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How entrepreneurs can be better leaders 

May 26, 2017


Entrepreneurs aren’t always known for their people skills. And frankly, neither are engineers. So I felt somewhat challenged recently when I was invited to speak to students at the W Booth School of Engineering at McMaster University, which focuses on creating not just builders, but leaders.

Product-obsessed engineers and always-racing-somewhere entrepreneurs aren’t generally known for having the open, engaging and empowering management style that seems so critical in business today. Still, entrepreneurs thrive on change, so understanding people – and helping them grow – is just one more skill set we have to adopt.

So I thanked Professor David Potter for his courage in handing me the microphone in front of his classroom of emerging minds, and tried to persuade them that leadership is much more than just getting things done.

In recent years, I have spent more time – in my own company and with other organizations – helping people adapt their leadership approach to a world of constant, unpredictable change. And as I explained to these engineering students, addressing change succeeds or fails by understanding a concept you rarely learn in the classroom: “context.”

According to Oxford, “context” is a frame of reference – a device you use to extract meaning from random or imperfect information. For me, “context” is the most important word in business. Leaders always need to understand the needs, concerns and demandsthat shape their actions and attitudes – as well as those factors affecting the people you do business with. Knowing all of these different motivations and frames of reference puts you in a position to find common ground and move ahead together.

Context is especially important in managing people. How can you help someone change their behaviour if you don’t take the time to understand why they’ve been acting “that way” in the first place?

Contextually speaking, I see two stages that entrepreneurs generally go through – andthe quantum leap they need to take to evolve their leadership style. I offer the following framework not just for entrepreneurs, but for those who work with them.

  1.  The Island Leader: Many entrepreneurs isolate themselves when making decisions within their own businesses – for two fundamental reasons. The first is that entrepreneurs of my generation began their business journeys in a top-down age. Our bosses told us: “Keep your head down, put one foot in front of the other, shut your mouth. And in 30 years, they’ll give you a gold watch.” It was an era when business success was created by following, not standing out. Naturally, this early learning affects the way many entrepreneurs deal with people today – especially after fighting so hard to establish their own firms.Secondly, who exactly are entrepreneurs leading when we launch our companies? Usually just a few true believers – and often, no one at all. So how can entrepreneurs become great leaders when we so often begin as islands unto ourselves?
  2. The Treehouse Leader: As our companies grow, entrepreneurs hire other people to work “for” us. Having scant leadership experience, we tend to build our own treehouse on our business island and lob directions from above: “Do this, do that. No, that was yesterday – do this instead.” When you establish your own business, founded on your own personality and worldview, it’s not easy to open up and work more collaboratively.Entrepreneurs’ thick skin hides a lot of bruises. We have heard all the objections that come with trying to do things differently: “That’s a stupid idea. This will never work.”

But a business model honed in the 20th century doesn’t fit any more. The island and the treehouse have to go. Entrepreneurs must open up and recognize that more heads are better than one.

Twenty years ago, the business world spun more slowly. With longer product lifecycles,you could build a viable business by coming up with one better idea every few years. But today’s customers demand constant innovation, customization, rapid prototyping. No leader can do all that alone.

Fortunately, entrepreneurs trying to up their game have natural allies: millennials. I can hear your startled protests, but I don’t see the new generation as entitled, cynical or smug. I associate millennials with communication and collaboration.

They have grown up as Gen C, the connected generation. Through technology, they participate in any conversation, on any topic, anywhere in the world. They don’t accept “Shut up and keep your head down.” We leaders must adapt. We must learn to converse instead of command.

Respectful conversation is hard – which is probably why our bosses avoided it. Conversing requires mutual respect. If you ask for an opinion, you must treat it with care, and explain why you agree or disagree. Offering a shrug – or no reaction at all – guarantees that conversation will continue without you.

Did the students get my message? I think they were delighted to be told that their preferred method of communication – frank, fearless and always on – will eventually win in the workplace. I just hope their bosses are fast learners.

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By Ken Tencer

Ken Tencer is a global thought leader on innovation and intrapreneurship who helps organizations master better futures.


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