Saturday, August 05, 2017

It's time to give up the romanticism of the 'entrepreneur' and embrace the 'intrapreneur'

This machine causes intrapreneurship

I have always admired entrepreneurs.

They create. They take risks. They make loads of money. At least that's the stereotype. I'm not saying they don't work hard and live and breathe their idea - they do that as well. There is something attractive about the entrepreneurial spirit. It's as if it embodies all that is good about our society and economy: freedom of opportunity, the space to create, equality for everyone.

As a secondary school business studies teacher, there is a significant part of the syllabus devoted to entrepreneurship. The pupils I teach choose the subject because they associate it with programmes like The Dragons' Den or The Apprentice. They dream (and speak) of being millionaires. They all agree with the idea that low taxes are important to encourage entrepreneurship.

Whilst I disagree with that notion (which is the subject for another post) I'm intrigued by the romanticism and mystique of the entrepreneur. I do wonder if the entrepreneurs we all know and love are feeding unrealistic futures to the younger generation. My pupils have told me they think I'd be great on the apprentice; I get asked to judge their business ideas.

For a long time, I felt inadequate as a business studies teacher - here I was talking about risk taking and creativity, but not doing anything. I was all talk. Pupils ask what I would do if I wasn't a teacher, and if I had any ideas. Some would also say that I went to university and I know about business, but all I did was become a teacher.
"My pupils have told me they think I'd be great on the apprentice; I get asked to judge their business ideas."
It was only realised relatively recently, that I started calling myself an intrapreneur. That is - an entrepreneur within an organisation. And no that's not a made up word. As an idea, it's been around since the early 80s (this article on the Huffington Post gives a good summary) that I stumbled across just after I changed careers to become a teacher in 2003.

Part of the reason it took so long to recognise my intrapreneurial qualities is because I was so enamoured with chasing the idea of an entrepreneur. To coin another phrase from the internet, I was a wanna-preneur. The pupils pointedly asking why I didn't do more that just be a teacher heightened my discomfort. I constantly read articles about people building successful online businesses; my social media feeds started to fill up with adverts to 'become an ideas machine' or 'create a business lead magnet on your webpage' and such like. I could feel the hollow well of not-good-enough growing in inside the pit of my stomach.

I suggest that lots of us feel this way. We feel that we could be so much more; that our potential is more than we achieved at school. Anything is possible if you work hard enough. Keep going with your idea. Fail lots and eventually you will succeed.

All of that might be true, but I suggest that a lot of us are blind to the chance to effect change as an intrapreneur within our current jobs. It's actually a much easier way to express our entrepreneurial ability. I think the root of this huge missed opportunity is the romantic notion of the entrepreneur and its media misrepresentation. I suggest that the entrepreneurial spirit is not about making millions. It's actually about being an agent of change. It's the idea generation and creativity that really make entrepreneurship.
"a lot of us are blind to the chance to effect change as an intrapreneur within our current jobs. "
Through my career in several industries, I have worked (and currently work) with some amazing people. Not only have they given me space to try out wild and crazy ideas, on reflection, I see that I have learned to push for it. Looking back, the key event that set me on this path was writing a document during my placement year as part of my degree in 1998. I was a wild-eyed,  idealistic, immature 21-year old. And my second truly great mentor encouraged me (mostly by taking red pen to pretty much all the stuff I'd been writing...which pushed me pretty hard). In my spare time, I worked on my project. On completion, my manager read it.  He then gave it to the company CEO. Who called me into a one-to-one meeting a few days later.

I remember sitting in the CEO's office. Partly feeling I had done something wrong, and partly in disbelief. I remember he turned and said to me that I could have written the long-range plan for the company. In the next few days, my student placement project was photocopied and distributed to all the middle managers in the company.

Since then, in every job I've had, I've constantly felt the need to push the boundaries; to question; to try out new things - and make suggestions. Years on, now in my school: if there's a mad, crazy teaching idea; if volunteers are needed to have their lesson videoed or observed; if anyone's writing a proposing a new idea to move things forward...I'm there.

If there's something that has gone some way to legitimising the intrapreneur (and my approach to my career) it came last year when the A-Level business studies syllabus changed (again). There, under the part about 'ways of becoming  an innovative organisation' was a section about (you guessed it) intrapreneurship. I actually felt gratified.

So now what? I do think the entrepreneurial spirit is valuable. But it's time to leave all the romanticised idealistic nonsense that we'll all be millionaires if we keep failing fast - by ourselves. I see that organisations need to adapt as the pace of technological change continues to grow. But it's within our organisations (including - and perhaps especially - our schools) that employees need space to take the risks. I hear my contemporaries (including teachers) talk about career direction, or ineffective systems, or dysfunctional working relationships. I feel business leaders could be empowering and identifying intrapreneurs as a strategy for dealing with our challenging world. This of course requires a high level of trust from leadership, but employees need to take ownership of organisation's goals. Waiting around changes nothing.

To end, I have two questions for you:
- What action are you going to take?
- When are you going to make it happen?

Monday, May 15, 2017

Millennial Tension?

I heard about Simon Sinek's video on Millennials from my friend Jarvis. He was the first of my friends to post it on a social media profile - just as it was going viral. It's a clip that seemed to capture strength of feeling across my friendship group. Even Sinek seemed surprised at how much attention it got as he recorded a follow-up.

Put it this way - even the Principal of the school in which I teach had seen it - and mentioned it to me in school.

I then showed the video to my Sixth Form at school. The tutors thought it was great. The reaction from the students was somewhat subdued: here was another pressure, another thing to worry about, another reason to bury heads in the sand. It was a resistant consideration. (They have moaned that my assemblies are overly negative; I say I'm being truthful. Perhaps brutally so). The tutors, in contrast, really liked it. Playing the clip in an assembly like that highlighted the stark differences age groups in the room. And so it shall be: Baby-boomers, Gen X, Gen Y, Millennials, etc. terminology may vary, but differences remain.

Who would be a teenager nowadays anyway? Things seemed so different when I was in Sixth Form. No-one was chasing a six-pack. Nobody went to the gym. There were no mobile phones - and there was no Internet - yes I'm that old. That meant no Facebook, no Instagram, no Snapchat and no pressure. Or at least the pressures were different. I had the weight of expectation to deal with (Asian pressure anyone?) I read books and watched TV during Sixth Form. My dad limited the time I spent on our computer (with 64 kilobytes of memory). But in my late teens I had discovered guitar and played a lot at home (mostly) by myself.

These differences inspired Jarvis and I. We hadn't seen each other for years until I received an unexpectedly uplifting and surprisingly gracious email from him. Him and his wife are expecting a baby - and he took the time to contact me to let me know. Davina and I have had (and are still having) a challenging journey on our way to create a family. Jarvis' email was an acknowledgement of emails I'd sent, and articles I'd posted about our difficulties with fertility. He found my thoughts, ideas and tips a source of encouragement. He told me how he kept referring to my writing.

It was the perfect message and the perfect time. I was drowning myself in frustration and mild anger. It was the end of 2016 - and I'm always reflective at this time. I start thinking about the previous twelve months: what did I achieve, what should I have done - but also thinking about the year ahead. It was a natural suggestion for us to meet up, so we set a date in January.

We agreed to meet at Monmouth. I'd never experienced their coffee. I was cynical - but the sheer number of people at the branch in Borough market made an impression on me. Needless to say, I loved the coffee, but enjoyed the conversation more. It was wonderful catching up with Jarvis - old friends, old conversations yes, but we were older too. We are at different life-stages now from when we first met. I remember we were talking about freelancing. I was mentioning that I felt I was coming to the end of my time in teaching, but I had no idea what I wanted to do next. Jarvis was saying how going freelance was one of the best choices he ever made - even with the concerns that immigrant parents have about security and future. I was enjoying a hot drink from another coffee place (we'd moved on by then) when Jarvis said (out of nowhere) "I think we should start a business together". I thought he was joking.

But he wasn't.

So we just starting thinking of ideas. Sinek's video had inspired us both and we knew we wanted to do something that looked forward; created a new future.

Our idea is to support millennials in their transition from university to job, or in the initial stages of their career. Specifically, Millennial Goans. Yes, we're focusing on our cultural community - because we've both been previously involved in making things happen in our youth. Perhaps companies would want to invest - especially given the research about millennials at work, but our community is a nicer place to start.

We're testing the idea. And the first thing we chose to do was record a YouTube video about our experiences moving from studying to career. Where we go next is uncertain, but we're creating...

Jarvis and James having a chat...