Observations on the entrepreneur and the corporate animal – a biased view from an entrepreneur

05.2018 | Nicole Wills

I have a friend and colleague, we will call him Gavin. We have worked together over many years in various iterations, although never at the same company. Our relationship has mostly been in the capacity of client and supplier/consultant/ advisor.

Gavin is undeniably a corporate animal – it is a world that he knows and that suits him well. I respect him hugely, he is a good human, good at his job and deserves all the success in the world.

Over the years that we have worked together, I have observed behaviours that fundamentally differ between us. It got me thinking about behaviours I have observed in my years of being an entrepreneur. To be clear, I have never worked in a corporate environment, so I could not possibly provide an objective point of view, hence the title of the article. To claim that I know what it is like on the inside would be disingenuous, if not dishonest.

Side note to the members of the legal department, Gavin is a hybrid of many clients with whom I’ve worked in the past twenty something years. He/she is a real person, he/she is just not one person.

I have set out to document my observations, most notably in behaviours and assessments of business situations and how they differ. And, if I am completely honest, this is probably a form of therapy for me. A way to vent my frustrations, via sweeping statements that represent my perception and my experience. Because, as we all know, perception is reality.

I accept that certain personality types mould into the corporate form, while there are those for whom a life of entrepreneurship is preferable. What interests me is what informs those choices and how they become evident in our everyday lives and work. Also, is there a thread or theme that can be identified in how each type of worker behaves?

Corporate Groundhog Day

Of the most pervasive observations is the propensity to do the same thing over and over again with the expectation of a different result. Is an eye roll emoji inappropriate here? Recently, a subordinate of Gavin’s briefed me on a new project; change the status quo and challenge a previously accepted corporate approach in this category and be relevant to a new world customer expectation.

The deadline approaches and I propose that we review our thinking prior to the all-important meeting with the honchos who inhabit large boardrooms. But, you see, there is no time to have said review meeting. We’re told to just email the thinking (which no one has time to read).

Unsurprisingly, the honcho meeting is something of a damp squib. Two weeks later Gavin calls me to discuss his disappointment. He still hasn’t read the email. Said subordinate presented something else entirely. But we should meet urgently to discuss and agree. And, guess what? The meeting is postponed because we are all so very busy.

The honchos get a presentation that they’ve seen in various iterations many times before and two months later, we haven’t challenged any status quo. We haven’t done anything differently or better. And everyone still has their jobs. But there remains a plan for another meeting about creating something new and more relevant, which will challenge the category. 

Is time of less value in big buildings?

A time management course would not be wasted on many senior executives with whom I have worked.

In my world, time is the most precious commodity. Our employees come to work every day with the knowledge that, at the end of the month, they will receive that comforting beep from the bank. As business owners, we work with this month-end goal in mind. Every month. We work to pay our staff, our rent and our suppliers. Sometimes (not always), we can even pay ourselves.

I am of the view that Corporate animals never give this a second thought. There has never been a time in their lives that their phones have not beeped at month-end. So, if we have meetings about meetings, does it really matter?

I boldly suggest that people become more disciplined about meetings. Like entrepreneurs are. Prior to a meeting, I decide what I want to have achieved by the end of the meeting and propose the agenda accordingly. In my 20s, I had a boss who told me that if you can’t achieve your meeting objectives in 20 minutes, you’re not good at your job. I have never forgotten this.

Yet, when Gavin changes meetings and I share my confusion with his PA, her response is, “Oh sorry, I think he just forgets, he has so much on his mind”. And another two weeks go by.

I really do wonder about the cost of time and its associated operational risk.

Do what you say you’ll do and mean what you say

Leaders in corporates tell me that they want to create the next Google and Amazon.  I even think that they believe it when they say it.

Creating such a company requires a culture of no fear, one of courage and a willingness and acceptance to try and fail. Be accountable, falling down and then getting up again. Doing everything differently from the way it has been done before. But for many corporates still ‘doing things the old way’ this shift requires change. Change doesn’t make humans comfortable. The status quo makes humans comfortable: “after all we’ve been doing okay by doing stuff exactly like this for so many years, surely it will be fine if we maintain the status quo for a little while longer, or maybe just until I retire or get a better job and then the burden of change will be someone else’s”.

The quality that make the Googles and Amazons successful is their ability to adapt. And adapt quickly. These companies understand how fast customers’ behaviours change and they adapt to meet those needs faster than their competitors have and do.

This adaptation is not just about nice commercials telling you how good they are. It is about changing and adapting their entire corporate structure so that they are quicker to adapt. They eliminate silos, they encourage creative ideas and they empower people.

I wonder how many corporate leaders with the ambition to create their own Amazon have even read Jeff Bezos’ letters to his shareholders in the past 20 years.

Words and actions people. Words and actions.