Defining Entrepreneurs

ANOTHER myth on leadership is that successful entrepreneurs should be able to take their ideas and run with them when they become the nucleus of a new business. Management guru Peter Drucker deftly defines an entrepreneur as ‘someone who searches for change, responds to it and exploits opportunities. Innovation is a specific tool of an entrepreneur hence an effective entrepreneur converts a source into a resource.’

None of that suggests to me that an entrepreneur is expected to stay around to lead a company once he or she has set the ball in motion, but neither does it say that they cannot stay around the periphery as a force for on-going change. I sometimes think that entrepreneurs have a lot in common with scouts for professional sports organizations. They are out there talent-sporting, whether with established stars on other teams or undiscovered, up and coming raw young talent that hasn’t made it big as yet. They usually understand how the corporate puzzle fit together every bit as well as the team manager but as the unsung heroes who have the insight to recognize something special and recommend bringing in new and better players to improve the team. In fact, they often add more value to the overall picture by not trying to manage it – something I didn’t cotton on to early enough with megastores.

It is no small coincidence that I felt such a strong tie to our music business as it was the last one I actually ran before i drifted off into my new career as a serial entrepreneur. That said, over the years I spent a lot more hands – on time around some Virgin companies than others – the early years at Virgin Atlantic would be one example – but I usually make a conscious effort to try and stay out of the day- to day decisionmaking as it really isn’t my thing. And besides, when I expect our senior people to take ownership of their decisions then the last thing they need is someone like me continually trying to foist his usually inexpert opinions on them.

What an entrepreneur eye can bring to an operating business, however, is that same spirit of inquisitiveness that recognizes gaps that can be filled with new products and services and, in turn, occasionally new spin-off business opportunities. At the same time, the Virgin way of managing our businesses is all about maintaining and promoting that almost childish curiosity level in our people to ensure they are never accepting of the status quo and always looking for ways to improve upon it. The subject matter experts are often too willing to take the obvious path (their expertise, after all, is based on what they have seen and done in the past.) and so every once in a while a few jabs in the ribs from an annoying entrepreneur is not a bad thing. As David Tait, who was one of the first people at Virgin Atlantic likes to tell it, in the early stages of the airline I reminded him of his young kids as my favourite question was always ‘Why’. And to this day it’s probably still my favourite question, especially with a new business segment about which I know very little. It’s not that I don’t trust staff, it’s simply that I want to understand how things work. The upside of my constant ‘why-ing’ is often that it makes people start to revalidate a few long-established practices and in the process sometimes stumble on better ways to do them.

Over the years numerous Virgin people have found that telling me something will not work is by no means the best way to convince me we shouldn’t try it – quite the opposite, in fact. As trite as it may sound, one of my favourite lines when someone expresses doubts about trying something new for reasons like it has never been done before or it’s been tried and no one has ever succeeded is to say with a smile, ‘Great! Well, why don’t we can do it differently and be the first ones to make it work?’ That was pretty much what we did with Virgin Atlantic, and once we got it in the air we have always maintained the same approach.

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