How to Find (and Develop) Engaged and Entrepreneurial Employees

By Martin O’Neill

In corporate workshops, I often group participants into teams and ask half the teams to answer the question, “What words would you use to describe the attributes of one of your most valued colleagues or most trusted employees?” The other half answers the question, “What words would you use to describe the attributes of a typical entrepreneur?”

Each team answers its question in isolation. Then, the two teams compare results.

It’s uncanny how often the lists are nearly identical. The attributes they ascribe to their most valued colleagues or their most trusted employees match the attributes they normally ascribe to entrepreneurs, with the exception of “risk taking.” In essence, participants report that their most valued colleagues or most trusted employees are entrepreneurs!

If I asked you to list the attributes of a valued colleague or trusted employee, what would you come up with? My bet is your list would include some of the following attributes:

  • Completes projects
  • Is honest
  • Is trustworthy
  • Is customer focused
  • Is engaged in the company
  • Has excellent problem solving abilities
  • Exercises initiative
  • Is decisive
  • Is accountable for results
  • Is competent
  • Challenges conventional wisdom
  • Understands the big picture
  • Is confident

In short, our most trusted employees are competent in their fields. They exercise initiative, accept responsibility for their actions, and focus on the customer. In a word, they are engaged!

So what about risk taking? Why is risk taking the only attribute normally ascribed to entrepreneurs that is not ascribed to valued coworkers?

Most people associate entrepreneurs with risk taking, but when pressed to define risk in this context, they are more comfortable with the phrases “managing risk” or “calculated risk.” In other words, entrepreneurs take risks but are not careless. They are prone to action, but they normally find a path that balances the risk and return.

Since we want engaged entrepreneurial people working for us, where do we find them? Are we simply lucky if they dominate our ranks, or can they be grown? Is entrepreneurialism another one of those nature or nurture dilemmas? Is it possible to attract and hire people full of entrepreneurial spirit? Can we be proactive in creating an environment that encourages entrepreneurialism?

Employee engagement

Let’s start with engaged employees. Engaged employees feel a real, personal connection to their company. They have a direct effect on productivity, so it’s important for leaders to understand the factors that help build engagement and identify the barriers that stifle it.

In service industries, engaged employees can make all the difference with customers. Manufacturing companies are unlikely to produce quality products without the full commitment of engaged employees.

So what does it mean to be an engaged employee? Engaged employees know exactly what is expected of them. They are crystal clear on the behaviors accepted and the results anticipated.

Creating engaged employees means changing people’s behavior. Is it possible to change somebody’s behavior? Certainly, if you exert pressure and threaten punishment, it is possible to force someone to act differently, but the effect is only temporary.

To get people to change from the inside out, you must start with changing their attitudes. People change their behavior only when their worldview changes. This conversion occurs over time when it is fed by positive stimuli and allowed to take root in a new environment.

So what comes first, the change in attitude or the change in the workplace? Motivational sales guru Zig Ziglar would say, “Your attitude, not your aptitude, will determine your altitude.” In other words, change your attitude, and you’ll do great things. Jimmy Buffett, on the other hand, might suggest a change in the workplace (or a “change in latitude”) will bring about the necessary change in attitude.

The normal change process goes something like this:

  1. People accept a new idea as appropriate and possible.
  2. Their attitudes change.
  3. Their behavior changes.

It all starts with the acceptance of an idea. But what change will happen if an idea is not accepted?

The Power of Attitude

Until people accept a new idea as appropriate and possible, their attitudes won’t change. And until their attitudes change, their behavior won’t change. They may fake the behavior if it’s in their best interest, but the change won’t be meaningful or lasting.

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We’ve all seen this type of change. The boss demands change or else heads are going to roll! For a while, people make cosmetic changes that imply acquiescence to the new mandate.

But over time, and sometimes it is shockingly short, their behavior slides back to the earlier state in fact, it often becomes worse. People’s behavior never really changed because their attitudes never really changed. And their attitudes never changed because they never thought the new mandate was a good idea.

Attitude is a predisposition or a tendency to respond positively or negatively toward a certain idea, object, person, or situation. It influences people’s choice of action and their responses to challenges, incentives, and rewards. A person’s attitude comprises two areas: emotions and beliefs.

Can attitude impact company performance? You bet!

In 12: The Elements of Great Managing, authors Rodd Wagner and James Harter surveyed 125 organizations in an attempt to match employee attitudes with company performance. The survey found that in companies where employees felt they had the opportunity and tools to do their best and believed their fellow employees were also committed to quality, profitability was 12 percent higher than in those companies whose employee attitudes were found lacking.

Wagner and Harter found that employees need to feel as though they have the opportunity to do what they do best every day. This is especially true for younger workers, the Millennial Generation, who have developed a loyalty to what they do before anything else.

Employees also need to believe that their opinions count, that they can act, and that those actions affect the performance of the company. Finally, when employees sensed a direct connection between their work and the company’s mission, the company was more profitable.

Finding people with these attitudes isn’t as hard as it might seem. In fact, most people are eager to act like entrepreneurs.

However, insecure leaders often stifle entrepreneurial spirit through restrictive policies and procedures. They neglect to talk to their employees about such spirit. Therefore, the concept will be new to the people you seek to hire.

But the potential is there. The profits are there. Devote yourself to tapping that potential. And it starts with your hiring process.

Excerpted from The Power of an Internal Franchise: How Your Business Will Prosper When Your Employees Act Like Owners, by Martin O’Neill (Third Bridge Press). Copyright by Martin O’Neill, 2011.

Martin O’Neill has been an operator and consultant in the technology services and software industries for 25 years. He has started technology based services companies, led two IT Services firms through successful acquisitions and ran a business unit for a Fortune 50 company. Marty currently is Principal with Corsum Consulting , a firm focused on building enterprise value for mid market companies. Follow him on Twitter at


2 Comments on “How to Find (and Develop) Engaged and Entrepreneurial Employees

  1. Interesting article, Martin. I’d often heard that the entreprenurial spirit wasn’t such a good thing with employees because if the employee is truly an entrepreneur, he/she is not going to be satisfied working for someone else for very long. This is a different spin on that mindset and I think you make very valid points, but care must be taken to keep these employees engaged or they won’t stay that way for long.

  2. Great post. I agree every employee is a small business owner – you own your “human capital assets.” You make the decision every day whether you are bringing all of your talent, skills, efforts, creativity and desire to “do a good job” to the workplace.

    However, for the vast majority of workers, we cannot rely on a “workforce of one.” We must work with and for other people to get the job done. Perhaps along the way we can have fun, too. And that’s why it’s important that each of us (because my own engagement is my responsibility, too) must choose the attitude we bring to work every day. We certainly would if our workplace was “my” workplace.

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