How to handle being trapped in a big company

Here's how to become an entrepreneur-in-residence -- even if that isn't your official title.

At some time in your career you’re likely to be an entrepreneur trapped inside a large corporation. Unless you’ve sold your last company and have a fat bank account, the reasons for this are probably financial--you’ve got kids to support and a mortgage to pay. What’s an entrepreneur-at-heart to do? Feed your soul and aid your company by becoming an entrepreneur-in-residence.

In the classic sense, I’ve been an entrepreneur twice--first in 1999, then 2008. You’ll notice that in both cases, my timing was perfect – for an economic meltdown. While incubating my next passion – Tootzypop, a daily blog, email and community for women over 40 -- I'm working as an entrepreneur-in-residence at FIDM/Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, where I head the digital marketing department. I run my group as if it were my own business. I get big ideas, better returns, and more motivated employees by practicing the following:

Pretend you work in a startup

Don’t think of yourself as a cog. You’re the startup CEO of whatever you control at your company. Ask yourself how you might do your job differently if you applied the zeal and wiliness of a start-up CEO day-to-day. Take a risk, do things differently, have an uncompromising belief that you will succeed, and you’ll be surprised at how differently you’ll approach your work.

Encourage inspiration

Young, entrepreneurial companies are often cash-strapped, but they offer their employees the opportunity to be a part of something rich with possibility. Even within a big company, you can create ways for your team to inspire and be inspired:

  • Encourage new ideas and create a forum for your employees to share them publicly
  • Host an innovation summit, and charge your team with investigating and reporting on the cutting edge of your industry. Then brainstorm related innovations for your business.
  • Send your staff to conferences that are outside their direct functional area but that will infuse them with new ideas and motivation. (Don’t forget to send yourself!)
  • Never be afraid that an employee’s ideas will overshadow your own. Their great ideas are an indication that you are indeed fostering the right entrepreneurial spirit.

Start a side project

Chances are you’ve got a few new business ideas brewing. Yes, that full time job takes up most of your time – but most likely you can squeeze a few extra hours out of the week. Don’t feel you need to launch a full-fledged company right away: Break your idea down into manageable chunks and start with what you think is doable. Slowly add additional elements as you’re able. If your idea is successful, you’ll experience an entrepreneurial high that will motivate you to squeeze a few more hours out of your week. It might even give you the courage and the means to take it on full time. If it doesn’t work, that’s good experience, too: For serial entrepreneurs, failure is a badge of honor, proof of their ability to embrace risk. Whether you succeed or fail, you’ll acquire new skills.

Accept failure

Entrepreneurs are idea people who cultivate an environment of experimentation. Young companies also tend to have flatter hierarchical structures and easy access to the CEO, which can promote camaraderie and openness. In the best of these environments, new ideas can flourish. It’s accepted that many won’t work, but that they may still lead to valuable new products, patents, or business processes. Encourage your team to try new ideas. Expect a certain failure rate, and make sure those who fail are rewarded for the effort rather than punished for a disappointing outcome.

Set aggressive benchmarks

Most young companies feel capable of great things, and they set goals accordingly. If they’ve taken venture capital, they’re under even more intense pressure to set and meet aggressive milestones. Whether you’re a department of one or many, write an ambitious but doable “business plan” that holds you and your team to a higher standard. Be specific and measureable about how you plan to reach these more aggressive goals, and make sure everyone understands their role. Cap it off with an “Executive Summary” that clearly explains what your charge is as a department or organization, what your new goals are, and how you’ll reach them. Give everyone in your department a copy of the plan and have them review it often.

To me, “entrepreneur” is a personal quality as much as it is a business status. If you truly want to be one, most likely you will find a way to make it your title and lifestyle. Meanwhile, you can get a lot of satisfaction for yourself, and mileage for your company, out of an entrepreneurial approach to your current career.

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