In a scene from the hugely funny The Office US, Michael Scott, the hapless and foolish branch manager is educated on how to balance a surplus by one of his staff. He asks for it to be explained as if he were an 8-year old and, when he evidently still doesn’t understand, asks for it to be explained as if he were 5, pretending that it is for the cameraman’s benefit.
What Michael Scott is lacking is the ability to think entrepreneurially, and this is one of the key attributes of top leaders. To think entrepreneurially, or to be an entrepreneur, the process of innovation needs to be ingrained in the way you do things. Great leaders are always innovating, never sitting still, and constantly exploring new opportunities. When leaders show outward signs of entrepreneurialism, it helps foster an ethos of innovation within the team — leaders set the benchmark for the rest of the team to follow.
This goes some way to explaining why an entrepreneurial spirit is so important for a leader, but what actually is entrepreneurialism? (Two things spring to mind when writing this: 1. It’s hard to spell [are all those vowels really necessary?!] and 2. It is hard to type [this last one took 4 attempts to get right, and that’s down from 6 the first time])
In definition, ‘entrepreneurship’ is a French word meaning “one who undertakes innovations, finance and business acumen in an effort to transform innovations into economic goods”. The innovation piece of the process means that there is always some level of creativity or new thinking, and not just a ‘me-too’ approach or one that offers very little that is different.
So what particular traits characterise an entrepreneur, or an entrepreneurial thinker?
Entrepreneurs generally have strong beliefs about market opportunities, and a willingness to accept a significantly high level of personal, professional and financial risk. The concept that brilliant ideas sail through to success without some level of doubt, fear and lack of direction is ludicrous. Entrepreneurs believe in their principles surrounding their target market, and accept that these strongly embedded principles will cause them much uncertainty along the way.
When Steve Jobs was fired from Apple, the company he had founded, in 1985, he later came to believe that it was the best thing that could have happened to him:
“The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life”
What Jobs identified was that often the strictures of running and maintaining a ‘successful’ company can overpower the entrepreneurial impulse. For Jobs to regain that impulse it took him to be catapulted back to the position of a start-up entrepreneur — it allowed him to focus on what separates successful entrepreneurship from failure: innovation. In the same year as his resignation Jobs founded NeXT, another computing company which, although it didn’t achieve remarkable financial success, was home to revolutionary innovation in terms of the software it produced. By 1997, the struggling Apple sans Steve Jobs needed such revolutionary software to respond to Microsoft’s incredible monopoly. Apple bought NeXT for $427 million, and Jobs was back in charge. You may have read recently that Apple reported record net profits of $18 billion in the first quarter — quite a legacy to leave!
But can just anyone be an entrepreneur? Technically yes, but these statistics might interest you if we’re going to think demographically. 65% of existing entrepreneurs have at least one child when they launch their first business. And 40% are first-born children themselves. Have you considered that more than three quarters of entrepreneurs worked for someone else for at least six years before launching their business? (If that’s not an excuse to get back to work I don’t know what is). And take into account that 70% of entrepreneurs use personal savings as their main source of funding. Keep an eye on that rainy day fund if I were you.
To think entrepreneurially should be something that is ingrained in us throughout our education; for the benefit of society, your business or the people that will come to depend on you. The kind of skills that entrepreneurs need to create successful businesses and lead effectively — resourcefulness, creativity, flexibility, determination, focus — are the very skills that young people will increasingly need to survive in a fast-changing workplace, where jobs for life are frequently thought of as a thing of the past.
Mark Steed, Headmaster of Berkhamsted School in Hertfordshire believes that there is a flaw in our education system in regard to entrepreneurial thinking:
“The exam system is breeding a generation of accountants. It rewards people who are accurate and careful rather than people who take risks”
Undeniably, accuracy and care are important traits too. If none of us were accurate or careful the streets would be awash with blundering fools (for an idea of what this might be like, take a visit to the West End on a late Saturday night, it’s an eye opener). Steed has a point though: do we need to be encouraged from a young age to take risks in our thinking? If our creative thought and ability to generate quirky solutions to problems are not fostered through school then we will undoubtedly find it difficult later to motivate ourselves into new ways of thinking. The focus should not be on making money above all else, but it should concentrate on the values that contribute to successful entrepreneurialism — finding better ways of doing things and thinking in new ways to solve real problems.
Oli Barrett is the creator of The Tenner challenge for schools. Pupils are given £10 to start a business and have a month to make as much profit as possible while also trying to make a real difference and benefit the society. What a brilliant idea — it is important that, from a young age, we are encouraged to take ownership of our endeavours, and value them according to not only how much profit they make or don’t make, but the benefits they have to ourselves and to society.
In short, there is a case to be made that entrepreneurial thinkers, and the great leaders they often are, are not born but made. To think creatively, find innovative solutions to problems and make money at the same time should be part of your mindset if you are aiming to be not only successful but also inspirational. If your team can see you visibly making innovation a feature of the organisational culture, the change to productivity, inventiveness and critical thinking will be immense. To be an entrepreneurial leader is to immunise against uncertain futures.