Can a large corporation be "entrepreneurial"?

A gentle riposte to delusional corporate values.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 18 Jun 2019

Businesses often come to Management Today hoping to showcase something they’ve achieved, and share with their peers how they did it. We enjoy hearing about it, although we often have to tone down the self-congratulation. Just occasionally however – and we won’t name names here – it takes the mickey.

A company’s official values are a reflection of how that business wants to be, rather than necessarily how it is. So it’s not exactly surprising to see debt collection agencies proclaiming a credo of empathy and compassion, or vast oil giants with 10-year, 10-figure investment cycles cherishing nimbleness above all else, though it is amusing.

But nothing quite cracks a wry smile like a giant multinational corporation waxing lyrical about how entrepreneurial it is. It’s almost as though they’ve neglected to look up what entrepreneurial actually means.

Entrepreneur (n). A person who sets up a business or businesses, taking on financial risks in the hope of profit (OED). We could add an implied, restless distaste for following the rules, an extreme reluctance to quit and a tendency to treat the business like they own it (because they do).

What would this behaviour look like in a large corporation, exactly? What would happen when one "entrepreneur" disagreed with one of his or her 25,000 other "co-founders" about a major strategic decision? What if each of those 25,000 felt entitled to take risks with the company’s money or future, a la Nick Leeson in the 90s, or the pre-2008 bankers behind the subprime bubble?

To stay solvent, strategically coherent and generally functional, large companies cannot really become an alliance of entrepreneurs, even if their shareholders would let them. It is nonsense to suggest otherwise.

That doesn’t mean they can’t become more entrepreneurial. There’s a difference between legitimate, small-firm entrepreneurialism and a culture of empowerment, where decisions are made quickly and locally within carefully thought out and (albeit quietly) enforced frameworks – just as there is between such a culture and slavish obedience to process and hierarchy.

Creating such a dynamic culture requires a great deal of considered effort on behalf of the leadership team. You have to practise what you preach, allowing your direct reports the freedom to make certain decisions without fear of the personal consequences of failure, and requiring them to do the same. You have to trust people at all levels more than is probably comfortable.

But none of that will mean much unless you’re honest with people about they can or cannot do. Trust works both ways: if you tell employees they can act like entrepreneurs but don’t actually let them – whether because you won’t or because you can’t – then you’ll not only be a bureaucratic machine, you’ll be a hypocritical one too, and all that will earn you is contempt.

It may sound pedantic, but words matter. If you aspire to be nimbler and more dynamic, fine, say so. If you genuinely practise empowerment, preach on. But proclaiming that you're really a start-up in your giant corporation's version of Pravda doesn’t make it true. And your employees, more than anyone else, will see right through it.

Image credit: Designecologist/Pexels

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