I remember the day I applied for an HR Services Manager role in a FMCG firm. That was 13 years ago. This blog tries to bring that memory back to life.
The notion of entrepreneur was apparently very important to my future boss.
“The what?”, I asked.
“That is already a good sign”, he replied. “You ask what it’s about. Most candidates do not. They simply nod their heads. I often get clichés or some examples when I ask what it means for them to be an entrepreneur.”
So I repeated my question. “What does entrepreneurship mean to you in the role of an employee ? You’re not looking for a freelance HR Manager, right ?”
He smiled. It appears he had a concern. He was worried about the job I had then. I was HR Business Partner in the financial industry. My future boss was wondering about the habits, the culture and the way things were getting done in that industry. He perceived the banking and assurance industry as rigid, hierarchical and bureaucratic. And clearly the company I was applying to, wasn’t like that at all.
I listened to his concerns.
Then I told him about the context of a merger and the related change I was working in. I talked about the uncertainties I had to deal with every day. I described how often it was up to myself to be creative, to find solutions, and to take decisions. Last but not least, I told him I had to work with colleagues without having any logic or formal line in the organisation.
Then he replied: “You can tell me everything you like. I can’t check all these things. But I clearly feel your huge enthusiasm talking about this. Are you sure you want to quit your current job ?”
“Yes, but for other reasons, as I explained earlier.”
“OK, Karl”, he said, “let me just explore a bit further your own story about being an entrepreneur.”
Entrepreneurship for Employees
“First of all”, he continued, “it is important that you do what your job description suggests. Let there be no mistake about that. But then again, that is not enough”. (From here on the quotation marks are omitted).
Two job descriptions
I would appreciate if you’d have two job description after a year in the job.
- the one in front of you now;
- another one that you create yourself. You don’t have to write this one down, but it definitely should exist and be visible to everybody.
The job you create yourself, could at a certain moment replace or even overrule the official one you have on paper now.
See it like this. As you have an HR background and as you are applying now for an HR function, I recommend that you use this job content as guideline. Certainly in the beginning, when all is new and you still need to find your way,
However once you’ll have found your way, I expect you to create new challenges. And I want you to consult with me about them. Challenges can be about:
- job content
- ways of working
- collaborations with colleagues or external people
Every time we meet, I’d like you to present at least one idea to enlarge, enrich, change your job. And I want you to tell me about at least one error you’ve made.
Quite frankly, I am much more interested in coaching you on those aspects than on your performance in the job as it is described. This being said…
I interrupted him with a smile. Yes, you want me to do the job as well.
Already on the way back, my future leader called me. He asked if I could come in the evening for a last meeting with the CEO. And I was kindly invited not to screw things up because I was number one on his list.
Guess what the CEO asked ?
The conversation repeated pretty much what my future leader had said about the expected entrepreneurial spirit. At the end of the meeting he made me a formal offer. I gladly accepted.
The first year I worked there, I thoroughly explored my entrepreneurial skills. My new colleagues really showed me all the corners of the room. I loved it!
Let me try to summarise these skills.
The skills of an employee-entrepreneur
Some tasks are not part of a formal description. But someone needs to do them. Do not hesitate to do them yourself. Especially when you see no one else is picking them up.
Ask internal/external “strangers” for help.
You can’t know everything. Certainly not when it’s not your job. So nobody will ever blame you for asking what you don’t know. On the contrary. They’ll appreciate it. So ask people for help. Also include people you do not know yet.
Read and act in between and across the lines.
Your territory is not somewhere on the organisation chart. Your territory is the large group of people all working for the same company, or on the same projects. Network and have conversations with them regardless their function or place in the organisation.
You’re doing things you’re not used to do. Sometimes there’s nobody to call and ask how to go ahead. So you may have to take decisions yourself. Take risks, make errors and assume the consequences. Your boss may disagree with your final decision. (S)he will usually agree that the presented options were reasonable for the situation at hand.
Take ownership of many things. You want to complete them successfully. The result (the “what”) is much more important than the “how”. Of course within the context of common sense. You are a can-do person. You cut through and resolve problems others run away from.
Your judgment becomes stronger and more powerful with each experience, decision or failure.
You are full of enthusiasm and energy. You consistently generate results that are higher than expected. You are fully committed to the organisation, its goals and its overall success.
You perform effectively with limited supervision. You are able to self-motivate and set priorities with minimal guidance.
You are flexible to create and accept new assignments and responsibilities. You can take on more than one role until these tasks can eventually be assigned to others. You’re also willing to do things that others with less responsibilities or skills will take over in later phases.
The environment of an Employee-Entrepreneur
Of course this can only work in the right environment. An employee can only become an entrepreneur if the company encourages him/her to be an entrepreneur. I have known organisations that prefer you to do your job within the lines of your job description without exploring other areas. And that’s fine if organization and employee agree on that and find happiness in it.
Briefly, I think a culture that encourages people to become an entrepreneur, should have the following elements:
- the belief that teams of entrepreneurial employees do better and work faster than teams of traditional employees would.
- the willingness to accept mistakes, conflicts and chaos, than a traditional employee environment would.
- a coaching style more focused on potential than on performance.
- a reward policy that prioritises success in special initiatives, and not success in the normal job.
- a very safe and trustful relationship with the direct leader.
I went through an intensive learning curve in this company. This would turn out to be priceless later in my career.
The skills of a real Entrepreneur
You’ve learned how to be an internal entrepreneur. How can you transfer those skills into being a real entrepreneur in the real market ? This is an important question e.g. when you become consultant after a corporate career.
To be continued.
Nacie Carson wrote a very interesting article on this topic. Think like an entrepreneur, act like an employee.
And here is a very interesting interview with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg about his learning.