Only one in a few thousand of you reading this piece is going to make it to CEO. Accept it. That's a simple, hard fact.
So what's going to make you stand out when the time comes? What's going to help you make the cut? Imagine the discussion at the Board meeting - "Yeah, he's a solid choice. But not entrepreneurial enough" And, poof go your chances!
Even if you are the most-experienced, the most-rounded or the most-qualified, it isn't good enough. Every company and board wants an "entrepreneurial" leader.
What does being entrepreneurial in a professional environment really mean? And why is it important, for your employer and for you?
The professional versus entrepreneur debate is over. India is possibly one of the most dynamic, complex and competitive markets in the world. Competing in India is like fighting a battle on multiple fronts. Companies need someone who knows how to command an army but has the instincts to be a guerrilla. They need someone with entrepreneurial instincts.
And you can see this across India - companies that have empowered their people have transformed remarkably. ICICI unleashed entrepreneurial energy when it transitioned from a semi-public sector bank into one of India's most powerful financial institutions with a culture to win.
The Mahindra group created a modern conglomerate across technology, logistics, holidays and automobiles. What the Tatas have done is there for everyone to see. They have created a talent pool of entrepreneurial managers to lead their vast business empire.
All of these companies brought in young people, and walked away from the old IAS promotions-based-on-tenure mindset. They created 'professional entrepreneurs'.
I think this is a mindset that belongs to somebody who has the willingness (and passion) to succeed and the courage to fail. That is what differentiates him from a professional who toes the line and climbs the steady ladder of corporate progress, usually to middle management oblivion.
I have been a professional entrepreneur and I've learnt a few things along the way.
This is the simplest, but biggest shift you need to make—irrespective of the title you hold, your position in the hierarchy, you ought to act and behave as if YOU own the business. Shed the label you carry on your visiting card. You need to start thinking like an owner. No one promotes a manager who does a good job. They want somebody who thinks beyond, takes ownership and finds their way around an organization's bureaucracy to make an impossible job possible. Don't be a manager of resources; be resourceful.
It doesn't matter whether you work for an MNC, an Indian corporate or a promoter-owned enterprise. Your approach and commitment will be visible to all stakeholders, and they will trust you in a tough spot. And that is where you your journey to the top starts.
You don't go to work
You don't go to work anymore. You are there to commandeer resources and create something. You simply have to build something bigger than you. So forget your peeves about your peers, whether you are being paid the market salary, whether your cabin is big enough or whether you ought to be promoted early. Go create something and show that you are worth it.
That's what winning professionals do. They put themselves out in front, grab tough assignments with both hands and create a venture out of a project. So don't treat your next assignment as a mere task. See if you can build on it and make it into something that has a far-reaching impact on the organization. Elevate your thinking and results will follow.
Alert, aware - at all times - always switched on. That is the mantra for an entrepreneurial leader. They don't start work at 9 am and stop at 5 pm. You need to stay in the flow - the flow will show you things others can't see. An entrepreneur is constantly aware of every nuance of what's happening in the business - their finger is on the pulse at all times. They spot inconsistencies in their product, they are constantly curious about competition, customers, regulators and trends. They are always trying to smell an opportunity or spot a crisis before it comes.
They don't have a set formula on how to do business. But they are always ready to pivot, to quickly rework strategy to get ahead. Let's call this “External Awareness”. You need to go and think how to develop this muscle.
It may sound easy. But most of us settle into a sort of inertia when you get a nice title and cubicle. I built this external awareness by cultivating a feeling of unrest, of being uncomfortable until I learnt more and knew more about what competitors were doing, what consumers were consuming, what was happening in the industry internationally…constantly watching and learning. Create that unrest in you.
Operate at all levels. Cut through the chain of command. An entrepreneur knows that to effectively steer his business, he needs to know the pulse of the business, what's happening to the business and his people across the organization. So he's not constrained by his cabin. He works on the shop floor. No job is too small or too big for him to roll up his sleeves and do it himself. He aims to inspire the people he works with, not just manage them. Sounds clichéd, but the entrepreneur sees his people as force multipliers and treats them accordingly. He empowers them to win.
Examples of this abound where leaders have crafted a task-force from across the hierarchy, and have spotted hidden potential in people. Every CEO you see was probably hand-picked from his peer group because someone noticed their talent and gave them a chance. On your way to the top, you will discover several times over that you are only as good as your team. Find the right people and inspire them. They are there, in your firm, if you only stop to notice.
Only outcome matters
Outcome, Outcome, Outcome! Entrepreneurs don't give a shit about activity. They don't get lulled into thinking they have had a productive day if they've shuffled a few mails and done a few meetings. They are critical about themselves. They ensure that everything they do moves the needle. Think about yesterday and examine harshly if you did something actually moved needle for your firm and for you. Or was it just another happy day at work!
Organizations are designed to force you to fit in with a flow, to follow process that maintains continuity and consistency. But equally these organizations need people who challenge the status quo and force change. So don't allow yourself to run to the organizations' clock. Instead, create your own. Respect and value your own time and contribution, and your firm will too.
Break the rules
Entrepreneurs structure their business and teams around the problem versus living with an established hierarchy. There is a certain fluidity to their thinking. Roles and responsibilities are assigned based on the demands of the business, where situation dictates structure. To solve a business problem, the organization needs to align itself around it. I call this “Internal Awareness”, where resources adapt to external realities of the business.
Again you will find that your organization has built a method of approaching a problem or has evolved a way of working. Sooner or later, these methods get out of sync with the market and realities facing the firm. But no one stops to notice. You need to be the one that notices, the one who is watchful of this myopia that builds up in any firm. It is usually obvious to everyone, but no one does anything about it because they don't have ownership. But you can, and you should.
Before you embark on this journey - you need to develop your self-awareness muscle. Take ownership of managing yourself. The successful professional entrepreneur combines curiosity, humility and passion into a winning mix that can transform a firm's fortunes. And that comes from within, from a belief that you can make a difference.
So if you don't want be a middle manager for the rest of your life - start moving and become an owner. And well, every company today wants people like you who can command their ships, and can create a new future. But if you are stuck in a company that doesn't value these qualities, quit and find one that does.
This article was published concurrently in Mint on March 24, 2015