Jonathan Aberman: Want to grow your organization? Hire an entrepreneur.

It’s a popular misconception that entrepreneurs cannot be effective leaders of larger organizations. That leads many organizations to turn away from the very type of leadership their organizations need.

I live an entrepreneurial life, and it never fails to amaze me how many people misunderstand entrepreneurs. The media are largely responsible. They overplay the theme of individual success and ignore collective effort when they talk about entrepreneurship.

This imbalanced coverage creates the impression that successful entrepreneurs are not good at leading teams or being good team players; it paints them as highly individualistic and as outsiders, someone interested only in running the show until the venture capitalists take over or the business is sold.

This viewpoint prevents many entrepreneurs from finding interesting and exciting challenges in larger organizations and deprives these organizations of the type of leadership needed to grow. Last week I ran across some research work done by Timothy Butler, senior fellow and director of career development programs at Harvard, and it really crystalized my thinking.

Butler’s first observation is that entrepreneurs are not actually risk takers; rather, they are risk mitigators. They do not take risks blind to the outcome, but instead look with a clear head for ways to manage risk. They are able to do this because they are highly comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty, which is a fundamental entrepreneurial trait. This makes them very suitable for leading teams developing strategies and  calmly managing them through the stresses of change.

He also notes that most entrepreneurs are not wild-eyed creative people who daydream and come up with big ideas. His research found that while this is sometimes true, most entrepreneurs’ creativity is oriented toward the practical. This means that their insights can be communicated and made actionable by others, because they can be explained and broken up into steps.

Lastly, Butler’s research shows that entrepreneurial people are effective sales people. In this area, the stereotypes and reality overlap. That doesn’t surprise me at all. Entrepreneurial people are generally most happy when they are engaged in solving a hard problem, and happy people tend to attract others to their activities. This makes entrepreneurial people naturally adept in selling their vision and ideas to others. Their enthusiasm and clarity of purpose make them highly effective leaders in a larger organization.

It strikes me that many of the organizations that I see facing big challenges could use CEOs with the skills Butler identified: risk management, practical creativity and contagious joy.

So how do we help these organizations see our region’s entrepreneurs as a reservoir of these talents?

The first step is to look less at the context in which they exercised their entrepreneurial character and instead focus on their behavior and emotional intelligence. Because entrepreneurial people are problem solvers by nature, you can learn a great deal about them by how they meet challenges. Many entrepreneurial people work very well with teams and are inspirational leaders. If they have built teams to grow their own businesses, they can certainly lead a larger organization’s people as effectively.

The second step requires some self-awareness on the organization’s part. As Butler points out, an organization must be honest about its need for change and capacity to execute. An entrepreneurial leader will want to move fast and get things done. Meanwhile, the organization must also be clear about whether the challenges it faces are going to be hard for the entrepreneurial leader to meet. Entrepreneurial people want to do hard things and make a difference — this is something Butler’s research shows, and also something I have seen time and again.

I know many entrepreneurs who could be great leaders for larger organizations. Yet very few have ever been asked.

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