Defining The Entrepreneurial Spirit

Once broadly synonymous with "business founder," the maverick spirit is now a mainstay in executive leadership regardless of who founded the enterprise.

A number of years ago I attended a lecture titled something like “Ten Characteristics of Entrepreneurs.” I’ve always remembered two of them, they were humorous and rather consistent with my experience at that time. First, regardless of how big a business may grow, an entrepreneur is likely to continue an acquired early habit of opening the mail. Second, and better yet, the most feared time in an entrepreneurial environment are Mondays or the day the “boss” returns from a trip because much of what he/she had laid out before leaving has been left in the dust and newly inspired initiatives have accompanied the return.

At the time, “entrepreneur” was broadly synonymous with “business founder/risk taker.” My experience since then has taught me that many of their characteristics were not exclusive; an “entrepreneurial spirit” is a mainstay in executive leadership regardless of who founded the enterprise. In no particular order, here are some of those characteristics I attribute to the entrepreneurial spirit. Some may seem counterproductive and flawed, all are real. I can’t say I’ve known anyone who exhibited all of them; I can say I’ve been honored to work with many who exhibited most. In no particular order:

• Marches to his/her own drummer. Personal standards of performance are set much higher than the expectations placed by others.

• Fears financial failure of the operations they manage. For entrepreneurs, a more clearly expressed, fear of going broke! Money – the inescapable way of keeping score.

• Loyal to a fault. Shows an unwavering commitment to those who have tirelessly ‘shared the ride,’ a trait that can be severely tested when performance issues arise.

• Has a passion to share success—in both words and dollars.

• A dreamer. Always thinking beyond the “now.”

• Prone to “rescue,” sometimes wanting more for individuals than they want for themselves.

• First to disrupt. An architect of paradigm shifts designed to meet crisis and opportunity—head on.

• Acts decisively yet is willing to turn on a dime. More comfortable in course correction than “stay the course” at all costs.

• Is virtual in thought, with responsibilities almost always front of mind, often unfairly conflicting with family and lifestyle priorities.

• Is candid about what he/she doesn’t know. Seeks professional input as needed from subject matter experts but, in the end, makes the final call.

• Makes it a priority to know as many associates as possible by name but more importantly, to know “who they are.”

• Mentors those willing to learn.

• Whenever possible, encourages associates to interact with him/her as a peer, provoking a more open exchange of ideas.

• Maintains an open door policy, even to the point of setting work aside in order to be responsive.

• Sponsors “ownership.” Doesn’t do others’ jobs or solve their problems without their participation.

• More interested in listening than being heard.

• Often suffers alone, trying not to share the pain simply for the sake of blame.

• Passionate about his/her responsibilities, sometimes to a fault.

• Committed to the success of all and inspires others to embrace the same.

• And wrapping all of the above: driven yet humble in his/her leadership.

It’s impossible to categorize the roots of the entrepreneurial spirits with whom I have worked. Some were founders, some were second, third and fourth generation successors and many more were hired professional executives and yet, they share so many of these traits.

So where did these traits originate? Certainly not from a single source. Some came from parents, some from teachers, others from role models and others from mentors. And, yes, maybe a few were genetically acquired.

Whatever the source, they have served me well in executive recruiting and succession planning.

Lesson learned.

Fred Engelfried
Fred Engelfried is Director/Chair of North Coast Holdings, Inc. and its subsidiary Lewis Tree Service, Inc. He has been a member of the board of directors of Lewis for over 20 years, and for 10 years prior to that worked with the company intermittently in various consulting capacities. He also is President of Market Sense Inc., a participative management firm that has served more than 100 regional clients over 35 years.