“We can’t hire him” — he’s too corporate. I remember this being said in my company, as we interviewed a Harvard MBA whose experience to date had been exclusively in large, established corporations. What this shorthand meant was that he wouldn’t fit into our entrepreneurial company, where change was constant and structure was something we dreamed about. Essential to our survival was being able to turn on a dime, to go after opportunities the moment we spotted them, and being pretty relaxed about process, titles, and status. We had a business plan, of course — but when you’re tiny, your competitive advantage lies in being highly responsive to a dynamic marketplace. This didn’t make for a particularly predictable environment.
It’s intriguing to unpick the assumptions being made about our candidate, Will. He’d come from a big company with a big salary and a fairly big title. In applying for the job, he’d signalled that he was willing to forego at least some of the salary. But what my colleagues picked up on was his unease around uncertainty. All of his questions pointed to that: How did we know we would be successful? How long would success take? What guarantees could we give? As a start-up business, there were very few promises we could make with a straight face.
But my employees’ reservations went deeper. Their belief — and this is widespread –was that anyone from a large company will care a lot about the perks of corporate life: nice offices that have doors (we had fairly grotty offices and no doors), personal assistants (no one in my company had one), business class travel (even as CEO I flew steerage), and nice hotels. Worse still, everyone feared that Will would be a process guy: that he’d care too much about rules, regulations, and procedures. He would want structure when we needed flexibility.
The corporate stereotype is as pronounced and pervasive as its counterpart. Entrepreneurs are routinely depicted as chaotic, adolescent rule-breakers who work through the night and live off of pizza, with little or no regard for thoroughness and process. The two images are so spectacularly polarized that never the twain shall meet.
But I thought that was wrong then — and I think it’s wrong now. I hired Will because I thought he was smart, thorough, and rigorous. We needed that. When we had to reposition the business, it was Will’s questions that made the new positioning stronger and more coherent. He didn’t, as it turned out, mind travelling economy — but the prospect of physical discomfort meant he asked more searching questions about how essential any trip was. He carried within him a highly ordered mental model of how a business should operate — and it made our company stronger. Many of his colleagues teased him about his lack of spontaneity; he could come across as rather plodding. But everyone respected his strategic focus.
This cross-fertilization doesn’t just hold good for companies; it works for individual careers too. In the U.K., I had the good fortune to visit a mind-blowingly good chocolate company called Chococo (www.chococo.co.uk). I’m not a chocolate fiend — but after tasting Claire Burnett’s chocolates, I could be. Claire taught herself everything there is to know about chocolate, with the result that, in under 4 years, Chococo has won 15 international fine food awards. Where did she train to do this? At Shell, Disney and Procter & Gamble – among the world’s least entrepreneurial companies. What did that experience teach her? It taught her about market positioning, about doing things in the right order, about profit and loss and, as it turned out, a fantastic amount about how — and how not — to interact with the public. She learned, she says, as much by watching mistakes as by absorbing best practices.
I’m a fan of Claire’s not just because I adore her chocolates. I think she’s done something very smart that everyone could learn from: She got big, strong companies to complete her business education and pay her at the same time. She doesn’t have an MBA — she doesn’t need one. By working in some of the world’s largest and most visible corporations, she learned a thousand commercial lessons that have stood her in good stead ever since. She learned how to assess a highly competitive marketplace and how to tell the difference between fads and meaningful trends. She learned how not to treat employees.
I don’t think the polarization between corporate types and entrepreneurs has any validity these days — if it ever did. I recall my father who, after 35 years of working for Exxon, retired, became an entrepreneur, and had more fun, and made more money, than the rest of his career altogether. At the age of 57, he wasn’t too old to change — he was (almost literally) dying for a new challenge. Conversely, entrepreneurs bring a tremendous amount to organizations that can become set in their ways. Gerry Robinson’s entrepreneurial zeal is a constant challenge: why not try something new? Why wait until you have all the information? Do it now! The urgency and daring that have characterized all of his businesses are often just what staid companies need to prevent sclerosis.
I worked for a very large corporation — the BBC — for thirteen years. I followed that with thirteen years as an entrepreneur. I have loved both experiences. I’ve seen corporate types flounder in start-ups and entrepreneurial types wither in corporations. But far more often I’ve seen each benefit from the other. I don’t believe there is a corporation in the world that doesn’t need a hefty dose of entrepreneurialism. And I know, from sometimes bitter experience, that contempt for process and systems is the one thing that can kill the most brilliant start-up.
On an individual level, what’s important is to know where you will find professional growth. One colleague of mine has what I consider to be the world’s best resume, alternating Fortune 100 companies with very smart start-ups. What her resume says loud and clear is: I can do anything anywhere. Who wouldn’t want to hire her? When Will wanted to come and work for us, it was because he wanted to test and stretch himself – and he found exactly what he was looking for. When he left, it wasn’t to retreat to corporate life but to start his own business. When that failed, he returned to corporate life, a far wiser, deeper, and more seasoned executive than anyone who had just stayed put. I defy anyone to characterize these two great business people as entrepreneur or corporate executive. They have what every business needs: drive, stamina, fresh thinking, a need to achieve — and a goldmine of experience.
MARGARET HEFFERNAN’s new book HOW SHE DOES IT: How Women Entrepreneurs Are Changing the Rules of Business Success is published by Viking/Penguin this month.