Are you an intrapreneur?

Employers are increasingly interested in encouraging intrapreneurs who think out of the box like an entrepreneur, but want the security of not working on their own, says Thom Dennis from Serenity in Leadership.

business innovation


Many established organisations are increasingly awakening to the value of intrapreneurship, the act of behaving like an entrepreneur while working within a large organisation, and looking to nurture it. Hard to quantify, the prevalence of intrapreneurs varies across industries, organisations, and regions, but the current five-generational workforce, globalisation and the need for new solutions in a VUCA world [a world characterised by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity] mean organisational innovation is very much in demand.

Intrapreneurship enables employees to risk-take, be innovative and use these skills to benefit their organisation and themselves. Without starting their own business or creating something completely from scratch as an entrepreneur would, the intrapreneur helps established businesses to be more competitive and adaptable with the development of new products or services, leading to possible increased efficiency, social change, corporate innovation and new revenue streams. Intrapreneurs use the company’s resources rather than their own to come up with business solutions, explore market opportunities and add value to services and products.

Coined in the 1970s the term is still not that widely used, but academia has looked at it for some time. Research shows that intrapreneurship is an important factor in the growth and development of companies. One study indicates that intrapreneurship helps innovation, creates agility to adapt to external change, enhances performance and reinvigorates businesses. Another also revealed that nurturing intrapreneurial behaviour leads to permanent organisational development, growth and improvement.

Giants like Apple, Amazon, and Starbucks share the commitment to foster the intrapreneurial spirit. Google’s infamous ‘20 per cent rule’, requires its employees to spend a certain amount of their working time on original ideas that will benefit the company, laying the groundwork for tomorrow’s success and sustainability. Equally, small businesses and non-profit organisations can benefit from time for reflection, bold problem-solving and out-of-the-box thinking although it can be harder because resources such as time, capacity, space and finances are more limited.

How can employers support, inspire & create intrapreneurs?

Identify their attributes
Intrapreneurs are easy to identify in many cases. They are visionary thinkers. They show initiative and drive, are proactive and resourceful, have excellent market knowledge, can adapt within their career, happily take calculated risks and ask for flexibility. They often can breathe life into future or dormant projects.

Nurture and enable them
Intrapreneurs need facilitating mechanisms and an atmosphere that supports their creative drive. By allocating dedicated time and space, employees can brainstorm and collaborate without the limitations of their regular work environment. Ensure your intrapreneurs have access to whatever possible resources they may need, whether that is flexibility and novel ways of working, tools, training, mentorship or coaching, new technology or financial aid, or a dedicated space and help them successfully realise their ideas. When nurtured, an intrapreneur is likely to be more engaged and perform better whilst at the same time benefitting the business.

Examine how risk is perceived
Encourage a mindset that views failures as learning opportunities and removes the fear of failing. Culture is often flagged by existing intrapreneurs as an important factor, so take a good look and decide if you need to make any changes, seeking expert help, because changing a culture is a uniquely important, and difficult, process. Assess how risk is perceived, how decisions are made, and if experimentation is being encouraged. In 2020, McKinsey reported that 70% of transformation initiatives failed primarily as a result of challenges associated with people and organisational culture. Let them suggest and implement improvements in customer experience, emerging market trends, cross-functional communication, and efficiency.

Reward them appropriately
By recognising and celebrating the success of intrapreneurs, companies show that they place value on innovation and creative thinking and have a better chance of retention. Different people will be motivated by different rewards, so a tailored approach is needed, from opportunities for professional development, appropriate incentives and bonuses, to public recognition or award ceremonies to show the company’s appreciation. This can in turn serve as a powerful tool for inspiring other employees to contribute meaningfully.

Always upskill an intrapreneur
A report from The Possibilists highlights that 88.4% of changemakers consider skill development a basic need. They value learning, growth and an ability to evolve.

Adopt a transformational leadership style
To succeed intrapreneurs need buy-in from their managers. They value inspirational leadership, managerial receptiveness, autonomy and a tolerance for failure. Leaders need to ask questions, listen deeply, build rapport, and action the implementation of good ideas whilst calculating risk. They need to build trust and encourage ideas and knowledge-sharing.

Welcome problem-solving solutions
Remove managerial barriers and red tape. Encourage all colleagues to identify problems and address them with creative ideas, proactively looking for how to improve the business. A chemist at 3M Dr Silver developed a low-tack adhesive, which was initially considered “a solution without a problem” until a collaboration with colleague Art Fry led to a realisation of the potential of the adhesive for creating a reusable bookmark leading to the creation of the billion-dollar success of the Post-it Note.

Develop a clear vision and purpose
Having a clear and shared goal that is grounded throughout the whole organisation provides employees with a sense of direction. When intrapreneurs understand how their efforts will contribute to the organisation, they feel motivated to tackle new ideas.

Build a diverse team
Diversity brings varied skills and perspectives to the table so create an environment where all are welcome, they are trained in cultural intelligence to get the most out of the diversity of the team, and differences are valued. Intrapreneurs are not necessarily lone rangers and are often team players and frequently become excellent leaders.

Actively show deep listening
When employees know their voices are heard and won’t be dismissed, they will feel encouraged to contribute to the flow and development of new ideas. Regional manager of a McDonald’s branch Dick Brams came up with a simple idea – meals for children. Two years later, Happy Meals was launched and became a bestseller.

*Thom Dennis us CEO of Culture and Leadership Specialists at Serenity in Leadership.

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