Entrepreneurial “skills” for competitive advantage

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Sustaining a competitive advantage in today’s global economic climate is as difficult as ever, writes Brandon Paschal, opportunity officer at the LaunchLab incubator at Stellenbosch University.

Combine digital disruption with the work culture of the millennial generation and it’s easy to see why.

The typical corporate culture is to employ people for a specialised task, and only have them do that job and nothing else, which is the antithesis of entrepreneurship. Having a company full of task-tickers is the perfect way to make your company redundant soon.

So what skills should be sought after to hire or develop in your people? We observed the types of people that make up the more than 70 companies that we work with at the LaunchLab, and we made a few findings.

Problem-solving

Entrepreneurs look for solutions rather than dwelling on problems or barriers. These are day-to-day problems that we all face in work. Typically, non-entrepreneurial thinking people see these as insurmountable. Entrepreneurs see these barriers as a normal fact of life and refuse to accept the first “no” as final (nor do they typically accept the first few dozen “no’s” as final).

The political hierarchy in most corporates ensures that there are sufficient “no’s” to test resident entrepreneurs to see how committed they are to their vision. In an HBR article, entrepreneurial employees are highly correlated to corporate innovation. Innovation may not be correlated to short-term profitability, but it is correlated to long-term survival. Developing problem-solving skills doesn’t happen overnight.

Persevering

Entrepreneurs are used to failure, and with that it tends to embolden them rather than demotivate them. Paul Kim, CEO of PICSA, attempted two other ventures before PICSA with some success. Paul speaks of both of these ventures with affection and sobriety, and always refers to the learnings from each that have helped him become the successful CEO of PICSA. Entrepreneurs see life as full of opportunities to learn and improve.

Diversity

Entrepreneurs tend to not be tied to specific titles or skills. Though they typically do have some kind of specialised skill or experience, they tend to be more generalist in desire and interest and look for needs and opportunities to pursue.  

Tim Brown, CEO of design firm IDEO, refers to this as T-shaped skills. The vertical of the T refers to the depth of a skill showing that they can contribute to the creative process. The horizontal referring to empathy and enthusiasm for the contribution that others make. This enables them to be much more collaborative.

Vocation over job

In another HBR article, Andrew Hoffman writes: “There’s pure joy when you take a risk to pursue your dream and find work that you deeply connect with”. A vocation is a calling, a reason for existing. A job is just something you do to earn a living. Entrepreneurs do work that they are passionate about. Even if they are not founders or shareholders, employees in startups tend to own the vision of the problem that they are solving and their contribution to society.  

So how do you grow these “skills” in your company? There is no accepted formula for this, and if there was, that would be a billion dollar idea. However, there are steps that you can take to encourage more of this entrepreneurial culture in your business to create the space for the culture to thrive.

There has been a move by global corporates to engage with startup communities to drive innovation for their future business. One oversight that is common here is to not expose their employees to these inspiring entrepreneurs that bring the problem-solving and perseverance to the fore. Typically, only top management gain the exposure to these startups, and the value-add ends there. There is a lot to be said for the “water you swim in”. If your employees can gain more exposure to entrepreneurs, that charisma and inspiration will rub off on your people.

A way to grow this diversity is to help your people attend events and broaden their network that you can leverage. Even if it is seemingly unrelated to their job, T-shaped people are incredibly valuable to your organisation. It seems counterintuitive to purposefully introduce distractions to your people, but with a proper 21st century view of the opportunity you could really be adding value to your people.  

The CFO: “What if we invest in our people and they leave?”

The CEO: “What if we don’t, and they stay?

– Author Unknown

Millennials value collaboration and team decision-making. Involving them in the formulation of the vision and strategy, and more importantly the narrative of what value your company is adding to the world, is fundamental to instilling ownership.

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Key players from Africa's startup and investment ecosystem post on issues close to their heart for Disrupt Africa.

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