After the publication of one of my recent articles (BusinessWeek, 8/14/08 ), I received many passionate e-mails from parents and educators thanking me for writing the piece and sharing their beliefs in the importance of instilling the entrepreneurial spirit in young people.
Why I realize we cannot all be entrepreneurial in the sense that we can't all start our own companies, I believe we can all be entrepreneurial in terms of how we approach our own careers. This column will include a few suggestions for demonstrating the entrepreneurial spirit that we can all implement:
• Love what you do
Years of hard work (which generally precedes success) don't seem so hard if you are doing what you love. My friend and mentor, Dr. Paul Hersey, upon receiving an honorary doctorate, shared one of his secrets for success with graduating students. He beamed at the hundreds of young people in the audience and said: "Looking back on my career, I don't feel like I have ever worked a day in my life. If you really love what you are doing, it all seems like fun!" Finding what you love to do may take some effort, but it is worth it.
• Be curious
One of the greatest entrepreneurs I have ever known is Mr. G.M. Rao. He is the founder of GMR Infrastructure, which is now a large infrastructure company in India. When I asked his colleagues what Mr. Rao was doing right, they all marveled at his constant curiosity. One commented that "he travels through life, constantly observing. He makes notes on all kinds of potential opportunities, which most people might not even notice. He doesn't just observe—he acts! He immediately follows up with messages to staff that say, 'please check this out.' While many of his observations do not turn into business opportunities, some do. This is one of the reasons that he is so successful."
• Find your own market niche
In the same way that successful entrepreneurs provide innovative solutions to market opportunities, you can work to develop a special competency that differentiates you from everyone else. Be creative. Look for market needs that everyone else may not have considered. Anyone can do what everyone else is doing. Great entrepreneurs provide products and services that are better or different than what everyone else is doing. You can also do this at your present job: What should be done that isn't?
• Become a world expert
As intimidating as this sounds, achieving serious "world-class" expertise may not be as daunting as you might believe. If you pick a reasonably narrow area of specialization, focus on it, and learn as much as you can, you will start to accumulate serious knowledge within a few years. While you can never become the world authority on everything, you can definitely become a world authority on one thing.
• Learn from the best
As you ponder your career options, ask yourself: "Who do I want to be like in 10 years?" or "Who are the world's experts in fields that are related to my desired area of expertise?" Try to learn from these people's lives. You may be surprised. Some may even go out of their way to help you.
• Do your homework
While the role models you look up to may be willing to help you, respect the fact that they are very busy people. Their time is valuable. For example, if they have written books on a topic, read the books before you ask them questions. If they are executives in your own company, study their history—read their bios—and learn from their co-workers before you ask them to invest their very limited time in helping you.
• Build your own brand
Peter Drucker once told me that companies should be able to "put their mission statement on a T-shirt." The same can be true for individuals. For example, my own mission is to be the world authority in helping successful leaders achieve positive, lasting change in behavior. Your customers (or employers) will respect you more if you do not pretend to know everything about everything but instead have a unique brand. My friends, David Ulrich and Norm Smallwood have discussed how this same process can be applied to corporate managers who develop their own brands as leaders (BusinessWeek.com, 10/2/07).
• Pay the price
It is possible that you may just get lucky and become incredibly successful without having to work very hard. Don't count on it. The successful entrepreneurs—and the successful people—who I know work very hard. The "luck" that they experience is often impacted by the years of effort that have prepared them to take advantage of fortuitous opportunities.
I hope these ideas are useful for you or young people you are striving to help. Readers: Please send in any thoughts or share your experiences that show how professionals—at all levels—can demonstrate the entrepreneurial spirit.