The Myth of the ‘Entrepreneurial Employee’

Plenty of business books purport to teach top management how to create a culture that nurtures visionaries like Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg, and Steve Jobs. A “Big Idea” article set to be published in September’s Harvard Business Review heralds the dawning of a new age of innovation marked by individual “catalysts” that leverage the resources and reach of a large enterprise without losing the nimble agility of a startup…

But isn’t it a contradiction in terms to be an entrepreneur within a large corporation? Are those who claim to be instilling entrepreneurialism merely encouraging garden-variety creative thinking or even just a killer sales mentality?

Story length: 1,333 words; Access the full story here.

Rebecca Dohrman (Maryville University) suggests some key “Takeaways” on the story:

This article is quite interesting and touches on the research that I have done with young high-tech entrepreneurs. The cultural image of an entrepreneur has many markers, and among young people, my research found that they relate entrepreneurship to locations like the garage (where many technology company grand narratives begin) and to cultural concepts like white-collar work (as opposed to historical constructions of the entrepreneur as the grocery store owner, the barber, or the farmer). The article correctly points out that this narrative of the young entrepreneur becoming a millionaire (and a celebrity) after starting a website that takes off (like Facebook) is in the minds of many young people, and so for corporations to “compete” with that alternative that many young people feel is a feasible path for them, they need to rethink some of the elements of the corporation that are in opposition to the cultural construct of entrepreneurship. Additionally, corporations want the high financial rewards that come with successful entrepreneurial efforts and risks, so it makes sense that they want to foster entrepreneurialism within their staff.

This article rightly points out that allowing risk taking behaviors and giving employees more “time to play” or time to work on projects that they conceptualize are great ways to foster more entrepreneurialism. Two other strategies that I would recommend are as follows:

  1. Control over the location of one’s work is central to how many young people conceptualize entrepreneurship. Young people feel trapped if they are forced to work in one location and don’t have options. To whatever extent it is possible, tell create an organization where hours in a desk chair in one’s office is not the marker of success and advancement. Instead, focus more on results and send your workers explicit messages that they can work from home or a coffee shop one day a week (or even more!) and tell them that they need to have a certain project done on a certain day, but tell them that you don’t mind when they work on it. Don’t make them stay until 5pm if they are done or if they are having a non-productive day. Trust that they will get the work done and focus on the result, rather than face time in the office. This one step will go a long way towards making workers feel a sense of control over their work, which is ultimately what young people want and why they crave an entrepreneurial lifestyle.
  2. Encourage brainstorming and new idea creation in your organization. Spend time creating systems where good ideas can be submitted directly to a high-level manager and make sure that all of the workers know that you want the best ideas no matter where they come from. This will make young workers feel valued and it will ensure that they know their opinions are respected. This idea of giving voice to young workers is essential to helping them feel valued by the organization. All too often, corporations silence young workers and don’t give their ideas a chance to be heard. Certainly many of the ideas will not be good, as happens in all brainstorming, but by creating a culture where any idea has its own merit regardless of who thought of it will make your young workers feel a sense of innovation in your hallways.

Read more “Takeaways” from Rebecca and other scholars here.

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