Culturpreneurship: Lessons from Eagles

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Culturpreneurship is the art of leading an enterprise possessing initiative, world-class innovation and an above-average risk-appetite by effectively integrating the corporate culture of the firm.

In my recent article, The Smell of the Place, I asked the question of whether your firm smells like old running shoes or roses. You know intuitively what I mean. And yet, even when the culture is rosy, culture alone is not a sufficient ingredient for success. It takes having the right mix of creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship as well.

Innovation is a sub-set of culture. Innovation is not technical. Innovation is centered around the process of idea creation. It is about creating something new: a process, a product, a service. Innovation is about providing the right environment – it is a cultural tool. All firms are attempting to increase productivity, decrease costs, create new products and services in order to delight clients – in order to make more money. That is the name of the game. Lots of internal innovation labs are turning up. Under Armour has built a secret innovation lab to test new products. Credit Suisse has its Innovation Factory. I could list countless examples of how firms are putting a wrapper around innovation in order to orderly process how innovation gets done. You might be thinking that this defeats the issue, putting order around idea generation, around creativity. The trick is doing it lightly – adding a touch of discipline to corporate culture in order to promote culturpreneurship. Hiring a “Head of Innovation” won’t create value – unless the organization is freed up culturally to be able to innovate (read: make mistakes and not get fired for it).

So, what do firms do with all these ideas they are generating in their “labs” and “factories”? How do you take an idea and get it to market? Being creative or innovative is not enough. It takes grit, determination, risk-taking, that “out-of-the-box” thinking, and mainly decisive action to get an idea from a lab to the market.  Anyone can generate a great idea. Only a few have an idea that will generate a ton of cash for your firm. In-company entrepreneurs are those courageous women and men who will take on the risk – even personally – to ensure that their idea actually gets to market.

Recently, I had the opportunity of working with a large bank regarding a new service they wanted to offer clients. I asked the head of the division with whom I was working: are you willing to bet your career on this? Because if you fail, it will cost you your job. His immediate response was: YES! He and his team had an idea of how to better process information on behalf of their clients. They developed the idea, they tested it thoroughly, they convinced the sales teams of the benefits. They worked day and night across divisions to make it happen. And then, the most critical test of all: they implemented it as a coherent team – almost overnight. The firm provided them with a culture allowing them to step out of their comfort zone in order to make a difference. Yet, it took both professional and personal risks in oder to get the idea to market. Everyone involved realized the most important aspect of culturpreneurship: it is not a nice to have, it a non-negotiable component of growth.

This is culturpreneurship in action.

We need to regularly and critically look at other industries and other disciplines to see how new ideas, processes, and products are generated. The natural world around us can teach us many things about running our businesses – specifically about culturpreneurship. Observing a naturally evolved algorithm is much more efficient than an creating an artificial space by force. I’ve been studying eagles for the last few weeks, and we can learn a lot from them:

  1. Context and Environment. Eagles typically live near water, favoring coasts and lakes where the fish are plentiful. They naturally live in an environment that will allow them to survive. Is there a deep and inherent cultural river of innovation and entrepreneurship across your firm or is innovation treated as a project or delegated to some “innovation department”? A culture of innovation must permeate the entire firm, front to back, not be led or managed by a few individuals. Context matters imminently.
  2. Get them hungry. Eagles stop feeding their young as the first step in teaching them to fly. Get them hungry and they will move. Don’t get me wrong, I am not promoting you stop paying your most precious resource. I am encouraging that you create an environment where your people are hungry to grow, to create, to innovate and to act as entrepreneurs on behalf of the firm. Everyone should be encouraged to suggest and implement change, new ideas, products and services in order to differentiate your firm from your competitors. Create a hungry culture and change will happen – fast. As Jim Carrey puts it: Desperation is a necessary ingredient to learning anything, or creating anything.
  3. Give them space. Eagles stop sleeping in the nest with their offspring as the second step in teaching them to fly. Eaglets need the comfort and warmth of their parents. Yet, in oder to teach them to fly, an eaglet must learn that their parents can’t fly for them. Allow your people to figure things out for themselves, allow them the space to think for the firm and for clients. Leaders: listen to your people. If you give your people the space and freedom – the authority – they will be culturpreneurs.
  4. Lead by Example. Eagles learn how to fly from their parents in order to survive. Eagles fly in and out of the nest constantly over many days teaching their eaglets that this is the only way to get food – to leave the nest. The eaglet observes that it is natural behavior to fly in and out of the nest. It has been known for eagles to fly by the nest with their claws full of fish or fresh meat, teaching the eaglets that the only way they are going to eat is to get out of the nest. Our leaders must lead by example and create and constantly promote culturpreneurship. Do it. Flaunt it. Others will follow.
  5. Push them. The eaglet’s parents literally push their offspring out of the nest to teach them to fly. Sometimes, pushing people out of their comfort zone is in their best interests – and that of the firm. Just like an eaglet will never learn how to fly unless pushed out of the nest, how to fly, some of our people need a swift kick to move as well. Others just need the space to do it. Whether using a carrot or a stick, push your people out of their nest. Consider including this in your firm’s MBO process!
  6. Manage it. The eagle parents don’t just sit back and wait for the crash landing of their young after kicking them out of the nest. With an amazing grace, they fly under the eaglet, creating a aerodynamic lift to keep the eaglet aloft – giving the eaglet the feeling that it is flying alone – until it really can. Read that again. That type leadership. mentoring and coaching takes phenomenal finesse. We all want to have the feeling of “I did it !”, but the firm also needs to be there when we have crash landings. And if we dare to fly, we will crash, 100 percent guaranteed. But if know that we will not be getting an automatic discharge for promoting positive change, then we will be more willing to do so over and over.
  7. Let them fly. Once an eagle learns to fly, it can reach speeds of 70 kilometers per hour. And in a very short time, it can feed itself. Anyone who has been able to successfully implement their idea and have it create value for their firm will tell you stories of empowerment, ownership, and continued success. Once your eaglets have learned to fly, they will soar.

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