The case for hiring failed entrepreneurs

Before I make the case for hiring failed entrepreneurs, I must state that I have heard this - for the first time - from someone else.

Sure, I can passionately argue about the failed entrepreneurs, having been an entrepreneur and having failed a few times. But that I heard this first from Jim Sphor, Global Head of IBM's University Partnership Programme makes it more than my own idle chatter. When Jim Spohr said that, in a workshop about Higher Education's future where I was present, there was a visible excitement in the room, hashtags rippling into Twitter with surprise and deja-vu feeling in equal measure.

That very cold morning in Utah, Jim's main point was about T-Skills, how the ideal employee for IBM should possess one or two deep expertise and a lot of different abilities and interests at the same time. He would go on to arrange the annual T-Skills summit at Michigan State soon after. But it's really when he made the comment about failed entrepreneurs being better T-skilled individuals, having lived through the life of doing everything by themselves, it hit a collective nerve and Twitter lit up. 

Writing about it today, that moment seems very far off indeed. In the intervening six years, a period I spent (mostly) trying to bring the hiring managers' expectations and educational outcomes closer, I have come to realise that this - the case of hiring failed entrepreneurs - may be obvious in theory but usually shunned in practice. Because, on the hiring manager's desk, a failure is a failure: The distinction between entrepreneurial failure and messing up in a job are just too fine to consider. Besides, for many career managers, the whole idea of entrepreneurship stands for one big failure - why would you be an entrepreneur if you can get a job - and, as more than one individual confided to me, they are afraid of hiring entrepreneurs because the person may not be 'culture-fit'. 

Therefore, I feel that the case of failed entrepreneurs need to be made, again.

Indeed, I have very little sympathy with the logic above, of trying to minimise hiring risks by hiring from similar companies (which is what the entrepreneur-shy hiring managers usually do). The big problem in this tried-and-tested approach is that this is based on a limited view of skills, emphasizing hard competencies over softer ones, and guarantees atrophy over time. But, for the sake of the argument, let's pause to consider the downsides of hiring a failed entrepreneur.

The first thing we ask when looking at a failure is WHY. This is because we take success as usual and failure as exception. The usual human tendency is to connect failure with a shortcoming - something surely was amiss if someone has failed. So, a failed stint at entrepreneurship, from a hiring manager's vantage point, is like missing years on a CV, or like being fired from a job (though almost no one admits to that on a CV). 

The other problem of hiring an entrepreneur is precisely what should count in their favour. Entrepreneurial CVs show journeys, of having done different things, because entrepreneurship rarely starts with a job description. Hiring managers trying to fit entrepreneurial lives into straightjacket career paths struggle, concluding that the failure to fit indicates lack of skills. An entrepreneur, therefore, often appears as a non-specialist, a jack and no master.

And, finally, entrepreneurship, rather counter-intuitively, appears to signal lack of commitment. Why do you try something to abandon it finally, if you are committed to it, is a question that pops up at the interviews. Can you really be there, year after year, building things, if you haven't done anything for longer than a few years? 

These are all good questions, but, they are all based on an erroneous view of entrepreneurship. First, failure is usual, rather than an exception, in entrepreneurship. As one of my early mentors once said, if you have not failed, you have not tried hard enough. Failed entrepreneur is common, though the magazines would have us believe that it's all about Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. While we should celebrate all those successes, it's important to remember that they were lucky, even if it just means being at the right place at the right time.

Second, we may want to see jobs in terms of pure skills, but it's hardly that way on the shop-floor. Without perspective, pure skills are in fact counter-productive. What's a salesman without a sense of the product, an engineer who does not care about the customers, an accountant who doesn't get company strategy or an administrator who forgot what the business is for. The implicit assumption that those soft abilities - having strategic sense, communicating, taking measured risks, responding quickly and sensibly etc - can be taught is one of great mistakes which hiring managers are prone to making. These are things entrepreneurs usually excel at, while excelling at one or the other core functions.

Third, entrepreneurship is commitment. In fact, that's one big thing our popular tale of entrepreneur in search of valuation and exit misses. It's true that entrepreneurship, as it became fashionable with the rich, often looks like gambling, but at its core, entrepreneurship is really an effort to escape alienation which is at the core of modern work. I must explain:I chose to do my own stuff because I hated the fact that ideas and relationships that I vested so much into, which were as part of my life as my limbs, can become, at the will of my corporate lord and master, suddenly items to be reorganised, to be handed over, to someone else as if I, and my emotions and ideas, am replaceable. Once it happened few times to me, I did not want to spend time on doing things which I can't be involved with long term. This, rather than the dream of making money, led me to entrepreneurship. And, many entrepreneurs are like this, trying to build something they love and want to hold onto. 

So, what does one get when one hires a failed entrepreneur? First, they get humility; failure is a great device of generating that rarest of skills. Second, they get joined-up skills, not the one-eyed accountant or a programmer, but someone who can see the entire value chain. Third, they get attachment, someone who is in search for something they would love doing. 

There are organisations which will still not want these people, who are flexible, enterprising and committed, and would rather go for the pompous, the pedantic and the flighty. But the latter category may only work for the Consultancies and the Banks; any real business creating value in real life perhaps need the former sort more than anything. 


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