Risk or Risky: An Entrepreneurial Mindset for our Organizations

Yesterday, I had the privilege of presenting a workshop on “Entrepreneurism is a WORKFORCE Issue” for the 35th Pennsylvania Workforce Development Association Annual Conference in Hershey PA. With 55 attendees, the energy in the room was high and ideas flowed freely. Thanks to everyone who attended for your contribution.

“I want my staff to have entrepreneurial spirit, but I don’t want them taking RISKS.”
How can we feel safe as we adopt an entrepreneurial mindset within our staff?

While there were many powerful conversational moments – those Ah Ha! moments, one of the most compelling was on RISK. The workshop centered around how an entrepreneurial mindset IS what today’s employers are seeking and desire of their employees. I broke the audience into team as we journeyed toward this way of thinking and explored attitudes and behaviors of entrepreneurially minded people. Part of the exercise to build this mindset with the attendees was to make distinctions between someone labeled an “Entrepreneur” vs someone described as having “Entrepreneurial Spirit.” Most of the teams included RISK to describe an “Entrepreneur.”

“I want my staff to have entrepreneurial spirit, but I don’t want them taking RISKS.”

“I want my staff to have entrepreneurial spirit, but I don’t want them taking RISKS” one attendee shared. I’m so glad this conversation took place. I knew a positive workshop atmosphere is in place when another attendee added, “But what about calculated risk?” So we dove deeper. What does “calculated risk” mean? We discussed viability with consideration to available resources and proper use of those resources, risk compared to change (or sameness), innovation and creativity. When the question of RISK first came up, some groups removed their RISK sticky note from their list of characteristics of those with entrepreneurial spirit. After we deconstructed the idea of risk, teams proudly put that RISK sticky back on the wall.

Our mental models of what entrepreneurial spirit is are everything regarding how we value those traits as ways to grow organizations and improve workforce development. The conversation moved into framing clarity around RISK. I asked the attendees if they’ve used a simple question in interviews. “Are you a risk taker?” Head nods confirmed. Having spent time in discussion, the group was primed to understand why that question wasn’t aligned with an organizational entrepreneurial spirit mindset. The question leads candidates down a rabbit hole. “Do they want me to be a risk taker? Maybe they DON’T want risk takers on their team?” Risk taking is an organizational decision. Interviews need to set clear expectations on how the organization views RISK and what they are looking for. I shared a simple shift in questioning technique. If an organization desires risk takers, how could we shift the question? For example, “When presented with an action you consider a risk, how would you evaluate the level of risk and communicate your ideas to your team or supervisor?” This question clearly lays out the expectation that an organization is seeking someone who approached risk as a valuable skill.

As the workshop continued, the attendees responded positively to the Model of an Entrepreneur which demonstrates Entrepreneurs assess viability (consider risks and risk mediation). There are many references in literature to entrepreneurs assuming the RISK of their ideas. Generally, references center around how an entrepreneur makes decisions that many consider high risk in order to pursue their ideas. For example, an entrepreneur may leave the security of their full-time job to start their business, or they may empty their life’s savings with no guarantee of return on their investment. That is what most of us think about when we think of RISK in regards to entrepreneurism.

On our employee teams however, we generally don’t want staff taking RISKY actions, actions that would put people or our organization at risk (reputation, regulation, safety, etc.). But, we do need staff that look at RISK through an entrepreneurial lens. Organizational change, shifts in markets, new design directions, customer-base departures, and others. These activities bring about RISK that when assessed can have considerable value when weighed against not taking them on. We need employee based teams capable and willing to take on risks so that we avoid RISKY actions.

The entrepreneurial mindset is a powerful tool for existing organizations. Entrepreneurism is a workforce issue. The skillset and mindset of those with an entrepreneurial spirit is needed and must be fostered within K-12 education through professional development programs within organizations. Is that a RISK? Yes. It means we have to shift our thinking that entrepreneurial spirit is only for those wiling to be an entrepreneur and take on their dreams alone. These mindsets are complex and simple definitions leave us down. Its time to interrogate our own biases and build our entrepreneurial workforce within our organizations.