I recently had the honor of participating in an Indiana University Alumni Association signature event held at Automattic (the people behind WordPress) in San Francisco. Entitled “Disruptive Innovators, Entrepreneurs, and Thought Leaders,” this panel discussion featured four IU alumni: Tony Conrad (founder of about.me and partner in True Ventures), David Krane (managing partner at Google Ventures), Deborah Collins Stephens (management consultant and executive in residence of the IU Alumni Association), and yours truly.
The lieutenant governor of Indiana, Sue Ellspermann, kicked off the event. The lively discussion that ensued covered a wide range of topics, such as what it takes to be an entrepreneur, how diversity helps with innovation, and how to make an impact in the world today, to name just a few. (You can view the full session here. Note that registration is required but it is free.)
Afterward, one attendee came up to me and asked, “What can you do if you have that entrepreneurial spirit but are entrenched in corporate America (and not working for Google, Virgin, or Apple)?” That very interesting question and the conversation that followed it inspired me to write today’s blog post!
Dictionary.com defines an entrepreneur as “a person who organizes and manages any enterprise, especially a business, usually with considerable initiative and risk.” Thinking back over the 20+ years I spent in corporate America, I realize that every day in that environment is a risk. It’s risky to propose new ideas. It’s risky to oppose popular views when you think there’s a better way. Even saying “Yes, my team and I can do this on time and within budget” is a risk because there is still a chance that you could fail.
When you persist despite the risk, that is a sign of the true entrepreneurial spirit! It’s an attitude, a mindset, an approach to doing your job (regardless of whether you’re in a leadership position or not) that compels you to actively pursue a better way of operating rather than merely follow along with business as usual. It’s creative problem solving, constant innovation, and continuous improvement. If you have an entrepreneurial spirit, you seek out positive change that improves the culture or function of the company rather than wait for change to come to you.
Does the preceding paragraph sound like you—or how you want to be? If so, take a look at these eight ideas for encouraging risk taking, fostering innovation, and nurturing an entrepreneurial spirit (both within yourself and among your team) in a corporate setting:
#1 – Stimulate idea generation
At Oxygen, my team and I held quarterly brainstorming sessions that were unrelated to our day-to-day-business. In these meetings, we focused on identifying critical tasks and new approaches that weren’t already on our to-do list. This no-holds-barred, no-idea-is-a bad-idea kind of meeting resulted in our operations team constantly being on the cutting edge of change and reinvention. It was also incredibly exciting for the team members!
#2 – Protect idea generators
If you’ve ever been in a meeting and proposed a new idea that was instantly attacked, you probably learned pretty quickly to keep your mouth shut so you don’t get shot down. Whether you’re leading the team or merely a team member, support the “crazy” idea generators who push everyone beyond their normal mode of thinking! Even just saying “Great idea! Who’s next?” encourages brainstorming—and can lead to some amazing answers!
#3 – Don’t slaughter someone for mistakes
When one of his business associates commented on how thousands of efforts to produce a new type of battery hadn’t yielded results, Thomas Edison replied, “Results? Why, I have gotten a lot of results! I know several thousand [ways] that won’t work!” The world is made richer by failure (Post-it notes and penicillin are two classic examples of this phenomenon), and both innovation and entrepreneurial spirit die when mistakes are punished or ignored. If you’re the leader of someone who makes a mistake or even in the hot seat yourself, learn from it and move on.
#4 – Promote good ideas
In addition to supporting idea generators (see #2 above), you also need to promote good ideas, regardless of who presents them. This can be challenging in corporate America, where both leaders and employees can be sensitive about their turf. If you think like an owner (another entrepreneurial mindset), you don’t care where great ideas originate—but you’re smart enough to recognize and implement them.
#5 – Broaden your knowledge base
The old adage “Knowledge is power” definitely applies to fostering an entrepreneurial spirit. Whether they occupy senior roles or are influencers in junior positions, leaders must constantly expand their knowledge bases in order to know more about their organizations. The more you understand how what you do affects other operations in the company, the more able you’ll be to make informed decisions that help the entire company.
#6 – Push yourself beyond your comfort zone
We all know that it can be hard to speak up when you’re in a junior role. Interestingly, though, it can be just as challenging to speak up when you’re in a senior position—after all, no one wants to make a fool of himself or herself. That’s why it’s important to keep learning (see #5 above) so we can make contributions throughout the company, not just in our own spheres of influence. So push yourself to break out of your day-to-day routines and responsibilities. Think beyond yourself, beyond your department, and especially beyond your comfort zone to lead change and innovation at your company.
#7 – Employ diverse employees and teams
Workplace diversity is certainly an often-discussed subject—and for good reason: if you want the widest array of ideas, you need people with different viewpoints and ways of thinking. If everyone on your team has had the same life experiences, you may get mired in homogeneous groupthink. So to promote innovative, creative thinking in line with an entrepreneurial spirit, make sure that your team members reflect diversity in gender, ethnicity, age, experience, and other factors that can influence how they see the world.
#8 – Recognize and reward risk taking
Even if you’re not the boss in your department, chiming in with encouragement—particularly in front of others—is part of the entrepreneurial spirit. Something simple can have a big impact. So say “Great idea!” or “Thank you” in a meeting, or send that e-mail telling another employee that his or her risk inspired you. Regardless of your position in the company, acknowledging and appreciating risk taking can have positive, far-reaching effects throughout your organization.
Surely these aren’t the only good ideas for fostering an entrepreneurial spirit—I know there must be more out there! So let’s talk about them (see #1 above)! How have you kept your entrepreneurial spirit alive and engaged in corporate America?
 Frank Lewis Dyer and Thomas Commerford. 1910. Edison: His Life and Inventions, volume 2. New York: Harper & Bros., p. 616.