“I quit over dinner,” one entrepreneur told me. “I just got to boiling point and I quit. I said, “Everyone else has their own business — why not me?”
In the past 10 years, I have interviewed hundreds of entrepreneurs. Each has their own genesis story: how the company started, where the ideas came from, why they decided to go it alone.
There is a vast literature that attempts to define the motivations of entrepreneurs but the most common driver I’ve found is rage. These angry executives had typically been highly successful in large businesses but had become increasingly frustrated.
They had imagined that they would gain more freedom as they won more power. Many hoped the next job might provide opportunities for change or a platform from which to be heard. Instead, with more power had come more constraint, more conformity. And so, after years of being good soldiers, they finally went Awol.
Rage can be a wonderful motivator. It propels entrepreneurs through the fear barrier. All aspiring business owners have spent time hovering on the edge of their idea, keen to get started but reluctant to let go of whatever security they might have: a job, community, infrastructure, routine.
What pushes them over the edge is rage. Another meeting where they are not heard; another random revenue target; another failure to innovate. And they crack. It is an existential moment: a choice of action over paralysis.
For no group is this more typical than women. Although much has been made recently of the need for women to develop the confidence required for entrepreneurship , most of the female entrepreneurs I have interviewed had lacked confidence but reached boiling point after being undervalued and ignored. They felt their effect to be negligible; what won them points was fitting in, not standing out. They left.
Their employers might have consoled themselves with the fiction that this talent drain was about starting families but they were wrong. These women had taken all their know-how, experience and networks to build the kind of companies they wanted to work in. Their rage was creative, productive and life-enhancing.
These days we are encouraged to be mindful, tranquil and calm. If your circumstances merit such equanimity, that is a perfectly rational response to good fortune. If circumstances are otherwise, a placid demeanour can incur a high cost.
Organisations are full of people who know where the company is falling short, standards are slipping, incompetence tolerated; anyone with a sense of responsibility should be angry. Instead, for the most part, organisational silence prevails. The topic has become its own academic sub-discipline, with research showing that up to 85 per cent of employees have issues or concerns they do not voice. In that apparent tranquillity resides a kind of abdication: seeing what is wrong but not doing or saying anything. Somebody should do something — but it will not be them.
Anger could blow through the fear to bring these problems to the surface; fearful silence ensures their perpetuation. Just imagine what might have happened if workers at Volkswagen or GM, Fifa or BHS had more vividly articulated their rage and disappointment at shabby standards and dodgy decisions. Even better: imagine what could happen if all the people who worked for you were so enraged by waste, poor design or lousy service that they determined to invent better ways of working.
The idea that business should be cold, cool and calculating has always been perverse. Why shouldn’t work be emotional? We devote 100,000 irreplaceable hours of our lives to it: of course we care — or should care — what it is spent on. Few want to work in a company that cannot improve itself, identify fabulous opportunities or invent great services. Everyone would like to work in a place where they can believe they are doing something good and doing it well. Why would anybody seek employees who do not get cross when that doesn’t happen?
Rage can be powerful, catapulting us over ambivalence, through fear and self-consciousness to a place of clarity, energy and possibility. If you’re serious and you care, rage against the machine.
The writer is an entrepreneur, consultant and author of ‘Wilful Blindness’
Andrew Hill is away
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