Gore Vidal once famously said that each time one of his friends succeeds a little part of him dies. Recently I saw an article in the Times about a business run by an old friend of mine which gave me the opposite feeling. In ten years he has built a hugely successful business that not only employs a couple of handfuls of bright and brilliant people but also that wins awards for being amongst the best places to work in the UK. Not bad for someone who was forced into starting out on his own and without, as he said at the time, a single entrepreneurial gene in his body. But he’s done it by dint of hard work, luck (both good and bad) and many ups and downs. The whole thing made me think: why do some people become entrepreneurs when others don’t?
I once heard a very senior board director telling a journalist that it was “impossible to be entrepreneurial in a regulated company.” I remember thinking at the time what a load of tosh that statement was (something borne out by legions of subsequent leaders of that same company proving him to be spectacularly wrong.) However, even in unregulated companies it can often prove difficult to engender a free-spirited environment. I think that there are two reasons why that is the case:
The first is the way that organisations tend to be run. Hierarchy, not-invented-here syndrome, silo mentalities and a process-driven way of working can all lead to a repetitious and, potentially, stultifying environment. Innovation, a key part of entrepreneurial behaviour, is often strangled at birth by endless procurement processes or death by committee. Those people who do exhibit entrepreneurial attributes tend to be iconoclastic mould-breakers who spend their time fighting against the system. Often they don’t last long, either upping sticks to greener pastures or ending up tired and broken-spirited.
The second reason is the prevailing view that entrepreneurs, like leaders, are born. Plenty of books have been written by and about the Bransons and Sugars of the world. Common mythology seems to indicate that true entrepreneurs started early, usually involving some dubious playground activity, and shunned university in favour of an early start in the market. But it is plainly not the whole story. Thousands of shopkeepers and small businesses up and down the country are testiment to the fact that it is a mixture of opportunity and necessity that creates entrepreneurs. For sure, some people are temporarily less suited to the rigidity of working in structured organisations but there are plenty of career options for them that don’t require them to start their own business.
Many organisations suffer from having employees who, despite elements of variable pay, churn out the same sort of work year in year out. Institutional capture and a financially secure environment combine to create workforces where risk-taking is rare. So the real question is how can more people be encouraged to take more control of their working lives and demonstrate a more entrepreneurial attitude within organisations. The answer for me lies in fundamentally changing the way that businesses are run, ditching the outdated command and control attitudes and introducing flatter, looser, and non-hierarchical approaches. Encouraging three-way communications and engaging people in changing the way they work will lead to the creation of an entrepreneurial mindset that will challenge legacy systems and attitudes. And all this needs to be supported with a pay and benefits package that rewards risk-taking and has a more equitable approach to sharing in success.
It is curious how so many organisations that were founded by spirited entrepreneurs have found themselves stuck in the rut of big company syndrome. So perhaps the solution is to recognise that whilst entrepreneurs aren’t born, they do require a less staid environment in order to flourish. After all, it’s neither nature nor nurture. It’s a combination of both.