December 10, 2012
Is The Entrepreneurial Corporation An Oxymoron?

Recently, a business professor friend invited me to address a luncheon of university students enrolled in his class on entrepreneurship. I told him his students would be better served by a social media whiz-kid half my age. “They’ve already heard from that guy,” he said. “I want you for balance. My class needs a perspective on entrepreneurship within the corporation—if that exists.”

I went in assuming his students believed corporate management and entrepreneurship were principles of contradiction and the only contrarians would be members of the flat earth society. I figured it best at the outset to tackle the assumption head-on by addressing the culture of corporate giants—the companies responsible for creating the preconception.

Not so long ago it looked like “clout” and “scale” would prevail in business. The giants dominated markets and gobbled up competitors. They also failed to cope with rapid change. Their competitive edge eroded because the people at the top, who considered themselves the corporate brain, failed to innovate. The brain also considered the masses below them, the muscle. The muscle never got to see the big picture. Stagnation set in. The cerebrals “cut the fat” to shore up profits. But strategic health continued its free fall.

Eventually, the giants embarked on reinventing themselves by simplifying decision-making and acting with haste. Innovation and entrepreneurship began a comeback, albeit in measured bites.

In the meantime, perennial innovators the likes of Apple, FedEx, Nike and Trader Joe’s have extended their leadership over old-guard competitors. Large or small, we have bureaucratic companies, entrepreneurial companies and plenty in between. Innovators drive the marketplace, followers are passengers and those who refuse to abolish redundancy are road-kill.

My friend’s students saw themselves as entrepreneurial thinkers, yet at graduation, most will walk a path to the corporation. Some will leverage the experience as a springboard to entrepreneurial ventures. The rest will be lifers.

Their heads dropped when I smacked them with that. But I added, “Don’t worry. Corporate life isn’t a death sentence. Your job is to choose a company with a buoyant culture and leadership that’s not afraid of change. The change-makers are small to medium size enterprises that either lead niche categories or are keen to knock the big guy from the top rung of a mass market. In those companies you’ll find entrepreneurial thinking.”

If you liked this article, you should check out our infographic on The CEOs Of Tomorrow.

John Bell
John Bell is a retired consumer packaged goods CEO and global strategy consultant to some of the world's most respected blue-chip organizations. A prolific writer, John's musings on strategy, leadership, and branding have appeared in various marketing journals and publications such as Fortune and Forbes. He has served as a director of several private, public, and not-for-profit organizations. John can be reached at

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Leadership: When Information Inhibits Knowledge

When Change Is Bad

Should Every Idea Make Sense?

5 Companies That Do Less, Better

The Two Faces Of Charismatic Leaders

CEO Presence Isn’t Style. It’s Substance

Panhandler Lessons For CEOs