Big can be boldWritten by David Gray 4 January 2021
In a long international business career with some of the world’s leading consumer goods manufacturers and retailers, Torvald de Coverly Veale has seen at first hand both the challenges and benefits of cultivating an entrepreneurial mindset in large organisations around the world. Today, in his role as an independent strategic advisor, Torvald continues to be a passionate advocate for its positive impact and power to drive innovative thinking.
What is the mindset of an entrepreneur?
For decades, big business has recognised the value of entrepreneurial thinking and behaviour within their organisations – and wrestled with the challenge of instilling it. However, as Torvald is at pains to point out, the issue is neither simple nor susceptible to easy fixes – but getting it right can reap rich rewards.
Today, the concept of entrepreneurialism is a well-established phenomenon that is firmly fixed in our culture. Technologies that make blogs and micro-sites accessible to any budding young entrepreneur are shifting the meaning of the term away from its traditional association with businessmen such as Richard Branson, towards something that is much more inclusive and accessible. And, as Torvald points out, it’s important to make the distinction between the Elon Musk’s of this world and the many entrepreneurially minded business people working in organisations of all sizes.
But it is not so long ago that things were different. “Thirty years ago, we didn’t really recognise this,” says Torvald, “and the opportunities we see today didn’t used to exist.”
What is an entrepreneurial spirit?
That said, Torvald was amongst a group of business leaders at Unilever who, in the early 1990’s recognised that something was missing in large organisations. “We had become managers managing, there wasn’t the innovation or spark, or the sense of what entrepreneurs do.” This led to the phrase ‘Entrepreneurial Spirit’ being coined and embedded in the organisation’s values and behaviours. “We were,” says Torvald, “quite early in articulating this now well-known phrase”. Even then, however, there was a recognition that a clear distinction was required between collective spirit and individual behaviour. “We weren’t all going to become individual entrepreneurs, running around doing our own thing. Large companies can’t cope with everybody being a maverick!”
What is the mindset of a modern day entrepreneur?
Fast forward to today, and Torvald remains committed to the idea of interpretation and adaptation to the specific circumstances of the business – and warns against lazy sloganeering and a tick-box mentality.
“It’s important to break it down into behaviour, actions and language – and to understand what works best for the organisation, rather than applying it in a blanket way. Every function needs to understand what entrepreneurial behaviour looks like for them – it will be different in marketing and in R&D, for example. It’s the duty of teams to work it out for themselves, within a framework set by the organisation. The same applies to different countries and regions. Interpretations of the term can be very different, according to the local culture, and so needs to be translated in such a way that it makes as much sense for an individual in Mumbai as Manchester.”
Why is initiative important for an entrepreneur?
Managing the process and successfully mobilising the organisation behind the idea is, according to Torvald, one of the most difficult tasks any business faces. He cites Unilever as an example of how to get it right – drawing particular attention to the single-minded focus on the future that led to its disposal of historical brand assets and businesses.
“A lot of management teams would have said ‘woah, that’s our rock, our roots – we can’t dispose of that’ but they saw what wasn’t right for the future and didn’t hesitate. That was brave and that was entrepreneurial because it’s as much about what you don’t do as what you do.”
The same bravery was applied to the company’s acquisition of the Marmite brand. Rather than folding it into a big portfolio, Unilever chose to manage it through a dedicated micro-team. “They were considered outrageous in what they did and how they looked at the world. Twenty years on, the Love/Hate positioning seems almost obvious but at the time it was incredibly radical. You don’t alienate half your audience! But taking calculated risk, rooted in insight… that’s entrepreneurial.”
How to find entrepreneur partners
Entrusting decision-making to people who really know their product and their audience, however counter-cultural to the parent organisation that might appear, was similarly a key feature in the successful acquisition of Ben & Jerry’s. In turn, it reveals a further theme that Torvald believes is critical: embracing the outsider’s perspective.
While at Alliance Boots, some of the best marketing he saw was from brands which were developed with strategic partners, often driven by entrepreneurs prepared to challenge the status quo in a way that insiders could not. “A great example of this is Marcia Kilgore, creator of Soap & Glory. Her influence as an outsider at Boots was phenomenal. The brand broke all the rules of the category and she was relentless in the way she challenged and pushed them. If you only look at the world from the inside then ‘accepted wisdoms’ can lead to complacency. But if you do bring in entrepreneurial outsiders who are smart and willing to help educate and broaden the horizons of those who haven’t had that opportunity, they can be great role models.”
What do business partners do?
External partnerships are not just about importing fresh thinking. They are also an important route to building capability: “Rather than believing we could do it all ourselves, we partnered with P&G to build and distribute our new Boots skincare brand in the European pharmacy channel.” This willingness by large organisations to look outside as a source of learning, stimulus and new approaches, is, Torvald believes, a change for the better.
The outsider’s perspective doesn’t just have to come from beyond the organisation, however. Individuals within it can play their part too – particularly coming into a new role or unfamiliar region. Torvald was thus able to act as a “naïve challenger” when he landed in Brazil to run a newly acquired business. “It’s not about coming in and being disruptive for disruption’s sake. You need to be culturally sensitive in the way you question and challenge what you see. It’s no good just to say ‘I have a great idea’ – you have to be able to make it happen, which means motivating teams to buy into your vision and go with you. That takes the ability to communicate, to persuade and to mobilise people and resources. It’s a very complicated combination of innate skills, behaviours and values that can’t just be taught in a training programme.”
Why do entrepreneurs need a certain mindset?
As difficult and as complex as it may be to develop, and whether it comes from inside or outside an organisation, Torvald sees the entrepreneurial mindset, and its challenge to traditional corporate hierarchies, as critical for their survival.
“There can be so much baggage and history in large organisations that they are slow to adapt and react. Look at the classic retailers: in the early days, they saw digital as just another store to be managed in the same way. That’s why so many of their digital offers are so poor and struggling to compete with entrepreneurial brands that have been single-minded in their digital focus. If large businesses don’t keep moving, if they don’t innovate, they die. But with absolute focus, clarity of vision and if they structure their organisation in a way that allows them to manage entrepreneurial drive and innovation, they will continue to thrive.”