Not too long ago, a business professor friend invited me to address a luncheon of university students enrolled in his class on entrepreneurship. I was honoured to have been asked, but not sure I was the right person for the task.
“Your students would be better served by a high-tech entrepreneur half my age,” I told him.
“They’ve already heard from entrepreneurs,” he said. “I want you for balance. My class needs a perspective on entrepreneurship within the corporation — if that really exists.”
I went in assuming his students believed corporate management and entrepreneurship were principles of contradiction — the only contrarians would be members of the flat earth society. I figured it might be best to tackle the assumption head on by addressing the culture of corporate giants, particularly the “old economy” companies responsible for creating the preconception.
At one time it looked like “clout” and “scale” would prevail as the most powerful forces in business. Corporate giants dominated markets and gobbled up competitors; along the way they failed to cope with rapid change. Their competitive edge eroded because the people at the top, who considered themselves the corporate brain, failed to adapt or innovate. The brain viewed the masses below it as the muscle. The muscle never got to see the big picture. Bureaucracy and stagnation set in. The brain “cut the fat” to shore up profits. But strategic health continued its freefall.
Eventually, the giants embarked on reinventing themselves by simplifying decision-making and acting with haste. Innovation and entrepreneurship made a comeback, albeit in measured bites. In the meantime, perennial innovators the likes of Apple, FedEx and Amazon extended their leadership over old-guard competitors. Large or small, we have bureaucratic companies, entrepreneurial ones and plenty in between. Innovators drive the marketplace, followers are the passengers and those who refuse to abolish redundancy are roadkill.
My friend’s students saw themselves as entrepreneurial thinkers, yet at graduation, most of them will begin their careers in a corporation. I told them not to worry; corporate life isn’t a death sentence.
“Your job,” I said, “is to choose an organization with a buoyant culture and a leadership team that’s not afraid of change. The changemakers are small- to medium-size enterprises that either lead niche categories or are hell-bent on knocking the big guy from the top rung of a mass market. In those companies you’ll find entrepreneurial thinking.”
When it comes to job hunting, several avenues are open to grads with an entrepreneurial drive. To assist in the selection process, I suggest seven basic search guidelines:
- Search for small players or divisions of large players in industries you like.
- Lean towards industries on strong growth curves.
- Check out the target company’s mission/vision statement. Does it inspire? If it doesn’t, move on.
- Research the reputation and the modus operandi of the CEO.
- Beware the entrepreneur. Several, such as Trump, still operate by the brain and muscle ethic.
- Explore corporations that value diversity.
- Don’t resist starting in the sales department. No one is closer to the customer than the front-line sales representative.
John Bell (Business ’68) is the retired CEO of coffee/confectioner Jacobs Suchard. He is a former strategy consultant and the author of Do Less Better: The Power of Strategic Sacrifice in a Complex World.