Lessons corporate executives can learn from entrepreneurs
When my friend Jim took the giant leap from corporate executive to technology entrepreneur back in 2000, even he never imagined that he would lead a Nasdaq listed company with over 20,000 employees in eight countries by 2009. How did he pull off this rare achievement? Many things, of course – strategy, ability to execute, funding, and able leadership to name a few. I asked Jim what he believed to be the biggest reason, and without hesitation, he attributed most of his success to the fact that he made some important behavior changes along the way. As I listened to him, I realized that this (the ability to make behavior and mindset changes) is common to all successful entrepreneurs, but always missed in analyst reports. Furthermore, I strongly believe they apply equally to people who want to remain and excel in corporate executive roles.
Here are the four changes Jim made:
1. From Shut to Open
In his corporate executive avatar, the more senior he became, the more he unknowingly shut himself off from people. As he became busier, he instructed his secretary to screen his calls and sequester his time. After all, how could he entertain every caller when he could barely finish his work? His assistants also took control of his e-mail in-box, only involving him in the “most critical” ones. He ignored anyone who “wasn’t worth it”. .
Once he started his own business, he quickly realized how important networks were. “It is not what you know, but who you know that matters in business. You cannot ignore anyone these days – who knows where the next big opportunity will come from,’” he told me. With this realization, he began to return each call and email personally with curiosity. Even today, with all his responsibilities as CEO, he wakes up at 5:00 a.m. everyday, answers his email for an hour over a cup of coffee, then goes for his morning run.
2. From Opportunistic to Helpful
During his days in the corner office of the division he headed for the old company, he routinely ignored help requests from friends and acquaintances. If someone called to ask him to recommend her son for an internship position, or if a friend asked him to introduce them to his company’s procurement guys, Jim usually did not bother unless he felt the person asking was important enough and could be of use to him in future. In most cases, he thought people were taking advantage of his position at the company.
In his early days as a businessman, Jim found a lot of closed doors. He noticed that the same people who had run after him when he was a senior corporate executive were now not returning his calls. His initial anger eventually gave way to humility and he realized that he must help anyone he can without weighing the usefulness of the person. Now as CEO he often tells his senior team, “You must go out of your way to genuinely help as many people as you can even if it is unclear how they might ever be useful to you – it is just good business.”
3. From Telling to Asking
As the big shot executive, he often told everyone how important his work was. As people asked him questions, he was happy to tell them everything he knew. After all, he was an expert in his field and it was only natural that people wanted to learn as much as they could from him. He felt really good about himself as people were so in awe of him. It was quite normal for him to spend a few hours at a party and come back without knowing much about the people he had met. He usually did most of the talking.
Now one can barely get a few sentences out of him when people try to probe about the importance of his work. He is far more interested in finding out about what others do, and never stops asking questions. He even attended a memory seminar which helps him remember the names of people he meets at social gatherings. I asked him why this sea change in behavior, and he was quick with his response: “It’s all about the people – you have to be genuinely interested in them…. As I proactively built this habit, I found that I felt deep intrinsic satisfaction when I knew I had understood (and helped) someone….. And usually in turn, they do their best for you. It’s a win-win habit.”
4. From ‘No Way’ to ‘Let’s See’
At the corporate job, any request that was outside the normal way of doing things was usually given a ‘No Way’ response. He was far too busy to consider difficult propositions.
Now, his usual response is, “Let’s see what we can do. There must be a way.” Now, Jim is humility personified. Even if he is unable to help, you can he sure he will give it an honest effort.
Over drinks one evening while we were talking about all of this, Jim admitted that he should have made these changes a long time ago even while he was a corporate executive. “I just did not realize how arrogant and closed I had become,” he said while shaking his head in disbelief.
It is easy for any busy, successful person to fall into these familiar traps. Do you see a bit of Jim in yourself? Is that what you want? Jim was able to make the required changes at the right time. What changes do you need to make?