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5 Ways to Keep Employees From Becoming Competitors

To retain highly engaged, entrepreneurially spirited employees, you must learn what makes them tick.
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New companies aren't built by tinkerers in garages. Instead, startups emerge from big established companies. Amar Bhide, author of The Origin and Evolution of New Businesses, interviewed 100 founders from the Inc. 500 list of the fastest-growing private U.S. companies and found that 88 percent did not start with a unique or proprietary product or idea. "[They] typically imitated someone else's ideas that they often encountered in the course of a previous job," Bhide says.

They were employees one day and competitors the next. 

After creating Google Reader for Google, Chris Wetherell left the employee-centric company, known for allowing its employees to spend up to 20 percent of their working time tinkering on new ideas. He started Avocado, a social-media platform that allows couples and loved ones to stay connected. It's too early to see whether Avocado chips away at any part of Google's massive market share, but Wetherall tweeted that if he had to do it all over again, "I'd just choose a diff co for the same project." Google shut down Reader in July despite large-scale Internet protestations.

Many entrepreneurs who end up competing with their former employers never would have gotten to that point if their employers had displayed a better understanding of them and their motivations.

We all want highly engaged, entrepreneurially spirited employees working for us, but to hang on to such people, you need to appreciate what it takes to keep them happy, motivated, and creating value in your workplace.

The original survey research for my 2013 book, Business Brilliant, reveals the practices and attitudes that most clearly distinguish successful entrepreneurs from most other people. Here are five critical areas of entrepreneurial job satisfaction that the research turned up:

1. They want a financial stake in their work. Entrepreneurial people enjoy doing what they love, but they also want to follow the money while doing it. Granting them a share of the value they create is key to keeping them.

For a variety of reasons, stock options are on the wane in many companies, but an alternative approach is to use a salary model similar to that of your sales force. Employees might receive 80 percent of their income as a "floor" to their earnings, with the remainder variable based on goals that might exceed 100 percent should those goals be exceeded.

Another method is to offer "shadow stock" on the basis of a simple point system, distributing, say, 1,000 points among employees, entitling them to shares of the quarterly profits. With any profit-sharing approach, the goal is the same: to allow entrepreneurial employees to gain financial rewards for their enterprising efforts without the need to strike out on their own.

2. They want more resources and responsibilities. Entrepreneurial workers can be pests. If you give one of them a goal, expect to be annoyed by constant requests for additional resources and responsibilities in order to reach it.

They're bound to make unreasonable requests, because if they were more reasonable, they wouldn't be entrepreneurial. Resist the urge to discourage them from asking, and instead try to channel their energies by engaging them in discussions about their needs and how they can be accommodated. Entrepreneurial employees require hands-on management.

In 2009, Google conducted a review of its managers' habits called Project Oxygen. It found that high-performing employees in general need openness and accessibility in a manager more than any other attribute, including technical expertise.

3. They love adapting and imitating successes in departments and disciplines other than theirs. Make sure you give entrepreneurial employees lots of opportunities to learn from any successful units and leaders within the company. Most entrepreneurial successes involve clever mashups of preexisting ideas, whether it's Starbucks's adaptation of the Italian coffeehouse or Google's application of algorithms to online search.

Entrepreneurs are problem solvers, and novel solutions can often be found outside the departments where those problems exist.

4. They thrive on networking. In a similar way, you should provide entrepreneurial employees with cross-functional projects that draw on their abilities to collaborate and mobilize resources. The word entrepreneur comes from the French terms for "between" and "to take." Entrepreneurs create value by building bridges between people who otherwise would have nothing to do with each other.

When out on their own, entrepreneurs match creative people with technical people to form new products, and then they find investors and buyers to underwrite and pay for what they make. Inside your company, you want to give your entrepreneurial employees the chances to make the same kinds of connections so they can identify the people and resources they need to succeed.

5. They hate working at stuff they're no good at. Try not to saddle entrepreneurial employees with responsibilities they clearly neither enjoy nor are good at. Instead, try to get them help so that they are free to do what they do best. Companies that rely on 90-day performance reviews, like Google and others, have better chances of identifying these types of issues before employees get frustrated and leave.

Even an informal 90-day review with a top employee should function more as a check-in, one that asks: How can we help you do your job better? What do you need from the company? You’ll never be able to provide these employees with everything they need, but the process of hearing them out on a regular basis goes right back to point No. 2--the need for open and accessible management.

Keeping entrepreneurially minded people in the tent isn't always easy, and you may fear sometimes that you've created a monster or two. But having a more entrepreneurial management culture can be particularly helpful in lean or flat organizational structures that require people who are more solution-oriented and less hierarchical in their thinking.

A 2012 survey conducted for Edward Jones showed that 70 percent of workers "crave" more entrepreneurial experiences at work, but only 15 percent of them feel they have what it takes to quit their jobs and start businesses on their own.

For most employees, the risks of going out on their own is too great, but some will take that risk if they don’t feel they're getting the compensation, support, and career development that show their employers are interested in hanging on to them.

IMAGE: Gallery Stock
Last updated: Feb 4, 2014

LEWIS SCHIFF | Inc. Business Owners Council

Lewis Schiff is the executive director of the Inc. Business Owners Council. His latest book is Business Brilliant: Surprising Lessons From the Greatest Self-Made Business Icons.




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