Building Entrepreneurial Teams: Talent, Social Capital, and Culture

By Akhtar, Reece; Ort, Uri | People & Strategy, Spring 2018 | Go to article overview

Building Entrepreneurial Teams: Talent, Social Capital, and Culture


Akhtar, Reece, Ort, Uri, People & Strategy


In The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell describes the archetypal hero found in the mythology of virtually every civilization. Today, it can be argued that the successful entrepreneur has become our version of the mythical hero. A quick search will turn up any number of stories describing the journey of famous technology founders. Travis Kalanick faced adversity and failure in his earlier ventures only to finally be victorious at Uber; Elon Musk was a bullied, lonely child but overcame those challenges to successfully start Tesla; and Amazon's Jeff Bezos is basically a demigod who is either pure good or pure evil, depending on who you ask. However, like the ancient myths, these heroic tales tend to overstate the impact of the individual, while understating, or entirely ignoring, the contributions of the teams that surround them.

Despite what the media and mythologists would have us think, the team is usually the true driver of value creation and heroic accomplishments, not any one individual. Similarly, for every successful start-up story that becomes a modern myth, there are countless stories of entrepreneurial failures (1) caused by team issues. Thus, it is critical that would-be founders, venture capital firms, and organizational leaders have a clear understanding of what makes a successful entrepreneurial team.

Importance of a High-functioning Team

Why does the team have such an outsized impact on the outcome of an entrepreneurial venture? For venture capital firms and would-be founders, identifying the next Facebook or launching a startup is only the beginning of the story. Founding teams tend to experience a plethora of stressors and challenges. Intra-team issues can significantly exacerbate these challenges and make success far less likely. Through understanding how to design a successful entrepreneurial team, many of these risks can be avoided.

In addition, established organizations facing disruption are increasingly investing in intrapreneurship and aquihiring. Intrapreneurship is the practice of fostering autonomous teams within larger organizations. Aquihiring is a more recent phenomenon where a large organization acquires a smaller startup in an effort to rapidly onboard a high-functioning team--even where there is no interest in the actual product or service offered by the startup. Both strategies can be expensive and require significant planning. To ensure success it is critical that organizational leaders know how to identify a strong entrepreneurial team. They also must understand how to foster an entrepreneurial culture that will empower the team to be creative, take risks, and attain organizational goals. Recent research has also demonstrated that talented employees migrate to more creative organizations. Hence organizations that cannot foster innovation are at risk of losing their best employees. (2)

The good news is we know a fair amount about what comprises a well-functioning team. We believe there are three critical ingredients to a successful entrepreneurial team: acquiring entrepreneurial talent, building social capital, and fostering an innovative and creative culture.

Entrepreneurial Talent

Although still a new area of study, there is a significant amount of literature on entrepreneurship spanning disciplines that include economics, philosophy, sociology, and psychology. Despite the different approaches to understanding the antecedents of entrepreneurial success, research converges on four personality dimensions that when present will drive entrepreneurial success: (3)

* Opportunism: The tendency to spot new business opportunities (relates to being alert, informed, and detecting future trends).

* Proactivity: The tendency to be proactive about projects and get things done (relates to energy, confidence, and self-determination).

* Creativity: The tendency to generate innovative business ideas (relates to non-conformity, originality, and preference for novel experiences). …

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