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Monday, January 25, 2021

Culturpreneurship – Lessons from Eagles

By Dr. Robert Straw

Even when the culture of a firm 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 necessarily technical. It is centred on the process of idea creation and is about creating something new: a process, a product, a service or a vision. Innovation is about providing the right environment – it is a cultural tool. All firms are attempting to increase productivity, decrease costs and create new products and services in order to delight clients – in order to make more money. That is the name of the game. Firms from Under Armour to Zurich Insurance are creating innovation labs – often in collaboration with leading universities. 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.

“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.”

~ Dr. Robert Straw, CEIBS Zurich Campus CEO

Hiring a Head of Innovation won’t create value – unless the organisation 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, “out-of-the-box” thinking and decisive action to get an idea from the lab to the market. Anyone can generate a great idea. Only a very few have an idea that will generate a tonne of cash. In-company entrepreneurs are those courageous women and men who 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 and they convinced the front 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. 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 order to get the idea to market. Everyone involved realised the most important aspect of culturpreneurship: it is not a “nice to have”, it is 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 creating an artificial space by force.

Recently, I’ve been studying eagles. The natural instincts of eagles may even be more powerful than our human intellect because our instincts may be distorted by emotion, overthinking and biases. Despite this, we can learn a lot from eagles for leadership and culturpreneurship:

  1. Context and environment. Eagles typically live near water, favouring coasts and lakes where 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 and 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 once put 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 order 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 become 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 behaviour 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. Eagles 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, 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 nests. Pushing people out of their nests, their comfort zones, pushes them to develop and utilise courage. Fearless creatures like eagles prey on bigger animals, just like innovations need the spirit to take over established players. Consider exploring ways to include this in your firm’s management by objectives (MBO) process!

  6. Manage it. Eagle parents don’t just sit back and wait for their young to crash lander after kicking them out of the nest. With an amazing grace, they fly under the eaglet, creating 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 of 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 kilometres per hour. And, in a very short time, it can feed itself. How is this possible? Have you ever heard of the terms “eagle eye” and a “bird’s-eye-view”? These refer to the vision an eagle has, and what great leaders have and need, in order to set their aims higher and still keep focus.  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.

Dr. Robert Straw is the CEO of CEIBS Zurich Campus. Connect with him on LinkedIn here.