Building a culture of entrepreneurs

November 21, 2013

Leonard A. Schlesinger is a Baker Foundation professor at Harvard Business School. He most recently served as the 12th president of Babson College, known for its entrepreneurship programs. Schlesinger is also the author of numerous books and articles on entrepreneurship, organizational leadership and management. Schlesinger spoke with Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership and vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. Fox also heads up their Center for Government Leadership.

Q. What are some of the top characteristics of successful entrepreneurs?

Credit: Patrick O'Connor
Credit: Patrick O'Connor

A. Contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of successful entrepreneurs don’t take significant risk. The first characteristic of successful entrepreneurs is they have a desire to do what they’re doing. Step two is they’re able to determine the acceptable loss from a potential venture. Finally, they bring other people in on the idea so they can take a step back to reflect and gain a better awareness. The best solution emerges from being able to syndicate an idea and get lots of people to help shape it.

Q. What challenges do federal leaders and employees face in seeking to be entrepreneurial?

A. I was assigned to work with the Department of Labor under Al Gore’s Reinventing Government initiative in the 1990s. While my experience was quite positive in confirming there is a very skilled and capable federal workforce, the organizations they work for make it difficult to contribute. The first issue is the mixed messages in these organizations regarding what element of the agenda prevails on any given day. The second is the partisanship that exists more broadly in Washington today, which creates an environment that makes it very difficult to trust the longevity of the messages they receive on a daily basis. Experts talk about the need to create an environment where people actually believe they have psychological safety to contribute and to act. It’s difficult to see this emerging in many parts of the federal government.

Q. What can federal leaders do to foster a culture of innovation in a risk-adverse environment?

A. Whenever I sit down with an organizational leader to discuss creating a culture of innovation, it’s a common theme for them to have a litany of excuses on why nothing can get done. These excuses usually are either related to the unavailability of time or resources. I essentially ask them: “Are you telling me you can’t take a single step to improve your group’s performance and that you are such a victim of everything that exists around you that you can’t do it? Or are you telling me you don’t want to do it?”

So I must first unpack whether there is fundamentally a lack of desire or whether it's a question of a serious lack of capacity to go forward. In almost all situations, the person has recognized that there are some initiatives that can be done. However, if the person is not able to invest energy in reallocating a little time and money, it’s probably not worth trying to move to the next step.

The second part is making sure this culture ties into instilling self-confidence in the employees. When I worked with Jack Welch years ago on GE’s Work-Out initiative, we brought in large groups of employees to talk about their ideas for improving their work environment and performance on a day-to-day basis. I still remember senior leaders walking out at the end of the first day saying, “We wanted to have a conversation about significant strategic issues and what they wanted to talk about was moving the file cabinet from point A to point B. We’ll never get there.” The reality of it is if you don’t address what people have on their minds, they’re never going to be able to get to the next level. It is vital to instill your employees with self-confidence, and they obtain that by believing they can have a more powerful impact on their worksite.

Q. How can federal leaders operate effectively in these difficult times?

A. The turbulent times generate various responses. One is, “This too shall pass.” Another is, “I’m going to put my head down, and I’m going to hide and wait for this to clear.” The reality is these crises are coming faster and more furious than ever before. The downtime between crises is virtually non-existent. Being resilient is very much necessary in the context of the federal government. Developing a culture of resiliency requires two traits. First, the people really need to believe in the cause and always maintain an essential optimism about the product of their work. Second, the leader needs to be able to tune out some of the dimensions of the noise that they can’t control.

Read also:

How to make your government agency more innovative

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