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The elusive nature of entrepreneurs

Helen Mayson

A man with an ideas lightbulb for a head

Enterprise is often hailed as the saviour of the UK economy, but are we all cut out to be entrepreneurs? Geoff Trickey, Managing Director of Psychological Consultancy Ltd, assesses what makes a good entrepreneur and shares an online tool to help you test yourself

What makes a biography so interesting is the investigation and speculative attempts to understand how and why a person achieved what they did. The debate about entrepreneurs is very similar.

From the doldrums of the recession, the entrepreneurial touch has increasingly become the Holy Grail. Governments, consultants, organisations, economists, trainers, educationalists, business strategists and commentators extol the virility of entrepreneurship and call upon it to deliver everything from global growth to an end to child poverty and world peace. The assumption is that we can somehow bottle it and dispense it like Coca Cola. But can we really predict entrepreneurial success? Do we even agree what the term actually means?

First and foremost, the term ‘entrepreneur’ recognises successful enterprise; it celebrates success, it is all about performance. But usually, high performance is associated with recognised skills and abilities. In athletics, sales, copy writing or customer service, this is the case. We know pretty much what we should be looking for, how to spot talent and train it up. But, is the same true of entrepreneurs? Do entrepreneurs really have anything in common? Is there actually an essence of entrepreneurialism; a key to predicting entrepreneurial success? Or, like biographers are we just determined to find coherence amongst the biographical entrails of existing entrepreneurs? To answer that question we need to be sure first that we can even agree what the term actually means.

What is an entrepreneur?

Although the term ‘entrepreneur’ has been around since 1723 when it appeared in Jacques des Bruslons’ "Dictionnaire Universel de Commerce", arguments still rage about what it really means. You would die of boredom before you had waded through all 4,720,000 Google hits that this term generates. They simply emphasise the lack of consensus. A wide range of personal attributes is cited by one authority or another as the defining feature; street smarts, intuition, initiative, emotional intelligence, conceptual ability, analytical skills, vision, creativity and managerial intelligence, to name a few.  It seems that every desirable, business relevant epithet has been added to the weight of expectation that ‘entrepreneur’ is burdened with.

And then there is the luck element that is involved in all success; “being in the right place at the right time”, “landing on one’s feet”,  “making your own luck”, “being dealt the right cards”. As Anthony Tjan points out in the Harvard Business Review, “you don't get the glory (of entrepreneurial success) without some luck… fortuitous timing, serendipitous encounters, or inexplicable higher connections“.

If entrepreneur designation is first and foremost about what people have done, rather than how or why they did it, and if there is no consensual definition of it, or about what it takes to make one, and if luck makes a significant contribution, is there really any point in trying to identify entrepreneurial potential? 

Fortunately, cutting through the vagueness of the definitions, there are aspects of this debate that are uncontested. So let’s leave the speculation and theorising to others and go back to these basics.

The two central components of the entrepreneur concept are ‘enterprise’ and ‘success’, but a distinction has to be made between those who build their own business and those who succeed from within an existing organisation. This is a distinction made by G. Pinchot back in the1980s who coined the term ‘intrapreneur’ to describe the latter.  There is also consensus that drive, innovation and decision-making capabilities are essential.

However, the emphasis for entrepreneurs is on their independence in terms of risk taking and market focus. No safety net or parachute; they are self-reliant and this is how they like it.  The emphasis for intrapreneurs, on the other hand, is on navigating the internal politics in organisations that have established stakeholders, products and markets.  This puts the emphasis on strategic awareness and managing change. They will benefit from any exiting structure and momentum in the organisation and the reassurance of its health care provision and its pension scheme – this is how they prefer it.

There are dangers and pitfalls either way in confusing these two styles of enterprise success. Whether recruiting risk resilient, independently minded entrepreneurs to intrapreneurial positions or backing successful intrapreneurs for entrepreneurial ventures. Getting this the wrong way round is going to be counterproductive for all concerned.

PCL recently developed a personality assessment for a national government department using this consensus-based approach. The PROFILE:MATCH personality questionnaire was configured to focus on eight competencies identified specifically for this purpose.

Edge has arranged to make this online assessment available to its readers free of charge if they complete it by Friday 12 July. In complete confidence each person will immediately receive a personal profile sent to their inbox, showing the impact of their personality on the eight different competencies and providing a detailed profile and narrative report. This is an opportunity to take stock of your talents before facing your next career challenge.

Assess yourself

Complete the PROFILE:MATCH questionnaire and receive your interpretive report.
Use the Access Code: edge
Follow the on-screen instructions
A report will be sent to your inbox once you have submitted your completed questionnaire.

Access to this assessment will be open only until Friday 19 July 2013


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