Our work-based identity is an interesting, and often troublesome, topic for entrepreneurs. Here’s why:
As an entrepreneur, we need to tap into a hugely diverse set of responsibilities to get our business off the ground. We’ve got to create a product or service that people will pay for, manage our team, liaise with funders and shareholders, market our product, manage our finances, create scalable systems and many other tasks that require radically different skills.
In the early days, most businesses don’t have the luxury of appointing a specialist for every role, and even well-funded startups require founders who have diverse enough skill sets to get the business off the ground.
Then, as our business starts to grow, we realise that we can’t possibly continue to manage the breadth of responsibilities we currently have. So we start to hire specialists to take over portions of our responsibilities. It’s around this time that the issues around our own identity start to arise.
Defining our identity in dialogue
On the subject of identity, the Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor, says that, “We define our identity always in dialogue with, sometimes in struggle against, the things our significant others want to see in us. Even after we outgrow some of these others, the conversation with them continues within us.”
In business, our “significant others” include our colleagues. We’re used to being the people at the epicentre of the business, critically involved in most decisions, and relied on for our breadth of understanding and cohesive vision for the business.
I particularly like the last line of Taylor’s quote, “Even after we outgrow some of these others, the conversation with them continues within us.”
The way I interpret it is that even when we need to change our self identity for the good of the business, and start taking on new or different responsibilities, we continue to define ourselves by the work we used to do, and we’re perpetually drawn back to the tasks and responsibilities which have come to define our work at the early stages of the business.
Others have defined us by this work, and it’s very tempting to keep jumping back into the familiar waters of these roles, responsibilities and behaviours.
The problem is that when we do jump back in, we disempower the specialists who have now been tasked with these responsibilities – which is not a great way to create a healthy corporate culture.
This is a challenge that is repeated again and again, albeit in different ways every time, for as long as our business continues to grow.
Redefining our work-based identity
As entrepreneurs we have to constantly redefine our work-based identity based on the needs of the business. This sounds like an extreme statement, but ask any entrepreneur who has successfully started a business and they’ll tell you how the job they’re doing now bears little resemblance to the job they were doing when they started their business. These changes and adaptations often require radical shifts of perspective and identity, which can be incredibly challenging.
Related: Are You Full Of Mojo Or Nojo?
So how can we make these constant transitions throughout our entrepreneurial lives without feeling like a slave to the needs of the business? Here are five points that have helped me:
1. Our identity is transient
The first, and most important point, is to accept that our work-based identity is transient and will change – guaranteed. Don’t hold on too tightly to the things that defined you in the past or you might stifle the growth of the business. You might even get left behind as your business grows in spite of your clinging.
2. Self-identity is about your potential
One of the online dictionaries defines self identity as, “the recognition of one’s potential and qualities as an individual”.
The second point is to recognise that self identity is about potential, and the implication is that what we’re doing today doesn’t define us nearly as much as what we’re capable of doing.
3. Empower others
Empower others in your business, especially in areas you used to manage yourself, with specific KPIs and allow them to do their jobs – only get involved when you need to.
4. Manage yourself outside of work
Finally, proactively manage your identity outside of work. The entrepreneurial journey can be all encompassing, and it’s important to have other lenses through which you define yourself.