Building a culture of entrepreneurs

Leonard A. Schlesinger is a Baker Foundation professor at Harvard Business School. He most recently served as the 12th president of Babson College, known for its entrepreneurship programs. Schlesinger is also the author of numerous books and articles on entrepreneurship, organizational leadership and management. Schlesinger spoke with Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership and vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. Fox also heads up their Center for Government Leadership.

Q. What are some of the top characteristics of successful entrepreneurs?

A. Contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of successful entrepreneurs don't take significant risk. The first characteristic of successful entrepreneurs is they have a desire to do what they're doing. Step two is they're able to determine the acceptable loss from a potential venture. Finally, they bring other people in on the idea so they can take a step back to reflect and gain a better awareness. The best solution emerges from being able to syndicate an idea and get lots of people to help shape it.

Q. What challenges do federal leaders and employees face in seeking to be entrepreneurial?

A. I was assigned to work with the Department of Labor under Al Gore's Reinventing Government initiative in the 1990s. While my experience was quite positive in confirming there is a very skilled and capable federal workforce, the organizations they work for make it difficult to contribute. The first issue is the mixed messages in these organizations regarding what element of the agenda prevails on any given day. The second is the partisanship that exists more broadly in Washington today, which creates an environment that makes it very difficult to trust the longevity of the messages they receive on a daily basis. Experts talk about the need to create an environment where people actually believe they have psychological safety to contribute and to act. It's difficult to see this emerging in many parts of the federal government.