experience, and then be that five-year-old kid again, always asking why. Why do you guys do it that way? Really? Why not this or this? Just constantly asking questions."

Eventually, the questions led to a lightbulb moment.

"You realise that people like comfort and familiarity because that's how they've always been doing it. But if you can challenge first principles, you can break through and get the teams to think very differently."

The secret ingredients to effective collaboration? Communication, and considering what's next instead of what's come before.

Some people have a lot of experience but keep linking back to the past. For me, 80 per cent of the conversation should be forward-looking, and only 20 per cent should be about the past.

Azran recognises that it's not always about getting answers from an expert. What matters is having people in your life who are always giving you questions that make you reflect (Azran has seven who he considers his "personal board of directors"). 

"When we have to explain an idea to someone who's close to us, who's going to also then reflect back to make sure that they really understand, that really helps to crystallise the question: How do we make sense of the craziness of this world? And therefore, which path do we want to go down?"

5. Following a guiding star

Relentless experimentation and curiosity are vital traits in business, but Azran believes that without a guiding purpose, these characteristics can leave some people running in circles. 

Azran's guiding star – the principle that keeps him focused – is how he makes a unique, positive impact on end consumers in a way competitors are ignoring. At the moment, he's doing that as the CEO and Co-founder of Naluri, a pioneering digital therapeutics company that helps people manage chronic disease risks. 

He discovered Naluri's purpose after a chance encounter in a bar in Vancouver in 2017. After striking up a conversation, a stranger told Azran about a way to define his purpose by finding the intersection between three circles: 

My Passion, My Skills, A big problem

1. Your skills. What are you good at? What will people pay you to do?

2. Your passion. What do you enjoy? What would you spend your time doing if you didn't have to worry about money at all?

3. A big problem. What do you care deeply about? What do you want to improve in the world?

For Azran, these circles combined his ability to raise capital, his passion for physical and mental fitness, and his concern that society is becoming polarised. The concept behind Naluri – a company that offers affordable health coaching to everyone – was born. 

Of all Azran's metaphors, perhaps this one best encapsulates his philosophy of fearlessly making a real impact in business, even if sometimes you fail:

Life is like a box of crayons. You can be the perfect crayon by just staying in the box. But crayons are meant to be taken out. Sure, they might break. But broken crayons work, too. And, ultimately, we're meant to get out of that box to colour the world.

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