The Can-Do Spirit

Neeley professor Keith Hmieleski uses his training in psychology and business to discover what makes entrepreneurs tick.

Keith Hmieleski, a professor in TCU's Neeley School of Business, said that the right personality is needed for entrepreneurship. "You need to start with a positive mindset if you’re taking the leap into starting a business," he said. "Yet that optimism can later work against business founders."

The Can-Do Spirit

Neeley professor Keith Hmieleski uses his training in psychology and business to discover what makes entrepreneurs tick.

Keith Hmieleski is a professor of entrepreneurship, the academic director of the Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, and the Robert and Edith Schumacher Executive Faculty Fellow in Innovation and Technology in the Neeley School of Business. A prolific author, presenter and reviewer whose research on entrepreneurship is frequently cited, Hmieleski also serves as associate editor of the Strategic Entrepreneurship Journal. 

How did you first become interested in entrepreneurship? I remember when I was about 10 years old having a conversation with my mother. She had just come home from work, and there were certain things about her job that she didn’t enjoy. I asked why she didn’t just quit and find a job that suited her better. She replied that it wasn’t that easy and that I was too young to understand. That answer never sat well with me. I continued to be curious about the notion of how people can shape their work to align with who they are and who they want to become to maximize their happiness and success. I didn’t know that this would lead to an interest in entrepreneurship, but over time, that’s how things evolved. 

What path did your education take? I began my undergraduate studies in engineering. At the beginning, I enjoyed the foundational classes such as physics and chemistry, but I started to lose interest when it got into the more engineering-specific classes such as thermodynamics and fluid mechanics. So, I dropped out of school for a semester and went back to study psychology instead, which is what I was passionate about. I knew that I had found the right major because I loved everything I was doing. After completing my undergraduate degree in psychology, I went to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute to study industrial and organizational psychology.

While in the master’s program, I worked in a lab where we did evaluation of online education. This was right at the very beginning stages of distance education. We spun out a business in the university’s technology incubator doing online training assessment. One of our products was what we believe to be the first commercialized university online course evaluation system. And that’s when I started making the connections between psychology and entrepreneurship and growing my interest in that area. I eventually ended up going into the PhD program in business at the same university. And just by luck, the top professor in the world doing research at the intersection of psychology and entrepreneurship, Robert A. Baron, was at the same school and ended up becoming my advisor and mentor. 

TCU professor of entrepreneurship Keith Hmieleski said that shared leadership is most important with innovation. “The person who is most suited at the moment, based on their expertise or vision, will rise as a leader,” he said. Photo by Glen E. Ellman

How does personality impact entrepreneurship? The personality characteristics of entrepreneurs can be more extreme than the general population in optimism. Entrepreneurship is a very risky area; you need to start with a positive mindset if you’re taking the leap into starting a business. Yet that optimism can later work against business founders. For example, entrepreneurs are notorious for being overconfident and making unrealistic projections. So, it’s important that they learn how to self-regulate their optimism and get feedback on what things can go wrong. 

There’s a concept called defensive pessimism, which is about trying to think through all possible things that could go wrong, so that you are prepared in advance to deal with those things if they do indeed occur. Another important habit has to do with having unlimited opportunity; this creates a need for them to be able to focus on clear goals. They also need to identify where they can delegate, making sure that they bring people on board who can fill out the team with different skills. One of my favorite quotes is by John Wooden, who said, “Things turn out best for the people who make the best of the way things turn out.” There are going to be lots of highs and lows. The focus must always remain on moving forward, learning, taking corrective steps, being humble and remaining positive.  

In your writing you connect the Aristotelian view of the good life to entrepreneurship. Where do financial gain and professional gain fall into this equation? What Aristotle was talking about is referred to as eudaimonia. From a eudaemonic perspective, things like financial success and career advancement are necessary, but not sufficient for life satisfaction. People need a basic number of financial resources to survive and are partly motivated by general accomplishments such as career advancement. But in order to live “the good life,” you must also be able to have success in ways that benefit others.

You’ll see entrepreneurs that have very successful careers, they become millionaires or billionaires, and look back and think, “Is that all there is?” If they didn’t feel that their business itself gave enough back, they’ll want to fill that gap existing within them by doing good. We’ve seen this throughout history in people like Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan. These two individuals spent most of their lives competing in industry, and then later in life they challenged each other in philanthropy. 

Can you explain how both vertical and shared leadership might have a place in an entrepreneurial organization? Shared leadership is important when you’re dealing with anything around innovation or creativity. It’s very important that everybody is seen as equal and can share honest and open feedback with one another. The person who is most suited at the moment, based on their expertise or vision, will rise as a leader. And then that leadership will shift to somebody else as different demands arise.

For example, as you go through the creative process, at first you need to be a little bit wild in your thinking and come up with a lot of crazy ideas; some people are very good at that part. And then you need to eventually refine the logic behind your solutions and become very strategic. There are different people who are good at that end. With shared leadership, it’s really about the cause and the outcome rather than being about one individual having power over the others. Yet, there are instances in which immediate decisions must be made and vertical or more directive forms of leadership become imperative to survive or capitalize on fast shifting opportunities. 

You have talked about organizational improvisation as key in discovering new opportunities. Could it be seen as negligent to place faith in something so intangible? Oftentimes in organizations, improvisation is seen as a dirty word because it’s viewed as making things up in the moment without any grounding in science or critical thinking or due diligence. But improvisation is a very structured form of behavior. Teams and organizations that are good at improvisation are improvising in areas in which they have a base of knowledge. If you look at even comedic improvisers, they have a framework and general set of principles that they follow. And this is an important process for entrepreneurs because the ability to identify and exploit unforeseen opportunities in the moment oftentimes may require improvisation.

Moreover, improvisers are very good at going with the flow and not being fearful of uncertainty. In fact, much like an entrepreneur, the role of a professional improviser, whether it be comedic or musical, is to turn uncertainty into opportunity. Recognizing the importance of improvisation in the entrepreneurial process, our entrepreneurship program at TCU has had an ongoing relationship with the acclaimed Four Day Weekend improv troupe based in Fort Worth, who have previously served as executives-in-residence within our Institute of Entrepreneurship and Innovation.   

Keith Hmieleski is a professor of entrepreneurship, the academic director of the Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation and the Robert and Edith Schumacher Executive Faculty Fellow in Innovation and Technology. Photo by Glen E. Ellman.

How much should entrepreneurs rely on organizational improvisation and serendipity? You want to be selective; you don’t want to show up for work every day and be continually improvising every task. It should be strategic. And, in fact, research has shown that organizations and startups that are continually improvising in order to take on new and diverse opportunities tend to crash and burn. Startups or established organizations should be open to using it selectively and to building improvisational capabilities. In terms of serendipity, we are talking about unforeseen opportunities. They are, as Four Day Weekend calls them, “happy accidents.”

Entrepreneurs should certainly be open to happy accidents and the opportunities that they bring. Yet, all opportunities that may come via serendipity may not be equal. Some could bring you too far off course. In improvisation there is a concept referred to as “yes, and” where you build on every opportunity. In the business world this could sometimes result in biting off more than you can chew. Therefore, the key is balance and strategically taking advantage of serendipitous moments only when they fall within the path of the goals that you are trying to achieve. 

Prosocial behavior includes helping, cooperating, comforting and sharing. Why is it important for entrepreneurs to engage in prosocial behavior? One reason is to create an environment that people care about, so that they want to show up and feel like they are contributing toward something that is meaningful. This is especially important when you are in a labor market where it’s very difficult to attract and retain top talent. At some point, financial salaries are not going to be the differentiating factor in terms of why an individual selects one employer over another. There needs to be a sense that an individual worker can be the best of who they are while contributing to something that is bigger than themselves. 

What is the relationship between our inner lives and our professional success? One of the topics I’m researching now is the concept of calling as it pertains to entrepreneurship. Somebody who feels that their work is a calling perceives there to be alignment of their inner self or identity with their work. This is a key point that I focus on when I’m teaching entrepreneurship. I try to help students identify not only what their talents are, but also what they’re deeply passionate about, who they are, what their identity is and how they can combine these things to create entrepreneurial ventures that essentially become their calling. 

What opportunities are there for TCU students, alumni and friends interested in entrepreneurship?  We have an undergraduate major for Neeley students and a minor for any students outside of the business school, and we have an MBA specialization for graduate students. Through our institute we have a plethora of activities in which any TCU student, regardless of major, can participate, such as the Entrepreneurship Club, the Values and Ventures Business Plan Competition and the CREATE program aimed at systematically assisting students to test their entrepreneurial ideas and help to get them off the ground. For alumni and community friends, the institute offers many opportunities to get involved in mentoring, judging competitions or working with our students as interns. In addition, we have recently launched the Horned Frog Investment Network to bring together an empowering community of accredited investors to support the next generation of innovators.