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Why Your Employees Should Join the Army

When Jennifer Prosek went on maternity leave from the company she had joined when she was 22 and co-owned by the time she was 30, she had a moment of panic. Would her company go under without her there to run it six or seven days a week? She soon realized that everything was going to be OK. In fact, her company didn’t just survive; it thrived.

In the introduction to her new book Army of Entrepreneurs (AMACOM, 2011), Prosek explains why her company continued to do so well:

“This was not, I knew, a matter of luck, or even hard work. The spurt of success at my firm CJP Communications was the direct result of a strategy I had been percolating for years. Even before my expectant-mother panic, I had been working on a new way to configure my business, one that tapped the tremendous talent of the 70-plus people in my company and inspired them to rise up and face the challenges of the day whether or not I was in the office to see it. I had amassed, trained, and deployed an Army of Entrepreneurs (AOE).”

Prosek defines the AOE concept as follows: “An AOE is an internal force of committed employees. It is a structure and a mindset that enables a business to grow beyond you—the business’s founder, owner, or CEO…Each person develops an ‘owner’s mindset’ and becomes a powerful force for growth within the organization.”

The AOE strategy worked for Prosek’s business—she grew her public relations company from one office and $2 million in 1995 to three offices and $10 million today—and she believes the concept can work for any business.

In her book, Prosek shares strategies to help any entrepreneur, business owner, or enterprising manager build an owner’s mindset in every employee:

  • Teach your employees the business. Standardized training isn’t “too corporate” for a small company—or any company that values a small-firm feel. “Quite the opposite,” Prosek argues. “By institutionalizing training and mentoring, you ensure that the entrepreneurial spirit of the firm can be sustained even as the company grows.” To make a formal training program pay off, go beyond teaching critical skills. Give employees the opportunity to understand how those skills fit into the broader success of the organization. Help employees grasp the “why” of what they do and recognize how they’re a part of something bigger.
  • Provide incentives for employees to align their own financial and professional goals with the company’s growth and success. In her company, CJP Communications, Prosek has developed a system she calls “Commission for Life.” Open to all staff members, it rewards the employee who sets up a successful new business meeting with 5% of the revenue from the account for the life of the business as long as he or she remains with CJP. While enabling employees to earn more money, Commission for Life reinforces teaching them the business.
  • Encourage autonomy. Allow people to stretch their wings, experiment with new technologies, and implement their own ideas. Communicate to your employees that you trust them to do their jobs, even when it seems they are wandering outside the lines of their job descriptions, and to do what’s right for the company—their company. “When you empower people to make decisions and take responsibility for their actions, you inspire an important process,” writes Prosek. “You encourage them to educate themselves."
  • Institutionalize celebration. Become a champion and public cheerleader for the contributions of all members of your company. Give each employee the credit he or she deserves for working hard. Offer a forum for employees to applaud individual feats and share in successes. At CJP, monthly staff meetings end with a “pat on the back” session, where colleagues thank other colleagues for moments of greatness.

What if you work for a large corporation? Prosek maintains that any company—even the biggest and most traditional ones—can use AOE strategies to foster entrepreneurial thinking within their ranks. For starters, she recommends:

  • Hire right. Clock-punching, drone behavior won’t work for any company hoping to foster entrepreneurial thinking. Big firms, like small and hungry ones, must seek out self-starters. How do you screen for an entrepreneurial mindset? Conduct team interviews and craft interviews with a lot of behavioral questions, encouraging candidates to reveal how they would react in certain situations.
  • Create internal support and reward systems. After joining a big company, people bursting with new ideas too often find themselves bumping up against the command-and-control system that has been in place for ages. To keep creative thinkers, develop a system where they’ll be happy and rewarded for their efforts. Positively receive new ideas. Treat them seriously, with a formal review process. Provide incentives, whether in the form of financial bonuses, perks, or formal recognition, to keep their ideas flowing.
  • Incorporate entrepreneurial skills into your training program. While ushering in an era of new thinking, it’s important not to leave your “old” employees behind. Most people can and will learn to function entrepreneurially when they’re trained to do so. Don’t just ask your employees to think creatively and independently. Teach them how to do it. Remember to teach your managers as well as general staffers, even if it requires investing in outside coaching.
  • Communicate like an entrepreneur. Big companies often lapse into information-hoarding mode, distributing news on a strict “need to know” basis and leaving employees operating in the dark. This dampens innovation and entrepreneurial spirit. Large organizations can work against this by making a commitment to communicating in the free and open way small entrepreneurial firms do, across all of their divisions and employee levels on a regular basis.
  • Give it time, but not forever. Recognize that injecting entrepreneurialism into a large firm is not an overnight process. Be prepared for resistance. Then, set a firm time frame for implementing new processes. Link the changes to short-term goals so they can be viewed as critical, “must do now” projects. Otherwise, your plans may be pushed to the back burner.

So sum up, Prosek writes: “Nothing, and I underscore nothing, has brought me more personal pleasure at this point in my career than identifying, nurturing, and watching the entrepreneurial spirit grow within my company—especially among those who didn’t think it was possible. Join me and prepare to march forward.”

© 2011 Jennifer Prosek. Adapted by permission of the publisher, from Army of Entrepreneurs: Create an Engaged and Empowered Workforce for Exceptional Business Growth, by Jennifer Prosek. Published by AMACOM, a division of American Management Association.