03 Oct Five Ways to be More Entrepreneurial
In any given year, I spend 50 – 70% of my time working with entrepreneurs. This happens for several reasons. Sometimes their businesses were successful and were acquired by one of my mid-size or larger clients. At other times they hire me directly to help them address the challenges of rapid growth and scale. I also work with entrepreneurs in my role as a mentor in WebFWD, Mozilla’s start-up accelerator.
This frequent close-up interaction with entrepreneurs, many of whom have launched multiple businesses, has given me a unique perspective on who makes a successful entrepreneur and the cultures they create. The two are inseparable. If you lead a start-up, you can set the culture you want from scratch. If you lead an established business and want to create an entrepreneurial culture, you must become an entrepreneur in your heart, mind, and day-to-day habits.
If it doesn’t come naturally, there is no way to transform your culture without transforming yourself first. It’s true that some people are more naturally entrepreneurial in their thinking, but luckily, it’s mostly about choices. Any leadership team who is willing to make changes in attitudes and behaviors, and to keep it up until they themselves have transformed, can create a far more entrepreneurial culture. It takes effort, but it can be done.
I’ll skip the obvious things that successful entrepreneurs do right, like perfecting the pitch, hiring great intellectual property attorneys, and managing on a shoestring in the early days. Instead, I’d like to share the five more subtle leadership choices that successful entrepreneurs make day in and day out:
- They create and emphasize a powerful vision and mission for their business, with relatively little emphasis on annual financial targets as compared to the leaders of most mid-sized to large companies. Financial goals are communicated and strived for, but are not the main emphasis in communication with employees. The successful entrepreneurs know they need to keep their own focus on the finances, but they understand that their people aren’t going to put in the extra hours because they’re excited about hitting a revenue target, so they communicate the financial targets in context and not nearly as often as they talk about progress toward the big vision.
- They convey tremendous optimism and are not driven by fear. They have their moments of great fear, but fear is not their primary trigger. They have a lot of passion, heart, and drive, and they show it. That’s why people follow them.
- They are massively empowering. With so much to do and so few resources, they don’t have the option to micromanage and solve their people’s problems for them, even if they wanted to. They manage by exception, focus only on doing what is appropriate to their role, and encourage employees to stretch and do many things that are unfamiliar to them.
- They are not technical perfectionists and they are not at all in love with or attached to their technology. They focus on finding out what the customers want, quickly tinkering with their product to be what the customers want, seeing how customers like it, and quickly changing the product again. They can do this in part because they don’t have multiple product lines, yet, but it’s also because their people are so massively empowered at the individual contributor level that they can make decisions quickly, together, without escalations. Who would they escalate to, anyway? There aren’t too many layers in a small, fast-growing company, and the successful entrepreneurs find multiple escalations to be repulsive, a sign of something that needs to be fixed or improved.
- They care a lot about their cultures. I cannot emphasize this enough. They dedicate time to maintaining the culture on a very frequent basis, through their everyday choices and through routine events that come to signify the culture, such as Google’s Friday afternoon all-hands with the founders, which began when it was a very small business. They view it as more important than spending that same time on managing the business functions. They trust that the people they hired can manage the business functions effectively. They know that if they don’t personally create a particular type of great place to work — the exact type of great place that attracts and retains the talent they want and repels the talent they don’t want – no manager or HR function can do it for them. They see the culture as a key intangible asset.
When you think about it, the successful entrepreneurs offer very little money, very little job security, long and unpredictable work hours, no obvious career paths, and very little that the best talent can get in an established company. Yet, they are massively dependent on the people they hire, each of whom carries massive responsibility due to their relatively small numbers. Entrepreneurs have to be able to attract and retain talent based on vision, mission, sometimes their actual technology (sometimes not), and culture. Established mid-sized and large competitors hold all of the other cards in their hands.
To those of you leading small and start-up companies, how do the daily choices you make compare to this list? Where could you stretch a bit to grow your leadership?
To those of you who lead more established companies, what would happen if you adopted more of the successful entrepreneurs’ choices in combination with the mid-sized or large company advantages you already hold?”
I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.