To thrive as an employee-leader or as an entrepreneur, one must possess self-efficacy and proactivity, be innovative, have a need for achievement and be confident through stress, uncertainty and risk.
When we are young and don’t realize what we don’t know or what can’t or hasn’t been done, we are more open to possibilities. When I was 14, I helped out at a bakery, owned by a family friend, around Easter. One particular batch of paska bread was left a few moments too long in the oven so they browned a little more than usual on the top. The baker was distraught and cursed at his employees. In my naiveté and teenage confidence, I said to him, “We could put icing on them and sell them.”
He stared at me in what seemed like a mix of anger, confusion and wonder, and he said nothing for seconds that felt a lot like minutes. Finally, he said, “Let’s do a few and see what happens.” Those breads sold out quickly so we applied a clear, sweet glaze to a few dozen more loaves, and iced paska became a holiday staple at this bakery for the rest of its business life.
What I didn’t know then, but I learned later, is that incident is an example of how an entrepreneur thinks and behaves. Harvard Business School researchers have spent decades studying entrepreneurial personalities and mindsets and have identified five common traits: self-efficacy and proactivity, innovativeness, a certain amount of tolerance for stress and uncertainty, a tolerance for risk, and the need for achievement. While these traits are common in the self-employed and in business owners, these traits are invaluable in employees who want to distinguish themselves as leaders.
Self-efficacy is an individual’s belief in his or her own abilities, and proactivity is a willingness to take initiative and get things done. Employees who just do the work they are told without ever going beyond that scope, without considering the big picture or how their work fits into the whole of the business, add little value to a business, just as freelancers or entrepreneurs who dabble at some type of work may make money but usually don’t create long-term income streams or additional business.
Steve Jobs stated that innovation is what distinguishes a leader from a follower. Employees or business people who stand out and prove their leadership mettle are those who see every interaction as a potential opportunity to make new contacts, to grow and learn, to find and solve problems, and to create solutions. And, of course, putting your ideas and yourself out there, in suggestions, solutions, and during formal and informal networking and mentorship is not without risks. I could have kept silent and in self-preservation mode after the baker’s rant four decades ago, since the situation definitely felt stressful and uncertain. But my willingness to speak up, to offer a possible solution, ended up creating an alternate product line, which contributed to the bakery’s bottom line, and to my own sense of achievement.
Merriam-Webster defines an entrepreneur as “one who organizes, manages, and assumes the risks of a business or enterprise.” A company’s leaders and best employees treat the business as if it is their own. They understand that theirs and the company’s success are intertwined. Regardless of whether they are in sales, marketing, HR, engineering, management, or any other department and at any rank or level, leaders feel vested in the company’s risks and successes and they proactively look for ways to find solutions, fix problems, and to meet customer needs.
Thinking like an entrepreneur, those same principles on display in the ignorance of my teenaged self, applied equally when I started my first business at age 18 and in subsequent successful endeavors, and this mindset has led me to and through numerous jobs filled with fast promotions to senior leadership positions in the non-profit and higher education sectors.
Jill L. Ferguson is the author of Creating a Freelance Career (CLICK HERE to get your copy) and eight other books. She is the founder of Women’s Wellness Weekends and a consultant and coach to aspiring authors and entrepreneurs.
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