Home Articles Intrapreneurship: A guide to harnessing the power of entrepreneurs within organisations

Intrapreneurship: A guide to harnessing the power of entrepreneurs within organisations


Conventional wisdom states that entrepreneurs are unmanageable and, thus, make poor employees. While it’s true that salaried entrepreneurs can prove a handful, the most successful companies in the world know the value of entrepreneurs and have systems in place to attract and harness them company-wide. Liz Cassidy looks at how companies can develop the entrepreneurs within their ranks and how entrepreneurs can develop their ideas within a corporate environment.

Can an entrepreneur flourish in a corporate environment or is it just too risky to employ them? An associate and I asked variations on this question recently in an online business forum and were flooded with responses. I was surprised by the passion the questions ignited, with about 60 percent strongly supporting the statement and the rest equally as passionate that an “internal entrepreneur” could not successfully fit within a corporate environment.

“Is it riskier? Well, I’ve worked with a number of serial entrepreneurs who were always looking for the next big thing,” one forum participant replied.

“When they got a ‘real job’, they generally viewed this as a necessary evil to earn money while they continued their search. They still frequently talked about starting stuff and often had projects on the side where they’d quit in a heartbeat if these ever took off. So, yes, it’s much riskier – they are a substantial flight risk and may take some good people with them if they ever get a good enough idea that will support them for 6-12 months.”

On the bright side, he said, with today’s staff turnover rates, this isn’t always so negative since many people leave anyway.
“They’ll quit if one of their side projects takes off,” another wrote. “They’ll take good people because they’re probably doing something far more interesting. They’re loyal to doing something interesting – whether or not that’s what your company needs.”

The view of those pessimistic about the value of the internal entrepreneur was best summed up by the following two comments. “It’s even more risky to foster entrepreneurs in small company structures where proximity with top management may generate conflicts.” And, “Most larger corporations don’t have or want an exit strategy. Almost all serial entrepreneurs do.”

On the other hand, Joe Mikitish, a systems engineer, said: “When hiring, I look specifically for people who are seasoned entrepreneurs and dreamers. I have found that the folks that I have hired have been successful and have subsequently helped me achieve my goals as well.”

And Jennifer Dirks of HR National noted: “I always recruit serial entrepreneurs and they are by far the best individuals for companies moving in the right direction. Companies that have a management team that can work with individuals as equals and keep them motivated will find long term value from these team players.”

The challenge, of course, is that organisations (or their leaders) do not understand what it takes to be an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs are fundamentally challengers. Organisations survive on conformism. Entrepreneurs are focused on finding new ways of doing the same things – whereas most large organisations say, “Follow my way!”
Professor Bala Chakravarthy of IMD, a leading global business university in Lausanne, Switzerland, gives an interesting example of a successful “internal entrepreneur” – international man of mystery 007.

Professor Chakravarthy says James Bond represents all the qualities that are needed. Bond is part of the British Civil Service – probably one of the most bureaucratic organisations of all time – yet he continues to defy systems, processes and rules, but survives because his commitment to cause and country is unquestionable. And he delivers consistent results, even though his individual missions don’t always succeed.

There are many myths about entrepreneurs – they are high risk takers, focused on the money, with short attention spans and a stubborn unwillingness to submit to an authority other than themselves.

Many of these myths have been debunked. However, there are some characteristics of successful entrepreneurs worth mentioning.

  • They are generally optimists.
  • They are passionate about their ventures.
  • They take moderate risks after looking at options and downsides.
  • They take full responsibility for what they do and its consequences.
  • They have a high values drive.
  • They are team players more we-focused than me-centric.
  • They have a ‘what if?’ mentality.
  • They will ‘die’ for their project.

Today, where the business world is moving faster than ever, product commercialisation times and life spans are decreasing and large companies can be overtaken by small, lightning-fast, ideas-driven businesses, these attributes in an employee can be highly valuable.

The entrepreneur can bring a spark to stagnant staff, and help keep companies in dynamic, fast-paced industries ahead of the game.

Any company expecting its people to be entrepreneurial must realise that the “pain” is changing the fabric of the organisation to make this possible – the “gain” is companies who create a culture of entrepreneurialism, even in an isolated sense, reap the benefits.

If there is a forgiveness culture where entrepreneurial minds are allowed to flourish, where they are allowed to “fail” and where they have a sense of safety to innovate and dare, then unique market-changing projects are the result. Think of the 3M model leading to the Post-it note, the Apple model leading to the Macintosh Computer or the current Google divisional entrepreneurial set ups.

It’s not easy for some managers to realise that those employees with an entrepreneurial flair can create value for the company. When a CEO has an entrepreneurial mindset and is prepared to sponsor internal entrepreneurs and give them autonomy (or make decisions directly) then individuals may flourish. When the sponsor makes resources available to back the project without stifling creativity with bureaucracy, then projects and products will flourish.

Woe betide the organisation that promises its internal entrepreneurs freedom to fail then expects them to ask permission. The internal entrepreneurs will walk out, or worse, will stay as embittered employees.

For the budding internal entrepreneurs out there, here are some guidelines for success within an organisational setting (which independent entrepreneurs don’t have to concern themselves with):

1. Internal entrepreneurs need to be more flexible than their standalone counterparts in their ability to work within constraints and systems. They tell themselves that this is a necessary evil and learn to deal with it. Their standalone counterparts reject this reality and either try to change it (which usually fails because the organisation culture is stronger than an individual) or quit the system.

2. Internal entrepreneurs have an ability to leverage the system against the system. So where internal processes could be used to bog an idea in red tape, an internal entrepreneur can use internal loopholes to allow the idea to float through.

3. They have an acute sensitivity regarding how much stretch the system they work within can take. And they stretch the system to near-breaking point and then pause.

4. Networking/relationships play a critical role in an internal entrepreneur’s success. They need the ability to build allies and find executive sponsors, who in a sense “protect” them while they do some “wild” things, or who give them the legitimacy to do so.

5. Successful internal entrepreneurs have an ability to clearly demonstrate that while their methods may appear “illicit”, their hearts are in the right place and they’re aligned to the same larger goal of organisational success as everyone else. This is a very powerful process and it leads to a dynamic where most of their detractors begin to see them as necessary allies in getting some things done that would normally not be possible. Kind of like old western towns hiring gunslingers to clean up the town – they didn’t like it, but they knew these guys were needed.

6. They ensure that when they do something outrageous, they have someone “watching their back”.

7. They have an acute sense of corporate politics and, while they don’t get ensnared in it themselves, they understand the minefield and are able to navigate it well.

8. Unlike their standalone counterparts, internal entrepreneurs have more patience. They realise that in order to work within the system, radical things might take a little more time. They have a high emotional resilience and an ability to articulate, communicate and market their strategies and ideas – to the appropriate audience!

9. Internal entrepreneurs are innovators who constantly see the opportunity behind and within the problem, where others merely see the problem. This opportunity, coupled with resources, is the project.

10. Internal entrepreneurs share credit and inspire confidence in their focused drive and passion for their project. They create a team of willing volunteers and constantly honour their executive sponsors.

11. Internal entrepreneurs whisper about their ideas and projects to a chosen few so that the bureaucratic many cannot stifle their innovation.

From the company’s perspective, if you are willing to back your internal entrepreneurs, you literally have to “farm” them. Create a place within the company that allows risk and channels it so that it’s acceptable and containable when there is failure. And there will be more failures than there will be successes, because there’s a fair chance the entrepreneurial efforts won’t succeed.

In a large organisation, you need to really plan for that when you design your “farm”. You need to come up with ways to provide them with everything they need to succeed – but make sure they’re actually being responsible. A good idea or a good entrepreneur does not a good business person make. You need to teach them to be better at the business – and they need to teach you how to take the risks that pay off.

The problem can be that too many employees want to go to the “farm”, so you need to make it something that you either support company wide, or that’s competitive so only the best get to the farm.

It is more important than ever to cultivate internal entrepreneurs and build the necessary culture to enable them to survive and thrive. The key is to keep them on task as though the project were a stand-alone organisation. Give them the budget and resources to achieve and they will astound you with results. Get out of their way!

You might make the best widgets in the world, but at some point you have to reinvent yourself or disappear. This is where the entrepreneur shines. They think differently and make things happen. What company doesn’t need that?

Liz Cassidy, founder of Third Sigma International, is an executive coach, speaker and trainer who helps clients achieve great business, professional and life results.

Photo: tombothetominator (Flickr)