Are Entrepreneurs the Most Ambitious Career-Builders of All?

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on the Wharton Magazine blog.

By Roslyn Courtney WG’76, CEO and President of LaserBeam Consulting

The Wall Street Journal’s “These Entrepreneurs Make Mark Zuckerberg Look Ancient” recounts the surging demand to develop entrepreneurial skills in the prepubescent set, an offshoot of the growing fever to make it big, younger and faster than ever. In this roaring app economy, startups have created the new must-have capabilities for big businesses, as entrepreneurs define the new fast track to success and wealth. Ambitious career-builders take notice.

Entrepreneurs photo

Why care, if you’re not an entrepreneur?

Remarkable innovations and ecosystems are affecting industries from retail to health care. CEOs and marketers claim that new generations of creative leaders will be building inspired organizations that change people’s lives in ways we don’t fully comprehend.

This we do know: mobile, apps and new businesses are transforming consumer behavior, as well as traditional marketing, sales and media models. Investors are looking for disruptive new ideas, and experts predict that companies can grow as much as triple the rate of their competitors by creatively leveraging new capabilities and consumer engagement.

The fast-track entrepreneurs are reigniting the American dream, but with grander visions and global reach. Niche players make the lists of the most innovative companies; many are the darlings of Wall Street. Airbnb, an apartment/room rental company now valued at more than $10 billion, will soon pass Hilton and InterContinental Hotels Group as the largest hospitality company, with ambitions to manage a traveler’s entire trip. Few are betting that Tesla won’t be a continuing disruptive force in the automotive industry.

Even corporate America’s Old Guard, which stubbornly denied the power of digital, is finally paying attention. In its recent innovation reportThe New York Times acknowledged the damage of falling further behind the growing numbers of better-funded, “far more innovative” competitors. They’re ready for the reinvention now, requiring new ways to deliver content instead of replicating the print experience.

Critics of this creative capitalism warn that bubble behavior is filling the wallets of the 1 percent. “It is a sad state of affairs if one of the most vibrant, explosive and creative parts of the economy—and one of the few that is minting millionaires—seems more like a walled garden than a public park,” laments Annie Lowrey in the Apr. 22, 2014, New York Times Magazine.

The New Yorker says the life of a venture can be short and brutal.

Yet the naysayers overlook the bigger story. The new fast track has created an abundance of solutions and innovations that are spilling into the worlds of work, commerce, health care delivery and education. Many of these products are driving rapid collaboration among businesses. Silos are disintegrating, intermediaries are disappearing, jobs have new requirements, and there’s little tolerance for bureaucracy. Society wins with convenience, reliability and a higher quality of life.

Pressured to produce growth, Fortune 500 leaders adopt qualities of the lean startup: a bias for action and creativity, doing what’s right for customers, and collaborating inside and out with a sense of urgency. Ten years ago, it was rare to find anyone in the middle of big corporate organizations, yet alone the bottom, involved in reconfiguring or prioritizing assets, products and businesses. Now, leaders in major companies—Novartis, Mondelez and Hearst—seek to mobilize talent at every level to get the best thinking on important initiatives.

Ken Chenault
Ken Chenault, CEO of American Express, spoke at a Wharton Leadership Lecture. Photo credit: The Wharton School Flickr stream.

Ken Chenault, CEO of American Express (AMEX), says that mobile platforms are redefining commerce and will change it in transformative and exponential ways. Startups have a tremendous opportunity to transform the power of mobile and its penetration in e-commerce. “Scale is important, but if you have the idea, you now have the ability to connect with companies that can drive that scale,” he says. Five powerful platforms—Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook and Alibaba—will enable entrepreneurs to scale quickly. Chenault says AMEX will be embedded in each of them.

We’re seeing an exuberant marketplace of fresh ideas, and this exuberance is far from irrational. Academics, such as Columbia Business School’s Rita Gunther McGrath, are reframing business strategy. A company’s competitors are no longer limited to an industry. As entry barriers melt away, new businesses jump into “the arena” from anywhere. Competitive advantage is “transient” at best for any business.

Watching and adopting what’s new in the marketplace is clearly a choice—but not just for decision-makers at the top. The visions and moxie of the new fast track offer lessons for everyone.

Many successful ventures are adopting three concepts. The first is integration—for example, blending technology with design, de-siloing business functions, or melding strategy and culture. The second is creativity, now widely discussed as a business imperative. The third is radical collaboration, which bridges communities and relationships, on and offline. With new meaning and relevance, the three are generating unparalleled development, quality and consumer response. They are part of the modern entrepreneur’s tool kit.

By looking beyond your normal field of vision, you notice how early-stage enterprises are influencing established companies and collaborating with them. Melding ideas and capabilities are new mantras for growth. Many a big or better idea is generated outside of ingrained relationships.

Differences between successful entrepreneurs and established business leaders are blurring. Fast-track entrepreneurs use creativity, partnerships and collaborative alliances to develop new markets and create social value. Smart entrepreneurs will derail the establishment players who dare to ignore the new directions.

roslyn-courtneyBio: Roslyn Courtney is president and CEO of LaserBeam Consulting, a leadership coaching and strategy firm. Before founding LaserBeam, Roz held senior leadership positions at Citigroup, the New York Times Company, Primedia’s Consumer Media Group and Kraft General Foods.