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In this interview Prof. Dr. Christoph Seckler and Prof. Peter Borchers, academic directors of ESCP Business School’s innovative entrepreneurial acceleration programme U-SCHOOL answer questions on the topic of entrepreneurship and its increasingly important role in the way we will conduct business in the years to come. Read on to learn why in their opinion it is vital for companies to keep up with the fast-paced changes of today, how they can do this with the help of entrepreneurial skills, innovation and digital transformation, and which tools are most relevant to the current challenges they are faced with. 

TRANSFORMATION IS A FREQUENTLY USED BUZZWORD. WHY ARE YOU CREATING A PROGRAMME AROUND IT? WHAT IS THE IMPORTANCE OF DIGITAL TRANSFORMATION IN TODAY’S SCENARIO? 
Christoph Seckler: It’s true. Many use the term transformation as a vague buzzword. But at the same time transformation is something very concrete, something that affects all of us in our daily (working) lives. Transformation captures the massive changes that we are currently going through. These changes are driven by technological developments (e.g. AI, biotech, robotics), economic changes (e.g. platform economy, the emergence of new business models), social changes (e.g. increasing awareness of sustainability), and political changes (e.g. shifting world order). Now this transformation means for firms that they can either seize the novel opportunities that these changes open up or it is likely that they will vanish. And we simply believe that seizing the novel opportunities requires good entrepreneurial leaders. This is why we created this unique programme to develop entrepreneurial leaders who make transformation happen.

WHY DO SUCCESSFUL CORPORATES NEED MORE INTRAPRENEURSHIP?
Peter Borchers: Intrapreneurship is about exploring and seizing opportunities within established firms. Also and especially if they go beyond what used to be the norm. Any large corporate needs to continuously adapt to ongoing changes, and intrapreneurship is the engine for that. While innovation may happen top down in some cases, most innovation in corporations happens through the initiative of individuals or small teams which initially drive a project. Either these projects start by seeing things that customers struggle with and then they provide novel solutions, or they start with excellent technologies and find novel applications for these technologies. Either way, these initiatives are crucial for the continuous renewal of established firms. If firms are not fast enough and not flexible anymore in adapting to the changes, they just fail like it has happened to so many firms such as Kodak, Nokia, RIM, or Motorola.

WHY IS PRIORITIZING INNOVATION CURRENTLY MORE IMPORTANT THAN EVER?
Peter Borchers: This is easy to answer. Business opportunities arise at the intersection of what people need and what can be built to address these needs. Currently we see massive changes in both what people need (e.g. sustainable lifestyles) and what can be built (e.g. deep tech). So even business opportunities which have been very stable for many years (e.g. petrol-run cars) are in massive flux at the moment. So either firms stay ahead of the game by constantly innovating or soon their business might disappear.

SHOULD LARGE COMPANIES ESTABLISH ACCELERATORS OR DIGITAL HUBS IN BERLIN?
Peter Borchers: Accelerators or digital hubs can be powerful vehicles, but only when they are in line with the firm's objectives as well as the business environment. For instance, accelerators and incubators can be an effective way to learn about and to even catch some early-stage innovation. They can be useful in supporting existing R&D activities, in opening up novel growth options for the firm, and they can be attractive for recruiting and retaining employees. But the spectrum of available options goes well beyond that. There are several other approaches which can be more suitable for other objectives. For example, if a firm wants to hedge against future disruption e.g. by strategically extending its product and service portfolio, investing in more mature startups can be a good way forward. In this case, a corporate venture capital unit might be better suited. Also, strategic corporate partnerships can be an interesting way to close a missing IP gap while saving investments. So it really all depends on the objectives of the firm. 

But certainly, collaborating with startups and, on top, doing this in Berlin is always a good idea. It is just one of the most thriving entrepreneurial ecosystems in the world.

COOPERATION BETWEEN CORPORATIONS AND START-UPS OFTEN RESULT IN A CLASH. HOW CAN THIS BE OVERCOME? 
Peter Borchers: Yes that’s true. Collaborations between corporations and start-ups are challenging because they are just such different firms. While corporations essentially perfected executing on established business models, start-ups are in search of novel scalable business opportunities. This requires very different cultures, structures, and processes which, in turn, can create tensions, misunderstandings, and frustrations in co-operations. To create a successful cooperation, we think it is important to acknowledge the distinct strengths that each partner brings to the table. While corporations often possess quite a lot of resources, know how, and clearly defined processes, start-ups excel in innovating quickly, being fully committed to their idea, yet pivoting flexibly when needed. Based on acknowledging these strengths, a second key for success is to set clear goals for the partnership as well as a framework for working together. And this should be done right from the beginning.

HOW WOULD YOU ADVISE SOMEONE LOOKING TO BECOME AN ENTREPRENEURIAL LEADER?
Christoph Seckler: The first advice would be to make a personal choice. We are convinced that entrepreneurial leadership is a choice; it is not a rank. Entrepreneurial leaders take initiative. They do things without being told. They find out what they need to know to tackle a problem. And they keep going when things are getting tough. So it is - first of all - a question of who you want to be as a person. But then, of course, it also helps to master the skills and tools which are useful to sense and seize opportunities, and to have the network to make things happen.

WHAT ELSE DO YOU THINK TODAY’S ENTREPRENEURIAL LEADERS SHOULD FOCUS ON?
Christoph Seckler: While there are many changes in these transformative times, two stand out: digitalization and sustainability. Digitalization is fundamental because it is the first time in history that processes that have traditionally been reserved to human brains are now performed by machines. This is true for processing information, for storing information, and for communicating. Particularly, the developments in the deep tech areas (e.g. AI, block chain, biotech) will create many novel opportunities in the future. So being aware of some of the key developments is very important in our view. The same is true for the developments in the field of sustainability. It is very obvious that we cannot keep on doing business as we have done over the past 130 years. It would just kill our planet. The increasing awareness of sustainability issues will change quite dramatically how we will consume and produce in the upcoming two decades. Again, being aware of some of the major trends (e.g. circular economy) will help to stay ahead of the game.

WHAT ARE ACCORDING TO YOU THE MOST INVALUABLE ENTREPRENEURIAL TOOLS AND SKILLS NEEDED TODAY?
Christoph Seckler: Entrepreneurial leaders sense and seize opportunities and transform their firm. So we think that invaluable tools in doing that are tools to systematically identify novel opportunities, to design impactful business models, to implement them, and finally to know how to lead change successfully. Beyond these tools, we believe that it is crucial for entrepreneurial leaders to sharpen their skill set: skills in leading and building effective teams, in analytical and creative problem solving, in managing stress, communicating effectively, and in developing self-awareness. At U-SCHOOL we help entrepreneurial leaders to master these tools and skills, and inspire them by bringing in world-experts on digitalization and sustainability topics. 

 

This interview was led by Alison Masse, Programme Manager of the U-SCHOOL at ESCP Berlin. If you wish to learn more about this executive education course at ESCP, don't hesitate to reach out at amasse@escp.eu!

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