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Corporate entrepreneurship: the reality

Amar Babu
Amar BabuVice President and Chief Operating Officer, Asia Pacific at Lenovo
My priority is to drive the next phase of growth for Lenovo. I currently holds the title of Chief Operating Officer for Lenovo Asia Pacific and I am also the Chairman of Lenovo India. My focus is on product diversification, especially in smart, connected devices, while still maintaining the company's leadership in PCs. I was previously Managing Director of Lenovo India, during which time the subsidiary saw phenomenal growth in the PC market. Market share grew from 8.3% to 19.8% in less than a decade, and the company became a strong contender in the smartphone and tablet categories.

Follow me on Twitter @abrk

Not a month passes without a new book or article  about how large companies act as entrepreneurs, citing examples as varied as 3M, Johnson & Johnson, even Motorola (now owned by Lenovo).

By definition, a business article or book has the benefit of hindsight. What interests me personally is how organisations make this a reality, each day.

And that’s part of my role at Lenovo in the Asia Pacific geography, but what does that feel like in the moment?

How do we balance systems, processes and accountability (all of which can be measured objectively) with behaviour, mindsets and an ability to manage ambiguity (none of which is easy to measure, but all of which are essential to an entrepreneurial mindset)?

Does such a mindset change across a region, and does it differ between countries?

And how do we bring all these strands together in ways that deliver value to customers, fulfilment to employees, and growth to shareholders?

We regard ourselves as being an entrepreneurial corporation, one that develops and evolves as we continue to grow. We’ve made bold entrepreneurial moves in our history, starting with the acquisition of IBM’s PC business, and continuing with the acquisitions of IBM’s x86 server business, Motorola’s handset business, and others. And we’re a large multinational.

So how do we balance the benefits of both models? How do we define those benefits? And what do we do, each day?

 

What being entrepreneurial means when in a large company

Why be entrepreneurial? Is it a fad or a trend? I don’t believe so, but I do believe there have to be real benefits, clearly defined and understood throughout the company. I therefore encourage my team to deliver on their quarterly KPIs but also to understand where they fit in the longer-term view.

It’s about making decisions faster, perhaps sometimes without all the information that might be ideal to hand.

And it’s about setting up processes and systems to fit the needs of the business in the moment, rather than waiting for the corporate mothership to catch up with some “one size fits all” approach.

Being entrepreneurial is not, though, about allowing all of your teams to do their own thing. We tend not to have so-called ‘skunk works’ at Lenovo, certainly ones that fall outside a well-understood company strategy. In my view, having a large number of people ‘shooting from the hip’ only leads to a lot of stray bullets. Being entrepreneurial is about empowerment and approval authorities being in balance. That is a challenge.

 

Balance

Being a large organisation that is also entrepreneurial does not just happen. It’s a continuous balancing act between being overly entrepreneurial (too loose, out of control, and unfocused) and overly corporate (constrained, too command-and-control in management style and approvals, over-reliant on others).

It’s a constant endeavour to strike that balance, and a culture of entrepreneurship underpins being able to do this. That balance means being neither black nor white in your view of your business: it’s always varying shades of grey.

Here are some examples of this balancing act:

  • we empower our teams to take advantage of new opportunities, and to act to overcome challenges – but provide guidance about the markets and products that matter. They are then quick to react, and clear about why, and do so where it counts
  • we remove silos where we can, especially to improve efficiency, and we ensure that teams are then aligned to strategy. They can then do more, with purpose, with more freedom – which is where powerful new ideas and thinking come into play
  • we distinguish between the value of data, and the capture of data – for example, we now have one system for pipeline management, not seven, as we had previously, and a consistent set of definitions, giving our regional leaders the freedom to input and add market expertise in the qualification of leads and opportunities

 

People

Once you’ve defined what being entrepreneurial means to your organisation, making it real starts with those you hire.

Personal leadership is central to the entrepreneurial culture, and it starts with the attitude that the company is your own, and that your decisions directly affect its future, and yours.

When I  and other senior leaders hire new people, or consider individuals for new roles, we’re looking for behavioural traits and business experience that are entrepreneurial in nature, but we don’t look for entrepreneurs. Those individuals are, for us, too independent. By definition, they will likely have created their own businesses, possibly breaking away from a more-corporate structure, and they are unlikely to be a good fit for an organisation as large as Lenovo.

Behavioural traits I seek include managing, working with, and being comfortable with ambiguity. This is not about reacting to circumstance, but about creating something new that adds value to customers and the business, creating market differentiation, and developing products and services that otherwise might not exist (and which deliver that market differentiation).

 

Leadership

The role of the leader in an entrepreneurial company is to lead, not do, and hiring local leaders who understand local markets makes a big difference. I think this differs from leaders in other types of organisation that might be more-prescriptive in style, or which operate in industries that are more-highly regulated.

Being entrepreneurial in a large organisation means deploying  the scale of a large company with the nimbleness, speed and street smarts of a small one. That demands that the leaders focus on setting strategy and then empower teams to be responsible for their decisions. Having removed silos, there is no advantage to a structure that demands approval from the top or centre.

And a COO’s role is to promote the productive and creative tension that brings the best of both models together (in balance), and to alleviate the destructive tension that occurs when the organisation is out of balance. It’s not our role to approve everything: it is to allow the entrepreneurial culture to bloom, with employees clear about what that means – freedom to act, within clearly-defined strategic goals, understanding that accountability rests with the individual.

The reality, in our experience, is that instilling an entrepreneurial culture in a large organisation is achievable, and for Lenovo, desirable, but requires effort. Like any system, constant input is necessary.

It’s as much about behaviour and clear direction as anything else.

It’s being clear about what having an entrepreneurial culture means within an organisation, and what such a culture actually delivers.

It takes leadership, and management effort.  

And it’s worth it.

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