What Entrepreneurs Can Learn From Academia: How To Engineer Your Team

There are a surprising number of parallels between academia and entrepreneurship. Both, of course, require creativity and innovation, but there is more to it than that. They both depend on building relationships, strong leadership, and trust between project stakeholders—or educator and student, as the case may be. The pursuit of knowledge can mean changing a field with new ideas and inventions or creating a new field altogether. The same is true for entrepreneurship, it’s more than just business—entrepreneurs change the world with their ideas.


Both fields have a focus on modernity. How do we take what we currently have or what we currently know, and reconsider it, reconfigure it and recreate it in a way that pushes things forward? How can we take an existing problem and solve it for current and future generations? Innovation is at the core of both academia and entrepreneurship, and these three strategies pulled from the academic world can benefit entrepreneurs.

Drive a Common Goal

Education leader Robert Bishop founded The University of South Florida (USF) Institute of Applied Engineering after years working in various departments within the educational field. Bishop, who is also the dean of the College of Engineering at USF, said shared inspiration is at the core of the program’s success. He has redesigned the engineering program to provide students with hands-on, impactful learning opportunities. Within the program, students work on projects that impact the Department of Defense, and they have the ability to learn while they are engineering essential elements that the department uses. In this way, the program is successful because they have a goal that is bigger than furthering education—the education itself impacts a wider range of people. 

When building a team as an entrepreneur, provide your employees with a larger mission than simply earning the company money. Help employees understand where their work is impacting the larger goal, and how they play a unique role in the process. This keeps teams motivated and united as they work toward innovation in the industry your company functions within.

Don’t Micromanage Your Employees

It’s important to delegate and give responsibility to members of your team. Bishop says he sets his students up for success by creating guidelines and expectations and then letting students explore, learn and build their projects on their own—all while observing from afar. Stepping back gives students a healthy sense of autonomy, which builds their confidence and allows creativity to flourish.

Often, an entrepreneur’s perfectionism or fixation with their company prevents them from entrusting even a small piece of the business function to someone else. This is a huge hindrance to growth, and it will wear down the employees who feel overlooked as well as the entrepreneur who is shouldering everything needlessly. 

It’s important that entrepreneurs make sure they are not micromanaging their teams. For companies and educational institutions to succeed and innovate, they need a wide range of input, thoughts, and perspectives to craft new ideas. Bishop says that, by giving his students freedom to challenge him or disagree with him on topics, he is cultivating open discussion, debate, and argumentation that will lead to the best and most creative solutions.

Allowing your employees to operate with more freedom—and even more responsibility—will encourage them to think of new solutions, come up with ideas on their own, and rise to the level of expectation you have for them.


Build Trust Over Time

Employees cannot successfully share your goals or operate autonomously unless they are in a trust-based relationship with management and leaders. The reverse is also true, management and leaders cannot succeed in those same missions without trusting their employees. This takes time, but cultivating trust is the most essential aspect of team building.

Bishop says it took time to cultivate trust in his educational institution because of past perceptions about the group. He focused his efforts on cultivating relationships with stakeholders, and he did this by facilitating open discussions. Face-to-face communication that is honest and direct can work wonders for trust. This strategy applies internally and externally; you can cultivate trust with employees the same way that you cultivate trust with customers—communication is key.

Academia and entrepreneurship are both concerned with innovation, but they need dedicated and structured teams to support this overall mission. It’s important for companies and educational institutions alike to cultivate trust, autonomy and a shared set of values in order for their employees and participants to succeed.


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