7 Corporate Skills to Take With You Into Entrepreneurship
“Not. At. All.” This is my answer every time someone asks me whether I miss working in the corporate world. I left last October, and am now sure that it was the right decision for me. I thrust myself into the quirky world of entrepreneurship, creating the When Women Win podcast, with the goal of impacting the lives of millions of women all over the world.
What a cultural shift it’s been -- from the lingo, to the trainers, to the meetings that can happen at all hours and all venues. Creativity is encouraged, not stymied. Doing things differently is lauded and applauded, not frowned-upon with phrases like, “That’s just not our process.”
In my discussions with fellow entrepreneurs, partners, investors and corporations, I’ve realized that I owe the corporate world a debt of gratitude. Skills I honed during those 17 years are serving me well in my new paradigm.
1. Owning your personal brand
In the startup world, entrepreneurs seek significant support from a variety of stakeholders. From knowing your customer, to being punctual, to understanding your limitations, one's reputation is key and must be managed intentionally.
In the corporate world, we call this your “personal brand,” and from early on in our careers, we are given training courses on why it matters and how to manage it.
As a leader in a large corporation, you need to be able to communicate up and down the organization, across functions and geographies, with people of different styles and personalities. Different people consume information differently, but over time, you learn to read people and respond to their preferred communication style.
As an entrepreneur, you need to build a variety of strong relationships: technical experts who might be 20 years younger than you, investors who might be 20 years older than you, partners from different industries and media in different countries. If you want to influence people, they need to understand you.
In the corporate world, you quickly learn that a strong network is essential to a career path: You need to find mentors and, sometimes more importantly, sponsors. You also need to find out about job opportunities before they become public and a "preferred candidate" is identified.
The importance of networking to an entrepreneur, meanwhile, needs little explanation: How else are you going to find your team, suppliers, partners and investors?
From progress updates, to jurisdictional overviews, to project pipelines, one gets many “safe” opportunities in the corporate world to practice pitching to peers and management.
Though I am a frequent public speaker, I still find the practice intimidating. But, this skill is critical to an entrepreneur. You need to be able to sell your vision to colleagues, partners, customers and investors.
5. Being open to feedback
Corporate feedback cultures can be intense due to frequent performance appraisals. They are also beneficial for two reasons: You develop thick skin that serves you for life, and you learn to listen closely and accept feedback for the gift it is toward your development as a person and a professional.
No entrepreneur has all the answers. We have strengths and weaknesses, and we will make many mistakes along the way simply because we have not done “this” before. It is important to reign in one’s ego and take advice from different sources with varied experiences. There’s no shame in accepting critical feedback -- the shame is in ignoring it.
In the corporate world, you’re a small fish in a big pond, and end up having to negotiate for everything: the job you want, the manager, the team, the projects, the clients and even the training courses. It’s relentless. For a decade, I led a geographically-dispersed team of functional experts, almost all of them men older than me. I was selling to airline CEOs (older male millionaires) in tough negotiation cultures like Turkey and Nigeria. What an education I got.
As a business owner, this comes in handy, as you have to negotiate every aspect of your business, from employee salaries to supplier terms and investment conditions.
There is a common path that many follow in the corporate world: You run fast to prove yourself technically, and then realize that what got you there won’t get you to the next level. You start to invest time developing softer skills, and over time mature from being a lone ranger to an inclusive leader who brings the team along through a shared vision and purpose.
As an entrepreneur, this functions as the ability to mobilize the troops and get busy people with disparate, competing agendas to work toward one goal. This relies on the above factors and many others, including: inspiring trust, infusing passion, communicating succinctly, listening actively and solving complex problems.
I'll conclude with one of my favorite Marcus Aurelius quotes: “Life unfolds exactly as it should.” From my action-packed years in the corporate world to my early adventures in entrepreneurship -- I am thankful for it all.
(By Rana Nawas. Nawas is the creator and host of When Women Win, a weekly podcast that inspires and educates women everywhere, by exposing them to powerful female role models who share practical tools and eye-opening stories.)