The Importance of an Entrepreneurial Mindset

Our Self-Important Addictions

Let’s face it. The world moves at breakneck speed these days. So quickly in fact, that business and busyness have become synonymous. We’ve become addicted to the invisible hit of dopamine each time a text shows up with a “bing!”. We’re addicted to the quiet affirmation of self-importance that lies just beneath the surface of every “Man am I busy these days!” comment. We’re so constantly stimulated in all aspects of life that many of us find it difficult to sit in silence.

Are We Busy At The Right Things?

With today’s pace, it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees. And given we’re so busy doing stuff, we rarely question the value of what we’re actually doing. This makes it easy to get way off track. Using an airplane metaphor, a few degrees off course doesn’t matter much if it is caught early. But over the course of a long haul flight, you could end up in a different continent. The exact same thing is happening in today’s society. Many people are admittedly off-course without a reliable mechanism to course correct.

Over the past few years I have worked with some of the largest companies in the country, namely most of the major Canadian banks and insurance companies. However, over the past year I have been working with more and more startups and early-stage businesses to help them define and commit to a well articulated strategic direction. Take a guess which type of business is more fun to work with…

Burnout in Unfamiliar Places

Now here’s the curious thing. I’m seeing more busyness and burnout in the large institutions than in the start-ups. This is not usually the case. Here’s my take on a few scenarios which could be causing this inversion.

  1. Unprecedented Competition – After decades of oligopolistic dominance in Canada, disruption is coming from all angles. Fintechs are challenging every major revenue stream in large financial institutions; lending, wealth management, capital markets, insurance etc. These large, bureaucratic organizations have the baggage of massive legacy businesses that must be transitioned to more modern platforms. Even if leadership had an entrepreneurial mindset (They don’t!), it would still take them much longer to transition legacy platforms than it would take a well-funded startup to begin with a blank sheet of paper.
  2. Employees are Being Asked to do More with Less – Leadership in the large institutions are well-aware of #1 above. Hence, they are working feverishly to upgrade technology and customer experience. But they’re already late to the party. So at a time when reported revenue and earnings are just starting to roll over from record levels, the large Fin-cos are in heavy cost-cutting mode. In many cases, they are severing the most seasoned and most expensive staff members. Except technology still hasn’t replaced much in the way of job functions. So remaining employees are being asked to do 2 or even 3 jobs for the same pay. And they are often the least experienced. This is not a good recipe for job satisfaction or healthy corporate culture.
  3. Even MORE Meetings – The internal response to #1 and #2 seems to have been MORE meetings. Anyone working in these businesses knows just how much boardroom time was baked into a business day 10 years ago. Now, it’s even worse. Here’s a pretty typical rundown of my last several meetings with people inside Canada’s big banks.
    1. They show up around 5-7 minutes late for the meeting, visibly out of breath.
    2. After about 45 seconds of rushed small talk, they dive right in with a comment such as “We don’t have much time so we should get right to it”.
    3. They rush through the meeting and furiously scribble down notes, no doubt to deposit in their “weekend catch up” pile which may or may not ever be followed up on.
    4. They abruptly cut off the meeting a couple of minutes late so they can only be 5 minutes late for their next meeting.
    5. Repeat steps 1 through 4

The Entrepreneurial Mindset

From my experience, there are a few less obvious but important distinctions between the mindset embedded in the executive of a large institution vs. the mindset of a contemporary entrepreneur. Here are some aspects of the successful entrepreneur’s mindset that executives in large organizations should pay attention to:

1) Relentless Pursuit of the North Star

Early stage businesses recognize the importance of continually redefining strategic direction and re-calibrating their instrument panel. A slight miscalculation could mean the end of their business. There’s simply more at stake. While executives at the large institutions are preoccupied with “right-sizing”, they simply don’t have enough time to think about where they’re actually heading.

2) Private Vs Public Entities

Almost all early stage businesses are private entities. They may have capital invested from founders and a small group of angel investors. That said, these people tend to understand the need to look further down the strategic path. Large institutions are almost always public, which means they are forced to report quarterly earnings in line with public reporting periods. Given that much of senior executive compensation is tied to the stock price, the mentality tends to be steered toward the next quarter’s results.

3) Fun as a Core Value

Every startup I have ever worked with feels more like a tight-knit family than a collection of colleagues. It’s hard to overestimate the impact embedded in this statement. They work together AND they play together. Not that there’s no drama in startups (quite the opposite actually). However, like a family, they stick together and are forced to reconcile their differences. Through it all, they tend to have each other’s backs. Those who don’t simply don’t last. This mentality stands in stark contrast to the subversive behaviour typical of most large institutions.

4) Well-Defined Purpose

Startups are almost always born of a much deeper purpose. The reason early employees hop aboard the ship is often because they identify personally with the purpose of the founders. This creates a glue which bonds people together and keeps them pulling in the same direction. It also reinforces “Fun” as a core value.

5) A Dreamer’s View of What’s Possible

Unfortunately, much of what I witness from people in large institutions these days is a “get through the day” mentality. No doubt, this is a direct result of the three reasons listed above and the resulting malaise of not feeling valued. This is not the mindset that gives birth to creative problem-solving and a dreamer’s view of what’s possible. Yet, at startups, this mentality is a “need to have” not a “nice to have”.

Time For a Different Mentality

If the large companies are going to fight back the enemies at the gate, it’s going to be imperative for senior leadership to begin to think and act differently. This means empowering their teams to adopt more of the entrepreneurial mindset and embed this culture throughout the company. Given the size of these organizations, this will undoubtedly take time. While no silver bullet strategy exists, there’s no time like the present to get started. Those businesses who fail to adapt their thinking could be in for a rough decade and they will take their shareholders along with them.



30 Minutes

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Brent C. Wagner