Entrepreneur vs Employee

entrepeneurAre you an entrepreneur ?

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,

Continuous challenges

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:

  • roles
  • job content
  • ways of working
  • initiatives
  • projects
  • strategies
  • collaborations with colleagues or external people
  • responsibilities.

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.

The Engagement

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

  • Be hands-on.

    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.

  • Have courage.

    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.

  • Be results-oriented.

    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.

  • Grow fast.

    Your judgment becomes stronger and more powerful with each experience, decision or failure.

  • Be energetic.

    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.

  • Supervision.

    You perform effectively with limited supervision. You are able to self-motivate and set priorities with minimal guidance.

  • Multitask.

    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.

Continue reading “Entrepreneur vs Employee”

Recipe 4 Career Success

Recipe 4 Career Success

Good Career Intentions

A new year approaches. For some the changing of the calendar is an occasion to define new targets, change habits or do what was not done the year before. One area of interest is one’s own career. People wait for the end of the year to take career decisions and change jobs. Here is some career advice coming from 8 fictitious music albums.

 8 Career Albums to make us think

The début album by Ordie is called “Adapt”. Some people do believe that you need to adapt to be successful in the career. The question is how far this adaptation should go. I prefer to talk about integration or just fitting in. Organisations that ask you to adapt (or leave) are loosing out on someone special: you. It’s also strange because people get hired because of who they are, and not to become someone they are not. But if to adapt means to continually learn and to work in an environment that challenges you while at the same time nurtures you, than you’re fine. Do not leave such a company too fast because it might have still a lot to offer.
The Album “Up or Out” by a group called The Waste is about how you have to progress on the hierarchical ladder as the only alternative for careers. That’s weird if you come to think of it. There are just not enough places in a company to make that happen. And that’s why still today some companies prefer people to leave than to stay. But staying a little longer in a job on a certain level cannot harm. Of course the Up or Out Theory creates a Darwinian situation, as only the best can go up. The rest should leave. Reality is of course never this black or white. The world is grey. But if you feel you are treated as a second-rate employee because you choose to stay in your job, perform well and achieve a higher level of expertise instead of moving up, consider to leave.
The group “Be Alpha” is singing about people who live their lives beating others at everything: studies, work, sports, … One song in this album without title is about how a successful manager sees his wife and children leaving him. The song is called “Paradox”. Indeed, the paradox of life is that if you want everything you might end up with having nothing. And that being successful in one thing, might cause being less successful in another thing. People sometimes make their lives so miserable because of their inability to make choices. If you chase everything, you have nothing.
The PostPunk group Dictator has a new album called “Listen and Obey“. The Album is about how young soldiers in the first world war listened and obeyed. They ran towards their deaths in often senseless battles with hardly any sustainable results. Songs like Somme, Passchendaele and Gallipoli show the suffering of people because of their obedience. Some companies are like this as well. If the only option is listening and obeying, you might be in the wrong place. Companies should stimulate the debate prior to the decision-making. Work should be also meaningful because people can take responsibility for it.
5“No Grey” is an album by the group The Grey Zone, a Belgian Blues Band. The album describes how the Western Society treats its older citizens. One song is called “Priorities”. It’s about how we do not have the time to care for our parents, but we have time to have hobbies. If you are aging, how does your company look at that. Do you work in a company that allows people of all ages to develop new competencies? Or does the company look at aging as a process of decay, where there is no value?
Tina Burner has released a new album. In the style of the 70ies she talks about the 21st century workplace. In 9 elegant disco songs she describes what she calls the “Work Inferno“. One song “the building” is about working conditions in Bangladesh. The song is inspired by the disaster in a clothing factory in Savar. But other songs are about working conditions in the West. Tina Burner sings about Burnout, about harassment. So how do you feel in your company? If you feel well, you might want to stick around.
9 This is one of the most hyped albums of the year. The Aesthetics sing about cars. “For a bigger Car” is about people who work harder for the wrong reason. They do not work harder to provide for their family, or to change the world. They work hard to have a bigger company car. The Aesthetics describe a life of meaninglessness. These people have no other purpose and define their identity by the size of their vehicle. Be sure that you know why you work. Working for money is not so bad, everyone does it. But if it’s only for the money, you might be in trouble. A career that is built upon earning money, might not be satisfying enough. But let’s not forget that for many people, working for money is the single most important reason. Let’s not judge that either.
Rank and Yank released an album called “do it”. It’s about taking ruthless decisions without taking into consideration the moral consequences. The name of the Band comes from a practice, Rank & Yank, which requires managers to rank their employees annually. The lowest x% is yanked out of the company. The benefits seem to be endless. Not only you can have a constant inflow of new blood, you cut out the dead wood. But this story is asymptotic. This means that you can do achieve that the first few years. But after a while the quality of your people will be such that there is no reason for yanking. And at that moment the system becomes the purpose. Don’t forget that leadership is a moral process. It’s moral because it touches people and one decision can affect the integrity of others.

Two Questions as recipe for Career Success

There are many excellent companies around. So before you decide to leave your current company, you might want to answer two question.
The single most important question to ask is how this company helps you to achieve your own professional and personal goals, not only today but also tomorrow.
The second question is what you are willing to do to improve your career situation. The risk is that you appreciate some convenient factors (like proximity, the low risk to stay vs the high risk to leave). Try to appreciate what you have in your current company that makes you sustainably employable and then take a decision on what you need. Maybe you can find an answer to your needs in your current company. Asking those two questions might be the recipe for success.
Happy New Year.

Avoid rejection. Do not adapt. Integrate.


Rejection after Organ transplantation

When an organ gets transplanted from one body to another, the risk of rejection is one of the main concerns. The breakthrough in organ transplantation was when medication that suppresses the reaction of the immune system which causes rejection was introduced.
There is a word in German called Fremdkörper (in Latin Corpus alienum). Literally this means “Strange Body”. It refers to something that does not belong.  When applied on people, it feels like an aggressive word because it underlines us versus them. A new employee can be considered to be a Fremdkörper or can feel like it. If this is a case, the process of integration has failed and rejection has started.

The Risk of Rejection

Every time a new employee joins a company, there’s a risk of rejection. And the cause of this rejection can lie with both the new employee and the company. This is especially true for senior employees and executives.

We seem to underestimate the effort a company has to make to integrate a new executive. And at the same time we seem to overestimate the employee’s capacity to integrate.

That’s a conundrum. So should an employee simply adapt to the new surroundings? Should (s)he blend in with the crowd, disappear, take on the same colour? That would be a pity because someone has been hired for who (s)he is and what (s)he can do. If (s)he were to adapt, (s)he might lose the very reason why (s)he was hired and lose his or her value for the company.
The point is that you can avoid this rejection before and after an employment contract has been signed. Here is how.

What the Employer can do before the contract is signed

  • Think about the company’s immune system. Analyse how rejection could take place and what the employee could do to avoid rejection. Talk about this. Take away if possible certain issues that would stimulate rejection.
    Analyse previous early exits of people that have entered the company to see what was the cause of that. Talk to people who have ‘survived’ and are still there. What made them successful?
  •  Take the time to explain what the company stands for. Focus on values, beliefs, culture. Be clear about what should be changed and what is to be kept. Define the mission both in a generic and a specific way.
  • Be very clear about the role the new employee has to play. What do you expect from him or her?  Inform him or her about your reasons to hire.
  • Be explicit about the psychological contract. Ask what the  candidate expects. Try to find out what his or her doubts are.
  • Give a realistic job preview. This is not easy. Even if you tell people how hard the job is going to be, some people do not listen.
  • Be clear on what you plan to do when there are issues. Invite the employee to be open about any doubt, worry or question (s)he has.
  • Allow for customisation. I-deals are a way to sculpt the employment according to the needs and strengths of the employee.

What the Employee can do before the contract is signed

  • Take the time to discover the company before you sign the contract. Talk to people. Try and meet your team before you enter. Gather information.  Check your network. Browse the net. Ask questions.
  • Talk about your own values and check how they fit with the company’s.
  • Be explicit about the psychological contract and about what you expect from the company.

What the Employer can to after the contract has been signed

  •  Give the new employee the time to discover the company. Don’t overload him from day one with work. Draft the induction program in such a way that he can appreciate the company in all its qualities. Gradual induction will be profitable. Even if you are in a hurry, socialisation cannot be compressed and summarised in a powerpoint
  • Check on how the new employee feels. Ask about the surprises. Try to find out what the new employee worries about.
  • Confirm the reasons why he or she has been hired. Do not ask the employee to adapt, but give him hints on how he can integrate.
  • Clear some of the obstacles by communicating clearly why the new employe has been hired. Especially for senior level employees it is paramount to make sure the organisation knows what the mission is.
  • Talk about culture, values and expectations.
  • Give feedback, not only about achievements but also about the integration process.
  • Make sure everyone knows that you support the new employee
  • Monitor for rejection processes. Intervene accordingly.
  • Don’t be blind. If the employee makes mistakes, or worse, shows contempt for the company he is working with, you have to take measures. Ultimately, you might need to stop the employment contract before damage is done to the company.

What the Employee can do once the contract has been signed

  • Seek feedback. Ask questions. There is nothing wrong with asking people how you are doing.
  • Express your concerns if you have any.
  • If there’s a breach of the psychological contract, talk about it.
  • Don’t belief everything that has been written in the book “the first 90 days”.
  • Don’t act as if you are only temporarily here but take a long term perspective.
  • Show respect for people and their past. Don’t be arrogant about how other companies did better. Try to understand why things are the way they are.
  • If you need to act with a sense of urgency, talk about it. Be transparent.
  • Remain yourself. Don’t adapt. Don’t change. You have been hired with a reason. But if you feel your own style and personality has frictions with the culture, do not ignore that. These could be signs of rejection: either you reject the company or the company is rejecting you.
  • Be yourself. It’s the only thing you can do well from the beginning. Don’t be pushed into becoming someone else.

The importance of managing integration and rejection

Hiring someone from outside is a big decision. The person involved probably leaves a job behind to come to your company. That is a risk. But the company takes a risk as well. Therefore the risk of rejection, which is a mutual risk, should be managed well. The cost of failure by rejection is too high.

Career sculpting: a thought

We should move away from very fixed functions and sculpt jobs based on the strengths of an individual employee. Not only that,  we should help people to sculpt their careers along the lines they feel they have to follow. People are the owner and sole responsible for their career. They are the sculptors of their career and by extension of their life.

The Kiss
The Kiss, by A. Rodin can be viewed in Tate Gallery. It was a momentous piece of work in the career of Rodin

The idea of planned and pre-formatted careers is obsolete and the sculpting may be serendipitous. Let’s not assume that one can predict all of it. It’s like the sculptor who discovers the statue within the stone, piece by piece.Most sculptors do not know what the sculpture will be. It’s like an invisible hand that guides the hands that handle the hammer and the chisel. So is the basis of a career shere coincidence?
The sculptor has to take decisions as the stone reveals itself in all its (im)perfection. Everyone has to take decisions.Look at your own career. How many jobs did you have until now? What did you do to acquire those jobs? How much did you have to learn? Which habits did you need to un-learn? Did you predict at the start of your career where you would be now?  Did you take less obvious routes to get here? Did you take the easy way, or were you prepared to do difficult things that required personal commitment and some sacrifices? How conscious were you about the decisions that you took? Can you explain – with hindsight – how the career step contributed to your current market value?
As you sculpt your career you are sculpting your self. Like the sculptor you polish, you cut, you chisel*. And you take into consideration the nature and state of the rock you start with. The funny thing is that the sculpture can never add something. So if he inadvertently breaks of a part, he cannot restore it. He can hide it, he can integrate the error into the sculpture, or he can stop and start over again. If he wants to add a piece he has to use other means like an iron rod, or glue. We all start off with a stone. The stone is a given. And we can carve out of that stone a sculpture that takes advantage of the qualities of the stone. It requires skill to do so, and we all make mistakes. So the sculpture will never be perfect. But it can be beautiful. And worthwhile.
*to chisel also means to cheat or to swindle, obtain by deception. Some people do that too.
Check at Tate Gallery  for more info on the statue of Rodin.