Risky business: can entrepreneurs be trained?

Are entrepreneurs born or made? And if it’s the latter, what can HR and learning and development departments do to bring these key people on?

Entrepreneurship is among the most sought-after qualities in the business environment, as large monoliths splinter into smaller, customer-responsive units and look to get ideas to market as quickly as possible.

Two-thirds of respondents to a recent survey by business consultancy McKinney Rogers believe it is important for large organisations to develop a core competence of entrepreneurship, which they define as visionary, driven, persistent and decisive. But how does an organisation make this happen? Is it a case of recruiting mavericks, or can they be grown from within organisations?

Nature or nurture?

The survey respondents, made up of chief executives and business leaders, believe that entrepreneurship can be developed, because it is not an innate gift. So what does this mean for HR and learning and development teams?

“For HR professionals, this is a matter of managing the diversity of talent,” says Richard Watts, a UK partner at McKinney Rogers. “There might be certain people who are good at kick-starting projects, but who then need to be moved on to something else. HR needs to make sure that it keeps moving the right talent to the right place.”

The difficulty for HR departments is that entrepreneurship, with its connotations of challenging the status quo, goes against the traditional order that HR stands for.

“It’s almost like asking HR to be schizophrenic,” says director of strategic HR programmes at Ashridge Business School Mary Kennedy. “The traditional role for HR is to make roles that are fair for an organisation, whereas to encourage entrepreneurship they have to act as a broker.”

Kennedy makes the further distinction between “entrepreneurs” and “intrapreneurs”, and says that what most corporate people really want, and are talking about, is the latter.

‘Intrapreneurship’ is about giving staff the freedom to think and act on what is good for the business while still expecting them, and supporting them, to co-ordinate the functional lines effectively. This is safer for the organisation, because it is not encouraging wild mavericks, and is safer for the individuals, because they are still developing their careers.

Doug Ross, managing director of business consultancy Square Peg, says: “You can’t truly be an entrepreneur in a large business, because you can never look to adopt the same risk/return attitude.

“The true nuance of entrepreneurialism is that you have the financial risk on your shoulders,” he says. “Big business, however, says that ‘your salary is capped at…’. It likes the spirit and concept of entrepreneurialism, but will not go far enough.”

None of this should be confused with asking employees to be more innovative, says Kennedy. “There are many conventional interventions for this, such as training courses in creativity, or shortening cycle times,” she says.

Coaching role

If intrapreneurship can be encouraged, the best way could be “coaching and nurturing,” adds Kennedy.

“HR needs to offer a process around supporting the intrapreneurs, and helping them to stay out of trouble.”

Coaching may be valuable because it can “garner and harness skills and qualities”, according to founding partner of Praesta Partners coaching consultancy, Robin Linnecar. In other words, it helps to channel energy in the right direction.

The best fit for this scenario is a coach who is experienced in collaborative rather than performance-based approaches. “You need a coach who is wise and who can be in tune with lateral thinking,” says Linnecar. “You need a coach as a partner, but not such that the coachee would be out-gunned.”

Ross agrees that an innovative, but measured, approach is needed. He recommends that organisations create an offshoot of the main company, which he refers to as “a sandbox, with the large organisation acting as venture capitalist”. This creates an area for innovation and free-thinking away from the main business.

The key to good customer service

One aspect of ‘intrapreneurialism’ is to keep employees focused on customer needs and an understanding of what each individual needs to deliver.

When Thomson Financial created its new technology tool, known as Thomson One, it referred to this strategy as a way of introducing operational excellence and a performance culture among all its staff. Thomson used the Mission Leadership model, developed by McKinney Rogers, to make this happen.

The model has nine ‘sub-missions’, from improving the sales experience to improving customer performance, so that every employee – including those in back-room functions – keep customer needs in mind. Progress against each sub-mission is assessed against a performance measurement tool known as the ‘mission leadership dashboard’.

This is intrapreneurialism without the risks of entrepreneuralism.

“We have been able to introduce a common performance culture supported by universally applied measurement and review frameworks,” says Sarah Dunn, European vice-president of HR at Thomson Financial. “Equally importantly, we have introduced a common language that anyone can sign up to.”

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