Lessons Learned from Intrapreneurship and Entrepreneurship

Guest Blog by Sunny Lu Williams (sunny@techserv.io) 

At the book launch for The Titanic Effect: Successfully Navigating the Uncertainties that Sink Most Startups, Kim and Todd asked me to share my personal insights leading innovation activities both within my former employer of 13 years, Telamon Corporation, and now my own company, TechServ. Here are the 3 ideas I shared about how I manage the uncertainty to succeed:

Know your Role on the Rig – You have to start by knowing your own strengths and weaknesses. Then, build a team to supplement your strengths. Teams’ skill sets should enhance the whole, especially complementing where the leader is weak. Be flexible about what role you take on as a leader, working from your strengths. Be malleable to work on weaknesses when your lack of capability doesn’t impact the outcome for the company. And, remember that “Rig” has multiple meanings – both the crew and the setup of the ship. Notice how dynamic the team is or isn’t when the situation is good vs. bad. And, figure out how your specific role shifts under duress. Be ready to make a handoff to others in the right situation. For example, I am a good leader when all hell has broken loose. I can focus and hone in on the right problem to solve. But when the sea is calm, I am not the best person to be in charge. Instead, I need to hand off leadership so someone else can maintain a smooth path. In the Titanic framework, this is called the “Dearth of Diversity” iceberg in the Human Ocean.

Know your Keel  - The Keel is the bottom of the boat. When I was on the track team, my coach used to say “visualize your wins.” In innovative situations, real actual wins are few and far between. So it’s hard to visualize the win when it takes so long. Instead, I find it helpful to visualize the absolute worst thing that can happen. Can you manage that? If not, you need to make a change. It is a risk management strategy as well as a mental health strategy. If you cannot handle the loss, you must change strategy. And still plan for the worst case. Here’s an example from my days at Telamon – I asked, “What if we lost our major anchor accounts?” In visualizing the worst case, we realized that we would have to lay off over 100 people. So we asked ourselves, “What would we need to have in place to reduce the impact and be fair to our people?” First, we’d need a plan to give employees notice. If asking individual employees for notice is a policy, we must act fairly by our own standards. By planning for the biggest impact, you can view the effects from multiple angles – decide the course of action, know the absolute bottom, and above all be fair in your actions and words. If the worst case does not come to pass, then this bump becomes easier to manage. If the worst case does come to pass, then you’ve already planned for it, braced for it, and visualized the bottom.  The keel doesn’t only pertain to your work and your colleagues – be ready to know what the household and spousal conversations will be. It’s important that you communicate with all on your rig so they understand the bottom and can help to support and encourage you.  If they don’t know, they can’t help.  If you know your keel, you can face your fears through planning. Likewise in the Titanic framework, the Strategy Ocean holds many icebergs that need to be navigated—scenario planning can help.

North Star.jpg

Know your North Star – I was good at my job. But I would go home and ruminate – “What am I doing? I think I am selling more technology to people who may not really need it. I thought about what made me happy in the work I did. What was left unfulfilled?”

I have a personal North Star. I want to help people by helping the people who are taking care of other people. I don’t want to be a physician. I want to make it easier for physicians to take care of people. I don’t want to be a teacher. I want to make it easier for teachers to teach their students and provide them with resources to showcase their passions. My core career training was in telecom, supply chain and general management. These are tools that can help academia, community-based organizations, and healthcare systems to be more effective, scale ideas, and maximize programming for the underserved. 

You find your North Star by asking: If someone was to give you a ton of money, what wouldn’t you do for that money? If someone did not give you money, what would you do anyway? Build your business around those things. When people are fundraising and are looking at investors, if that North Star is not very clear, it’s hard to pick and choose who is going to go with you on that journey. Some founders have a vision of their products, but they don’t have a true North Star driving their impact. Use your North Star to get to the destination you want. The Titanic Effect introduces the notion of PEP—that successful entrepreneurs have a combination of Passion, Experience, and Persistence. If you lack Passion for your North Star and you are not leveraging your Experience, it will be hard to have the Persistence to keep navigating during the hard journey of founding a company.  

In any innovative effort, you are trying to build something new. It may or may not work. Increase your success by knowing your Role, Keel and North Star!