If I never hear another hot take about the Sam Altman, OpenAI, and Microsoft soap opera again, it'll be too soon. But during the episode where Altman was headed to Microsoft to lead an advanced AI unit, I saw this post from Satya Nadella to Altman:
"We’ve learnt a lot [at Microsoft] over the years about how to give founders and innovators space to build independent identities and cultures within Microsoft, including GitHub, Mojang Studios, and LinkedIn, and I’m looking forward to having you do the same."
Despite Nadella not quite pulling off the aquihire of the century after Altman's return to OpenAI, I think it says something incredibly important about how corporations can attract, hire, and retain entrepreneurial talent.
Why you need more entrepreneurs
If you're building a team and tasking them with discovering problems, validating solutions, and scaling them to have an outsized financial impact - what you're really looking for are people who:
- Are comfortable with ambiguity, particularly in the early stages of discovery, where the level of uncertainty around the problem and solution is high.
- Can adapt to changing circumstances and environments as new information, evidence, and feedback emerge from the market during the validation stage.
- See limited resources as an opportunity to do more with less, particularly in the context of scaling new ventures, products, and services.
It's why the most successful teams I've ever worked with have been staffed by would-be, have-been, or frustrated entrepreneurs rather than employees from more traditional backgrounds who struggle without clearly defined problems and solutions, find it difficult to adapt to new circumstances and environments, and see time, money, or personnel constraints as insurmountable limitations.
The problem is that it's really hard to hire entrepreneurially-minded talent into corporate innovation teams because, for them, working for a large, established company represents a loss of autonomy, reward, pace, freedom, and vision.
But the lesson from Microsoft and many other great companies I've worked with is that the best way to attract, hire and retain them is to give them all of the upsides of entrepreneurship and remove all of the downsides.
Three ways to attract entrepreneurially-minded talent:
1. Give them autonomy and decision-making power:
Every entrepreneur wants a high degree of control over their projects. You have to give them the freedom to lead the innovation process, make critical decisions, and have a significant say in the direction of their projects. This is the only way to address the entrepreneurial desire for independence while mitigating the bureaucratic constraints that they associate with corporate jobs.
2. Create incentive structures that mirror entrepreneurial rewards:
You must develop compensation models that include equity stakes in either their projects or the company at large through profit-sharing plans or bonuses tied to the success of the ventures or portfolios they work on. This is the best way to emulate the potential for outsized financial rewards while countering the usual economic instability that is involved in starting a venture from scratch.
3. Leverage your unfair advantages:
Corporations offer a unique advantage in that they have existing reputations, customers and capital that startups can only dream of. Giving entrepreneurs unfettered access to funding, technology, mentorship, and a skilled team will help them to execute their ideas more effectively and efficiently than they might on their own while, at the same time, removing all the time-consuming aspects of building a brand, acquiring customers and raising investment from VCs.
I think the real takeaway from the Microsoft-Altman saga is the blueprint it gives us to help us hire more entrepreneurial talent into corporations by understanding and leveraging what motivates entrepreneurs: the thrills of entrepreneurship - the autonomy, the rewards, the fulfilment - while cushioning the falls and providing a stable platform.
If you can't provide this balanced environment, you'll be doomed to settle for a team made up of traditional corporate hires who have wound up in your team by accident, who are too uncomfortable with ambiguity, change and limited resources to build anything of value.
P.S. Ready to unlock the potential of entrepreneurial talent within your corporate innovation team? Let's discuss how we can create an environment that combines the thrills of entrepreneurship with the stability of a corporate platform. Grab some time here.