Skip to Content
Skip to Section Navigation
Skip to Footer
Notice: Work on a new CareerHub site is underway and will be in-progress over the next year. During this time, the platform will have limited functionality.
Users will be unable to save results from activities, and some of the downloadable content (e.g., PDFs) may no longer be available.

Success At Work

The entrepreneurial employee

The entrepreneurial employee by Larry Smith


The majority of the graduates of the University will be employees, and a lesser number will choose to start their own ventures. Both are equally worthy avenues to accomplishment. Which you choose will be your decision, based on your present goals, interests and circumstances. Nevertheless, the University of Waterloo and The Centre of Career Action want to help you take your talent to its highest expression. This means you are maximizing your contribution to your employer and to your community. In other words, you are using your talent to its best purpose, the purpose that provides the most impact you are capable of. When you are pursuing your career to maximum effect, you become an entrepreneurial employee. Working as an independent entrepreneur is discussed on The independent entrepreneur page.

Explore more entrepreneurship skills with Larry Smith, an Adjunct Associate Professor and the Director and Founder of The Problem Lab, and attend workshops offered at the Centre for Career Action.

What exactly does it mean to be an entrepreneurial employee?

In the past, employees were just supposed to “do their job”, by completing their assigned tasks correctly, reliably and on time. And usually a specified task was repeated with minimal change for long periods of time. It was true for almost all workers, including those in jobs requiring university or college education. This workplace model is rapidly disappearing for all professional work, and indeed for much of the world of work.

By contrast, entrepreneurial employees go beyond the instructions and expectations of their employers. They use their initiative to find problems, alert their employers to these problems, look for solutions and advocate the solutions. Often they end up leading the implementation of the solution. This maximizes the use of your talent because you are in effect using your initiative to create your own work, or at least part of it. This implies a close fit between your goals, capabilities and experiences and the work you are doing.


  1. Find problems
  2. Find or develop solutions to problems
  3. Advocate the solutions to the problems
  4. Implement solutions to problems

As you will see below, this definition of entrepreneurship is evolving to meet the needs of today’s world.

Why is there a rising demand for entrepreneurial employees?

The demand for entrepreneurial employees has long existed, but recently the need for such employees has accelerated. It has been driven by several factors characteristic of our modern world.


First, competitive pressures continue to rise and there is no end in sight. There are steadily more competitors and they compete ever more intensely. This is happening because more and more countries are engaging in global trade. This means both more competing companies and more competing workers. The number of postsecondary graduates is also rising around the world and at this time, more than 75 million postsecondary students are enrolled. At the University of Waterloo, over 33,500 full-time students are included in that figure and the average grade of students accepted is greater than 90%, so you need to stand out beyond academics! If you are not sure how, then book a customized appointment at The Centre for Career Action to focus on strategizing your next career steps — discover what you offer and the impact you want to make. You can book career development appointments in person, by phone, or by Skype.

Second, technology is itself a source of competition. A new technology competes with an old technology, and if it is superior, the new technology wins the marketplace. This causes entire industries to shrink, individual companies to disappear and certain jobs to be eliminated altogether.

Computing in particular has had a major impact on the nature of work. In the past, even much of “knowledge” work was repetitious. Now computers do more and more of the repetitious work, work they are especially good at. For example, as a result of software innovations, fewer accountants and engineers are employed than would be the case in the absence of these technical advances.

The primary result of these factors is a rising standard of performance for everyone and for every kind of venture. There is a relentless demand for employees to “do more with less.” Many people respond to this demand for greater performance by accepting a mounting workload, with less security or reward than would have been available in the past. This accounts for the fact that so many people are rightfully concerned about long hours, workplace stress and the challenges of work-life balance.

Finally, the pace of all change is rising very quickly. The social and economic environment is highly dynamic, changing sometimes within months. This has major implications for all kind of workplaces. If the changes are so rapid that the “bosses” cannot keep up with them, then their instructions may no longer be appropriate or even useful.

The logical conclusion

For all the above reasons, employers have little choice but to ask for more initiative, vision and willingness from their employees. In today’s dynamically competitive world, change happens so quickly and the consequences of a mistake can be so serious that employees cannot just wait for their manager to have all the answers. They must look for new problems or opportunities themselves; they must find and suggest ideas and solutions on their own. This is not necessarily what employers want; it is simply what they are increasingly required to do.

Moreover, using your resourcefulness to find and solve problems also helps you remain up-to-date, innovative and relevant. Looking for problems and opportunities is by definition non-routine and therefore may keep your role necessary and you employed.

How do you start becoming an entrepreneurial employee?

Recognize that there are differing degrees of entrepreneurial work. You might start by respectfully asking questions that go beyond the posted job description. And as you develop a better understanding of your work accountabilities, ask how what you are doing relates to the larger unit’s responsibilities. Investigate why certain tasks are being performed. In addition to learning more about your workplace, you are exhibiting an interest in your work and curiosity about the overall organization. Later, you can ask about apparent problems, inquiring whether they are important, or whether you have misunderstood them. This demonstrates both your initiative and your commitment to being particularly productive. Of course, also consider your workplace dynamics and approach problem solving in a way that is deemed professional, sincere and timely. You must be contributing effectively and succeeding in your core role before finding opportunities and problems outside your main duties and reach. But if you do no more than your defined job, you put yourself at risk of missing both immediate and longer-term opportunities.

Consider the employer response

While the need for entrepreneurial employees is driven by long-term social and economic trends, not every employer recognizes this need or its urgency. If you encounter a lack of support for your initiative, questions, or suggestions, you need to be mindful of several considerations. First, especially in large organizations, you may be in a unit where the importance of entrepreneurial employees is not valued, even though elsewhere in the organization it is. In such a circumstances, it would be wise to consider whether you should move to another part of the organization over time. If you believe, after careful thought and investigation, that your initiative is not welcome, then you should consider looking elsewhere for employment opportunities

Consider your own personal values when trying to decide whether to stay or leave. Your values can provide purpose and direction, and having a clear sense of these is one of the best ways to determine whether or not you will enjoy a position. Studies show that successful, satisfied, and motivated employees are almost always involved in careers in which their values are respected and reinforced. When values are not satisfied or respected, burnout can set in, often very quickly. But also consider that if your employer does not respect and welcome your initiative, then your full capability is not being used. Your employer’s respect for your other values should not be substitute for this essential condition.

Test yourself

University of Waterloo

Centre for Career Development