I spoke to a colleague about a client of his who was having trouble moving from middle management into leadership roles in his company. This client noticed that those who were moving up the ladder into leadership had almost all been—at some point or another—entrepreneurs. He had not been an entrepreneur and when asked why not, he answered that he couldn’t start a company because he hadn’t yet hit on a Big Idea.
Here’s his real problem: the concept of the Big Idea is a bit of a fallacy.
Companies aren’t founded by people with Big Ideas.
They’re found by people who act on ideas, big or ordinary.
The truth is that Big Ideas aren’t that unusual. What’s more unusual is to find someone who acts on it. A Big Idea is meaningless unless it’s followed by a strategy and tactics to turn it from concept to reality. It’s the follow through that matters.
Entrepreneurialism plus follow though is one of the great separators in all sorts of industries, including the law. As anyone who has started a business or enterprise from scratch can tell you, there’s a level of creativity, dedication, commitment, risk, and sheer “hands-on-ness” in every business facet of entrepreneurial activities that’s hard to replicate if you’ve only worked for others.
Waiting for Big Ideas to come along isn’t smart because Big Ideas are often only identifiable as such in hindsight. I’m sure a lot of people thought those Crocs shoes were dumb (I sure did), but they made someone a fortune. Same with Snuggies, and 90% of what sells on QVC. Heck, people thought Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers, Richard Branson, J.K. Rowling, Jobs & Woz were crazy too, but they all had the last laugh. Sometimes, the brilliance of a Big Idea is obviously; but often not much that separates a Big Idea from a Dumb Idea, except hard work and good luck.
Today, it’s so easy (relatively) to start an entrepreneurial project that saying “I’m waiting for a Big Idea to fall from the tree and hit me in the head” isn’t much of an excuse. It’s a cop-out.
There are many steps to starting a business or project, and as steps are added onto the process, there are fewer and fewer people who make them. That’s why projects like published books, on-going blogs, inventions, businesses, and other enterprises are such potentially valuable credentials. Maybe your blog has a great Big Idea, maybe it doesn’t. But if nothing else, it shows that you were willing to make the effort that others were not willing to make. Even a “failed” project can be a great learning experience.
At low and middle levels, companies (including law firms) want you to be a team player. Primarily, you are there to execute instructions. But to achieve at high levels of any type of business (including law firms), you must be entrepreneurial— you must market, bring in (and keep) clients, build strategic alliances, set and realize goals, and more—because you are there to set the tone, pace, initiatives, strategies, and indeed the entire course of the business. And you will find it difficult to prove to a company that you can innovate and lead if all you’ve ever done is follow orders.
Not every company values outside entrepreneurialism (and indeed some will probably punish job candidates for it). For those that do value it, there are likely few substitutes. Luckily, however, there are many ways to be entrepreneurial. You can even be entrepreneurial from within your current employer.
Volunteer to serve on management committees, even at low levels. Work on cross-functional/ inter-departmental initiatives. Learn about the different pieces of the business, and how they work together, as well as understand the totality of the business—which is greater than the sum of its parts. Once you’ve done that, you’ll be ready for leadership.