The bigger a company becomes, the less entrepreneurial it will become, right?
In place of startup guys working wild hours in an office with a Ping-Pong table, full bar, and video games, you get 9-to-5ers in suits, rows of cubicles, and sterile ideas. People become afraid to stick out their heads, challenge the status quo, or make mistakes.
Wrong. When it comes to entrepreneurship, the size of a company doesn’t matter.
To give you some context, I lead Amerinet, a 28-year-old health care solutions company with 400 employees. Despite our age and size, we follow practices that keep us innovative.
If you run a startup that’s ready to just be "a company," or you run a company that wishes it could keep pace with startups, you need to live a culture that preserves entrepreneurship. Here’s how you can strive to achieve each of these three pieces:
If you run a mature company and you want to keep offering products and services that customers need, you have to listen to people who interact with customers daily. There’s no way to magically get customer feedback from your front line to executives.
I chat with Amerinet’s customers, sales representatives, and contracting people to learn what is really happening on the front lines of health care. I also want to set a precedent, so when they have pressing, stellar ideas and news, they’ll feel comfortable finding me.
This doesn’t work in hierarchical organizations where senior managers believe they know best. You can’t tolerate closed-minded management because they send a message to other employees that they can’t speak up or innovate.
Anyone can email me. Anyone can barge into my office and say, "Todd, you’re full of it, and here’s why" (that has happened). If you stop listening, your company stops thriving.
If you lead a 400-person company, you have to surround yourself with 399 people who are willing to question what you and the company are doing.
The guy who said "you’re full of it" came to challenge me about the way we were providing customer service. We engaged in a pointed debate until we finally reached an agreement that changed how we operate as an organization. This debate saved us customers.
Quick changes like this only happen in organizations where questioning can occur across levels. At many enterprises, the CEO is barricaded in his executive suite. The company becomes desensitized to things that may be going wrong because people feel powerless to access senior leadership and get them to make changes.
A mature company that can’t question itself can’t reinvent itself when markets shift. In the early 2000s, everyone thought the dotcom boom was going to put group purchasing organizations like Amerinet out of business, because health care facilities would now have direct, more convenient access to suppliers and their products.
Rather than waiting to find out, we debated, analyzed, and realized that we could remain valuable by reinventing ourselves by expanding our product and service offerings, including taking the lead in supply chain data collection.
This was a decade before "big data" became a big deal. We began to help customers recognize inefficiencies and redundancy in their spending by focusing on data. Without the freedom to question, the dotcom revolution could have put us out of business.
Throughout my tenure as a leader, I’ve found that money will motivate people to do decent work, but it won’t motivate them to listen, question, and reinvent a company in the way I have described above. You have to believe you’re doing something more important than keeping the doors open.
At Amerinet, I’m motivated by the fact that if we save health care facilities money on the products and services they use, they can afford to provide more patients with health care. We identify and solve problems that these facilities can’t address alone. When our data analytics discover that the price of artificial knees for knee replacement surgeries cost more than the procedure itself, we know something is broken. We talk to clinicians and collaborate on a solution to bring the cost down.
If we didn’t think about work this way, we wouldn’t be motivated to be entrepreneurial. Conviction is not monopolized by startups. We can make less money go a longer way, maybe the hospital can hire more staff, afford additional supplies, and care for more people. You need a belief like that to make life at any company meaningful. With meaning, employees will have much more drive to listen, challenge, and innovate.
I lead a 28-year-old business that helps hospitals save money, and we do our work with all the dynamism of a startup because we’ve cultivated the right culture and values.
"We’re too big" is not an excuse for closed doors, groupthink, broken processes, and anti-change. In fact, at a more mature company, there’s not the same pressure to hit a home run. The freedom to hit singles and doubles without severe repercussions can liberate your company to take more risks.
So stop blaming your size. Clear out the internal resistance and reinvent.
—Todd Ebert is president and CEO of Amerinet, a company that helps health care organizations analyze their spending and cut costs through group purchasing and other business and clinical solutions built uniquely for them.