Supporting Entrepreneurial Ideas

A new survey finds employees lack leadership support for entrepreneurial ideas. Experts say that a big part of building and nurturing a culture that actively supports entrepreneurship includes rewarding great ideas, not just waiting until they prove successful.

Monday, January 13, 2014
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Employees in corporate America are hungry, but not necessarily for more perks, a bigger office or a closer parking space.

They want to think, act and make decisions like an entrepreneur, if only their employer would support them.

Accenture, a global management consulting, technology services and outsourcing company, surveyed 800 corporate employees and business decision makers about entrepreneurism in the workplace. The 2013 study, Corporate Innovation is Within Reach: Nurturing and Enabling an Entrepreneurial Culture, revealed that more than half (52 percent) of the respondents pursued an entrepreneurial idea inside their company, yet only 20 percent believe "their company offers enough support for developing new ideas."

That's not exactly good news, especially for global companies engaged in fierce competition. Considering that 89 percent of the survey's respondents agree that an entrepreneurial attitude can lead to new ideas that promote growth, the study's message is clear: Unless employers build and support an entrepreneurial culture over the next decade, they risk losing their competitive edge and possibly industry ranking in a rapidly changing marketplace.

Among the most interesting survey findings is the wide gap between employer and employee perceptions, says Matt Reilly, head of management consulting, Accenture North America, in Atlanta.

"Over one-third of people who left their employer and started their own business said the No. 1 reason they left was, 'I can't get rewarded for entrepreneurial ideas,' " he says. "People have the energy to be [entrepreneurial], to take the personal risk. It's up to [managers] to build that into the process so they can capitalize on it, without forcing people to leave."

Other survey findings include:

*     The biggest hurdle to pursuing new ideas is that employees are too busy performing the responsibilities of their job (36 percent), followed by lack of management support (20 percent), and a lack of incentives for generating entrepreneurial ideas (13 percent).

*     Fifty-three percent state their company does not support ideas for all levels of the workforce.

*     Seventy-seven percent report that new ideas are rewarded only when they are implemented and proven to work. Another 27 percent say they avoid pursuing an idea with their company, out of concern about negative repercussions.

*     On average, employers say that it takes six months for ideas to be proven successful. Not so, say employees, who indicated it takes 12 months.

Considering these disparities, HR can help business leaders get in sync with their workforce by actively fostering risk-taking attitudes, directing staff more effectively to focus on ideas that can enhance revenues and profits, and implementing clear incentive policies that offer appropriate rewards for idea generation, according to the survey's authors.

However, that's easier said than done. Many companies don't know how to balance the input and energy of their employees, says Reilly. "The problem is they don't have a good mechanism to understand how much they should focus on near-term and long-term [goals]," he says.

"Other reasons for not supporting a corporate entrepreneurship environment involve "survivor mentality," says Donald F. Kuratko, the Jack M. Gill chair of entrepreneurship, professor of entrepreneurship and executive director of the Johnson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Indiana University-Bloomington.

During tough economic times, he says, employees are typically overloaded with daily tasks and short-term projects. No one pays much attention to ideas that may produce a big payday three to five years down the road.

"They don't realize that because of this survival mentality, they're sacrificing the long-term viability of their company," Kuratko says. "That's been a problem in U.S. corporations for decades. They've always had this short-term mentality -- let's make our quarterly earnings, because that's what it's all about."

Not to mention corporate status and competition. He says some executives believe it's their job to deliver and execute entrepreneurial ideas, not frontline workers, so they tend to overlook creative, risk-taking ideas suggested by those positioned lower on the corporate ladder.

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But part of building and nurturing a culture that actively supports entrepreneurship includes rewarding great ideas, not just waiting until they prove successful.

"If you're going to try to engender a spirit of entrepreneurship in your people, you have to understand that, in some ways, you have to find even small rewards for these folks to show them that you care about their ideas," Kuratko says. "Don't just say, 'Once somebody hits a home run, then we'll celebrate.' "

But first HR needs to define entrepreneurship, says Susan Foley, managing partner at Corporate Entrepreneurs, a professional service firm in Melrose, Mass. HR can do so by addressing a series of questions: What kind of ideas is the company looking for? What criteria will be used to evaluate ideas? How does entrepreneurship differ from innovation?

Above all, HR needs to identify senior execs or other managers who are willing to be sponsors, she says. Such individuals must be willing to do whatever it takes to bring great ideas to market, ranging from stepping on toes and breaking rules to fighting for ideas or projects in the face of opposition, she says.

However, she says companies tend to lean on traditional business leaders who support older, mental models that worked in the past but may not be as effective in the future. Unlike these individuals, entrepreneurial leaders possess different core competencies, such as independent thinking and the ability to navigate uncertainty. They must move forward in a way that's "not business as usual," says Foley.

Perhaps HR's toughest challenge is helping business leaders experience being or acting entrepreneurial. While some may understand this from an intellectual perspective, she says, the head is oftentimes not connected to the heart. Another problem is that most are not experienced at building a new business within their organization. As a result, they lack the experience base and revert back to traditional practices that don't relate to today's business environment.

"Everybody thinks they're an entrepreneur when, in reality, they're not," says Foley, adding that HR must also manage the company's expectation about entrepreneurship.

"We have executives who are thinking about how they built the core business," she says, "but not really understanding how they need to build a new business. That's the disconnect."


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