When people hear the word “entrepreneur,” many different things probably come to mind. For some, the term likely conjures up thoughts of qualities such as courage, imagination and independence. Others might associate traits such as brashness, arrogance and recklessness with the word.
Regardless of one’s view of the entrepreneurial spirit, a few common characteristics can almost certainly be agreed upon. For instance, entrepreneurs are generally highly autonomous. They typically are willing to consider other points of view, but they definitely aren’t given to making decisions by committee.
The flip side of that is they hold themselves fully accountable for mistakes. This freedom gives entrepreneurs a particular agility and quickness in how they run their organizations.
Also, entrepreneurial companies are frequently much smaller than the corporate behemoths, which can give the people in charge a better view of the entire enterprise. As a result, entrepreneurs usually see both the forest and the trees in their organizations. This vantage helps them make decisions more quickly.
But entrepreneurs’ most distinctive quality is their propensity to take risks — they will hazard various threats (bankruptcy, intense competition, public humiliation, to name a few) to see their vision come to life.
Interestingly, these entrepreneurial attributes are encouraged among employees at all levels in some large organizations. This would have been unthinkable 100, 50 or even 25 years ago, but in today’s innovation-driven economy, it’s increasingly viewed as a competitive advantage.
“They are the key to change, which is the only way an organization can survive and thrive, given the speed of innovation in the networked economy,” said Nicole Morgenstern, American Management Association portfolio manager for innovation. “The best-laid plans and strategies will ultimately be meaningless in the face of an environmental shift that’s completely out of your control. The very fabric of your organization has to have a built-in agility.”
But most organizations are only beginning to recognize that their employees should possess these entrepreneurial characteristics, she added.
“I think most CEOs and boards know that they need innovation as an economic survival tool,” Morgenstern said. “The gap between knowing it objectively as a business reality and how that translates into what you actually do and enable in your organization can be wide. It takes a major shift and a true commitment at every level of the organization to know it, believe in it and actually do something about it.”
Learning and development can help cultivate entrepreneurship in the workforce in a few different ways. For example, job-rotation programs can help employees better understand other parts of the enterprise and cause-and-effect relationships, thereby giving them a more strategic view of the organization.
“That’s a way to have somebody experience the bigger picture earlier in their career,” Morgenstern said. “We tend to come into functional roles and get technically proficient at it but don’t really understand how that makes the organization function.”
Additionally, they can communicate to workers that it’s acceptable to take certain risks for the sake of innovation.
“They can help senior management articulate what the organization’s stance is on innovation to the workforce, as well as the threshold for risk,” Morgenstern said. “The failures can be successes too, if you learn something from taking the risk, whether it’s in terms of an internal process or a product. That needs to be shared. That changes the environment by telling the people who are more risk-averse that it’s safe to take risks.”
The biggest challenge for the learning function — and for the organization as a whole — is building a culture of entrepreneurship that lasts, she said. The most crucial aspect of its success is support from all parts of the organization.
“In trying to promote an innovative, entrepreneurial environment, there tends to be fits and starts,” Morgenstern said. “There’s great brainstorming, and everybody gets pumped up. Then reality kicks in when you get back to your desk and there are 50 e-mails. Over the long haul, that doesn’t serve the organization well — you want a sustainable culture, with that pipeline of innovation going all the time. The training and development people, HR, the CFO, the CEO and everyone else have to agree that this is the most important thing for the long-term survival of the organization.”