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At large, established companies, doing old things more efficiently becomes more important than doing new things. That's the problem.
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America has fallen hard for entrepreneurs.
The aesthetic appeal is easy to understand. Compare the Fortune 500 CEOs interviewed on the HBR IdeaCast talking about Campbell’s Soup or Coca-Cola (podcast here) with the entrepreneurs at the Stanford Entrepreneurial Thought Leader Seminar Series discussing Pandora and Instagram (podcast here). The big company CEOs sound just like you’d expect. They are competent, factual, and in control. But while most of them presumably have strong interpersonal skills and a high EQ, they come across as dry, unemotional, and focused on the “core business.”
In contrast, the entrepreneurs presenting at Stanford wear their hearts on their sleeves. They are vividly passionate. They exude emotion. They are selling themselves, with a kind of animated desperation. They tell student to “do what you love.” It’s an appealing message, and you can see why it catches on.
These two personalities generally reside at opposite ends of the business spectrum, presumably reflecting two very different business needs. It’s essential to be brash and irrationally exuberant to start a business. But to sustain a large multinational corporation, you’ve got to be calculating and rational. It’s also a well-described phenomenon that as start-ups evolve into progressively larger companies, their character changes, and their needs evolve, or “mature.” Mature organizations are supposed to act predictably, responsibly, unemotionally. The qualities embraced (or at least tolerated) at the start-up level can become liabilities. Many start-up CEOs hand over the reins at this stage, or at least share them (as Google did for years when Brin and Page hired Eric Schmidt), explicitly acknowledging the need for an “adult in the room.”
While many large organizations might similarly benefit from having a kid in the room–someone who is energetic, passionate, emotional, excitable – it’s hard to envision a corporate phenotype that would be more doomed: the environment just doesn’t support it. Sure, companies trot out bromides about “cultivating entrepreneurship,” while HR departments sponsor group training sessions on innovative thinking. But the reality is that the culture of most big companies is geared to performing established activities in increasingly efficient ways. Simply stated: doing the old things better takes precedence over doing new things well enough. Most employees (and certainly the ones who last) figure out extremely quickly how you’re supposed to act at work (Sir Joseph wasn’t far off). You could say most large organizations have elected to trade the passion of young love for the predictability of adult relationships.
And perhaps this is why we look so wistfully at entrepreneurs. They seem to exude the raw passion that experience has taught us to modulate, the vivid emotion that we’ve learned to suppress, the intense energy that we learn must be channeled, the unreasonable audacity that has been replaced by sensible objectives. We cheer for them because they represent our youthful hopes, our idealism, our ambitions and our dreams. And when these entrepreneurs defy the extraordinary odds, and succeed, we rejoice, for at the moment we can sense, if only fleetingly, the exceptional untapped potential within each of us. We rejoice, and wonder: what if?
It would be easy to dismiss our infatuation with entrepreneurs as misty-eyed revisionism, the way we might selectively recall and invoke treasured childhood memories while forgetting the many painful challenges of youth and adolescence. The day-to-day reality of getting a new company off the ground is generally far less glorious than the inspirational experiences trotted out by the small minority of ultra-successful entrepreneurs who are routinely invited to share their stories. There’s a significant selection bias here, to say nothing of the urge to write oneself into a heroic cultural narrative.
But I’d argue that if we had to find a group of people to admire and admittedly idealize–and you know we’re going to–we could do a lot worse than taking our inspiration from impassioned, dedicated individuals seeking against all odds “to make a dent in the world.”
David Shaywitz, M.D., is an adjunct scholar at AEI.
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