If you’ve been in the working world long enough, you’ve heard it: “We encourage our employees to be entrepreneurial.” Most of us have heard it so many times that we now dismiss it as another lame business cliché, a meaningless managerial pabulum. Sure, most employers pay lip service to the idea of fostering professional growth and welcoming new ideas from their employees, but sometimes it’s easier to fall into a working mode that more resembles the life of Dilbert. It’s sad predicament when a venture founded by risk-taking entrepreneurs devolves into a risk-averse, narrow-thinking, CYA environment typical of too many large organizations.
For many of us that kind of mind-set is stultifying, particularly when we envision doing something big. But just because you have grand ambitions doesn’t mean that you’re ready to go out on your own and put up a shingle. Sometimes, building a new venture within a big company is a win-win for the company and change agent alike. If that’s the case, you should consider building something within your organization.
Sure, the answer may be a flat out “no,” but it might not be, and I have my own experience as proof. Two years ago, as an employee of a 50,000-person healthcare organization, I was part of small group that brought an entrepreneurial idea to the CEO. To my great satisfaction, he said “yes.”
As we took that big idea and ran with it, I learned a few lessons about how to recognize a company that actually walks the walk when it comes to encouraging entrepreneurial behavior. Here are some questions to ask when assessing whether you’ll get a green light to innovate.
1) Will your company consider supporting a great idea, including financial backing?
Unlike the lone inventor toying with widgets in his garage, potential entrepreneurs already working in a friendly environment can have a tremendous head start, if their company is smart enough to foster visions that have true potential and say “no” to those that don’t. You might think your employer would never pony up. You might be surprised.
Take the multinational food-processing giant Cargill, now the largest privately-held corporation in the US. They have spent considerable effort building a dedicated business accelerator unit, whose sole purpose is to nurture new business ideas and provide funding. So far, its successes have built everything from waste-to-energy facilities to a coating that makes roads safer during the winter.
2) Does your company allow you to dedicate time to coming up with something new?
Do you find yourself focusing on billable hours and maintaining an existing revenue stream, rather than creating a disruptive new entity? It doesn’t have to be that way.
In its earlier years, Google famously granted its employees “20% Time” – the equivalent of one day a week in which to work on their side projects. This perk paid big dividends for the company when an employee created Gmail, the now ubiquitous free email service that enables Google to better target the advertisements that generate billions of dollars in revenue for the company each year.
3) Can you move or change roles within the organization?
A good organization doesn’t let good employees languish when it could turn them loose on bigger challenges that benefit the larger enterprise more. Some of the best organizations allow you to move around and grow into new roles.
At The New York Times, foreign correspondents often serve in their posts for three to f years — long enough to learn them well, but not so long that they burn out or run out of imagination. The U.S. Foreign Service and intelligence agencies run on the same principle.
4) If you persist when you’re onto something, will they tolerate you or lock you away somewhere?
An entrepreneurial spirit can seem risky to a company, whether as drains on resources, or worse, as threats to the firm’s identity. But employees at many levels can have unusually keen insights into where their companies ought to go, and executives would do well to pay attention.
From its earliest days, Nokia and its predecessors went through decades of radical transformations, from a pulp mill on a Finnish riverbank to a producer of tires and rubber boots. By the 1960s, its visionary CEO oversaw multiple divisions running independently, and had the patience to allow a burgeoning electronics department to run for a time without turning a profit. The unit later bloomed into Nokia’s multibillion-dollar telecom business. Today, Nokia is part of Microsoft, a company that is seeing its own resurgence thanks to innovative offerings like the HoloLens.
5) Can you identify and recruit fellow change agents inside the enterprise, with whom you can build your own little startup?
Building something demands real relationships, and those can’t be nurtured solely over conference calls or gchat. You have to break bread with your colleagues, bounce ideas off of them in real time, and really get to know each other. Employees who see their peers coming up with new ideas and successfully creating new solutions that contribute to the company’s bottom line are more likely to follow suit.
Facebook has helped to create an especially communal culture of entrepreneurship with its regular “hackathons,” caffeine-fueled all-nighters where engineers try to craft new and radical products for the social media giant. Many of the ideas they come up with never see the light of day, but a number of them have grown into game-changers for the company.
The people on the team that I worked with to build the company I run are some of the fortunate ones. We threw out an idea and found the support of the CEO. And that support was active; it was a real willingness to marshal buy-in based on a business opportunity. After that, support took the form of demanding expectations to execute, execute, execute. That’s the kind of support that makes something real. So, before you set out on your own, or move on to the next corporate gig, think about how you can get your boss to tap into your entrepreneurial energy. The results might surprise you.
And if you don’t get a positive response to the questions I have posed? Perhaps it’s time to find a new big company to call home. In that case, these questions might be worth exploring in the job interview. Good luck!