Please Take Risks: Even in Your Career
Mark B. Mondry
Originally published: 2013 (PDMA Visions Magazine • Issue 2, 2013 • Vol 37 • No 2)
Read time: 6 minutes
It was warm and sunny outside, but the weather didn’t match his mood. He had just emerged from a windowless conference room meeting with his supervisor, and his emotions sank into in a dreary coldness of winter. He was very confused. He recalled encouraging words in the meeting about embracing risks and being innovative, but he also remembered a stern rebuke about budget realities and some babble concerning the inevitable contagion of failure. His mind stumbled in the effort to synthesize these opposing messages, and he reminded himself to finally read that book sitting on his bedside table about starting your own company.
Unfortunately, this situation has become an all too common: Companies demand innovation from employees, yet the organization itself becomes an obstacle to innovation. Some have called it organizational “antibodies.” Others suggest it’s a leadership issue or a deficiency in organizational design. It is not my intent to rehash the multiple causes of this organizational disease but rather to shift the discussion from cause to effect. For many, the effect is career changing. Indeed, we are becoming more innovative—innovative about how we look at our careers. Allow me to explain.
We live in the age of ‘preneurs. At any given time throughout our careers, we are ‘preneurs of some type. Our choice of ‘preneurship typically changes over time in response to our environment—like a chameleon’s color. There are three basic types of ‘preneurs: entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs and nonpreneurs. I will briefly characterize each of them before putting them into a bigger career picture.
Entrepreneurs: The Individualists
You know what an entrepreneur looks like. Perhaps you are one now or fancy the idea of becoming one in the future. Entrepreneurs chase change and disruption as opportunity. They seek to displace the status quo by serving customers who are constantly seeking better, faster and cheaper offerings. Failure along the way is embraced as a learning opportunity. Quick failure is the best. The increasingly popular lean startup methodologies amplify the frequency of failure and change through rapid iteration; constantly generating a “minimum viable product” that can be continuously tested for customer feedback, modified and retested until it is ultimately either refined into a commercializeable product or forced into a “pivot” that morphs into a completely different opportunity. Nothing rests as continual and rapid iteration perpetuates renewed innovation.
The English word “entrepreneur” borrows from the 13th century French verb “entreprendre,” meaning to undertake. Curiously, it also has a similar sound to the Sanskrit word “anthaprerna,” which means self motivation. That pretty much sums it up: An entrepreneur is one who is self motivated to undertake or create a new business opportunity despite the inherent associated risk.
Potential fame or riches, both powerful motivators, drive many entrepreneurs. Alternatively, some are motivated to achieve societal change, thus the advent of social entrepreneurship. All entrepreneurs share the burden of starting something from scratch. This typically includes raising money, attracting a team and overcoming all of the challenges in building a new enterprise. Such efforts demand extreme motivation, energy and enthusiasm—attributes typically associated with the belief that most entrepreneurs are young people. But hold that thought, we’ll get back to it in a minute.
Intrapreneurs: The Nonconformists
Intrapreneurs are those brave folks who exercise the impulse of entrepreneurship from within a larger organization. They have the built-in advantage of leveraging resources of the parent organization; things like capital, infrastructure and an established network of external partnerships. Rather than building from scratch, there is a bit of a head start. This is all positive. However, the corporate mothership has spent years, if not decades, perfecting efficient, predictable systems that reward consistency and are intolerable to deviation and change. This is the domain of the corporate anti-bodies concept.
Successful intrapreneurship requires a unique blend of optimistic frontier mentality and the organizational maturity necessary to navigate political landmines and the elaborate defense mechanisms intrinsic to those with acquired power. This blend of skills is usually acquired over time. Again, there is a great deal of research and writing about intrapreneurship’s challenges, and it is not my intention to do a recap here. Interestingly, the term “intrapreneur” originated only recently, in 1978, and wasn’t in our common business vocabulary until at least the mid-1980s. Organizations are still experimenting with how to make the concept repeatedly successful, and individuals must still access the how each unique intrapreneurial opportunity will impact their career. We are still learning.
Nonpreneurs: The Followers
This third category of ‘preneurship is characterized by those who actively avoid risks, seeking a path of low resistance in the organization through conformance with well-established and agreed upon organizational norms of behavior. Do not be mistaken, however. I am not suggesting that nonpreneurs are poor performers. Rather, these are the essential, reliable, hard working employees who grind out the day-to-day work by following detailed organizational processes and direction from their supervisors. They crave predictability, much like the bureaucratic institutions they gravitate toward. As a result, change is threatening to nonpreneurs. Unintentionally and sometimes intentionally, these folks become the ever-present organizational antibodies that follow the flow undetected yet are supremely equipped to wage stealthy lethal attacks on entities that threaten the treasured status quo.
Career Profiles and Risk
Each of these ‘preneur types have unique attributes. Entrepreneurs, of course, harvest energy from risk and thrive on disruption. Intrapreneurs, on the other hand, harvest the relative stability and flush resources inherent in larger organizations to generate risk. They acquire a sense of prestige in deploying these elaborate support mechanisms while exercising creative creation impulses. It’s like being in charge without having to win the corporate battle to the top. In contrast, nonpreneurs distain the opportunity to break molds, create something new or propagate risk. For them, predictability and stability are most highly valued and risk should be minimized.
Abort the notion that each one of us fits squarely in one of these silos and tend to stay there throughout our careers. Some believe that entrepreneurs are born not developed, and that most entrepreneurship happens early in one’s career. In fact, this is not true. People are entering entrepreneurship for the first time later in their careers. According to the Kauffman Foundation, a leading research center for entrepreneurship, 50 percent of first-time entrepreneurs in 2012 were aged 45 to 64. In 1996, only 38 percent of first-time entrepreneurs where in this age group.1 With the tidal wave of entrepreneurial resources now available, we all have unprecedented access to the knowledge and skills needed for successful entrepreneurship.
As for the notion that most first-time entrepreneurs are young, the percentage of first-time entrepreneurship in the age group 20 to 34 actually declined from 1996 to 2012 from 35 percent to 26 percent.2 Perhaps these changes are the result of recent economic cycles or perhaps it is because entrepreneurship is just more disbursed throughout age ranges and geographies. Either way, entrepreneurship is more popular than ever.
In fact, most people will typically experience all forms of ‘preneurship during their careers. As represented in Figure 1, people early in their careers embrace entrepreneurship. The motivation could be to make a significant impact, achieve wealth or fame or just to avoid the burdens of working for someone else. In these early career stages, risk tolerance is very high (see Figure 1).
As one navigates their career over time, priorities are likely to change. People start families, grow roots in a community and make other commitments that start to increase the value of stability and predictability. Intrapreneurship and nonpreneurship gain in relative attractiveness. Even successful entrepreneurs start to migrate to other endeavors over time. Think about how many young successful high-profile entrepreneurs morph into investors, exchanging the intensity of creating something new for the satisfaction of encouraging others to do it. Risk is relative when you are already profoundly wealthy.
Alternatively, as careers mature and organizations flatten, people come to embrace entrepreneurship as an attractive alternative to dissatisfaction in a bureaucratic workplace. Entrepreneurship offers the opportunity to apply hard-won skills and experiences with the possibility of personally reaping the benefits of success for a change. Of course, we all may be much wiser at this stage, but the risks of entrepreneurship provide a formidable mental obstacle. With all our wisdom, it is easy to identify all the many reasons why an entrepreneurial effort won’t succeed. Despite this, many more people are enthusiastically starting new businesses later in their careers.
Ride the Wave
These are all generalities, of course. Not everyone will experience the kind of a career ‘preneurship curve depicted here, by design or by circumstance. Many will write their own curve, adding spirals and other bizarre configurations. The intended message, however, is that you can create your own curve. Yes, we are all feeling the pressure and exhilaration to become more innovative. Embrace it. Innovation and risk are soul mates. Learn to iterate. We can innovate our careers and help others innovate theirs.
Ride the wave of ‘preneurship, across all types, repeat if necessary. Enjoy the ride.
12012 Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity, 1996-2012. http://www.kauffman.org/newsroom/entrepreneurial-activity-declines-as-jobs-rise-in-2012-according-to-kauffman-report.aspx
2See 2012 Index of Entrepreneurial Activity, page 12, Figure 5B. http://www.kauffman.org/uploaded-Files/KIEA_2013_report.pdf
About the Author
Mark B. Mondry, NPDP, Managing Partner, Phase M, LLP works in a variety of industries to identify and establish international collaboration opportunities around the creation and commercialization of innovation. He is an engineer, patent attorney and certified licensing professional (CLP) focusing on Asia-United States business transactions.