In conversations and classes with executives, I try to recognize the power that words hold. A simple term can be used to logically advance a discussion or elaborate an existing idea.
A word also can be used to shake things up—to articulate distinctive frames of reference and meaning. For instance, these days I deliberately use the word “enterprise” and not the more usual characterizations of “company” or “organization.”
Let me begin with why I stay away from the more familiar terms “company” or “organization.” In the commercial context, a company primarily is a legal construct for the conduct of business. As such, a company is a legal entity separate from that of its management, employees, or investors and, in theory at least, the entity has a life of perpetuity. While technically an “artificial person,” a company nevertheless is very real for those working in, doing business with, investing in, hosting, taxing, and regulating it. A company may be a “person” in legal terms and real for its various stakeholders but, at the end of the day, it is a construct—and a passion- or motivation-free construct at that.
Then, there is organization. I see its motivation and function being mechanistic and utilitarian: a mechanism for organizing—read, structuring and managing—a set of activities. Once again, passion and motivation free, and not ambitious or energizing enough.
Enter the descriptor “enterprise.” Most dictionary definitions of the term share three words: “bold, momentous undertaking.” In my analysis, an enterprise is a call to adventure. So, first and foremost, I urge the reader to embrace “enterprise” as opposed to company or organization because of the bold and momentous passion, energy, and ambition that it denotes.
Then, there is the fact that enterprise is an undertaking. In other words, it suggests an active, engaging, challenging journey. Yes, things will invariably happen along the way, some really nasty and topsy-turvy. That, after all, is the nature of the world. In addition, the world has its own way of throwing curveballs: 9/11, the dot-com bubble burst, the Great Recession of 2008, a tight job market, to name just a few. Real life, in other words. And, that is what makes enterprise an undertaking. It is a voyage worthy of undertaking precisely because it is bold and momentous. If the little lad in the Dr. Seuss’s classic Oh, the Places You’ll Go! could make it through the labyrinth of fearsome and busy-in-the-waiting places while, at the same time, slaying his own demons, surely can the enterprise. OK, 98¾ percent guaranteed.
The association of enterprise with an undertaking suggests a third distinguishing characteristic: the active quality suggested by the word enterprise. Thus, one shows enterprise, and someone is enterprising. He or she takes on a challenge, overcomes odds, learns and adapts along the way, garners resources, breaks some eggs and some rules, yes, but displays some grit and chutzpah along the way in his or her bold, momentous undertaking. This, with or without the linen thread Daedalus provided Theseus in his pursuit of the Minotaur in the Greek Myth. The words, company or organization, do not achieve this quality.
Last and arguably most important, enterprise applies to not just some legal or organizational aggregate: unlike a company or an organization, each of us need not just be members of some larger enterprise. Instead, each of us can—indeed, must—have enterprises of our own. Yes, individually we can have our own bold, momentous undertaking dovetailed into the overall bold and momentous undertaking of the enterprise of which we are integral members.
So, that is why I chose “enterprise” when teaching—and not “company” or “organization.” And, my message to the reader is best suggested by a few closing questions: Do you see yourself leading, managing, or working for a company or organization? Or, do you see yourself leading, co-journeying, and journeying on a bold, momentous undertaking in these trying and uncertain times?
I leave it to the reader to decide, but I would much, much rather go join and/or embark on an enterprise. How is the leader to achieve this transformation? Let us begin by affirmatively responding to this call to adventure.