How to be an "Intrapreneur"

We need more innovative thinking. And we need it at scale. And we need it fast. The remaining question is who will lead the charge? Who will become these much needed "corporate entrepreneurs"?
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Group of young people sitting at a cafe, top view
Group of young people sitting at a cafe, top view

Every great innovation begins with an idea. Every great achievement requires a champion. Scientists. Explorers. Adventurers. Entrepreneurs.

For centuries, intrepid individuals have been tackling problems and seizing opportunities others either couldn't or wouldn't. And by doing so they have changed the way we live and work, time and again.

Consider all of the change that maverick individuals have largely brought about in the past 15 years alone: mapping the human genome, the rise of human-machine learning, the commonplace harnessing of big data across all sectors, the creation of the smart phone, the rise of social media, the internet of things, and apps that let us do virtually everything from the palm of our hands -- from banking to shopping to learning. These developments have transformed our world, and largely for the better.

New ways to tackle society's challenges

But it's hasn't been enough. We are still facing serious issues related to our ever more resource constrained planet and the inability of many of the world's governments to meet the basic needs of their citizens: nutritious food, safe shelter, quality education, affordable healthcare, and more.

So, we need more innovative thinking. And we need it at scale. And we need it fast. Enter the era of Corporate Social Innovation, where companies seek to build their businesses while tackling important societal problems at the same time. To learn more about this growing trend and how to make it happen within your company, check out this new report released by the World Economic Forum earlier today.

As the report outlines, we largely know what needs to be done and more and more leading companies are stepping up to the plate. The remaining question is who within these companies will lead the charge? Who will become these much needed "corporate entrepreneurs"? Who will pioneer this new breed of professional, most often referred to as an "intrapreneur"?

What is an intrapreneur?

What is an intrapreneur? Think of them as old fashioned "change agents" but change agents with a specific focus: to make or save the company money while tackling a pressing societal issue.

Who can become a successful intrapreneur? Well that's the good news: they can come from practically anywhere in the organization: marketing, supply chain, operations, finance, and more. And they don't have to be at the very top (C-suite) to be effective. In my experience, some of the most effective intrapreneurs come from upper/middle management.

As for the personality traits of these internal champions, they are much the same as those of a successful entrepreneur: curious, insightful, doggedly determined, strategically agile, etc. But there is one big difference that is critical to understand: while a successful entrepreneur can be bombastic, unrelenting and uncompromising, an intrapreneur needs to be viewed as a team player -- someone not out for themselves but out for the company.

Why? Because any big new idea hatched within a major corporation will ultimately require new resources and the cooperation of literally hundreds of people, most of whom won't report directly to the intrapreneur -- not at first anyway. So to be successful an intrapreneur needs to be a keen observer of human nature and organizational dynamics as well as a master in the art of persuasion. But with these skills, intrapreneurs can be real game-changers, so perhaps it's not surprising that they are also being more and more sought after by the world's leading companies.

This trend couldn't come at a better time because not only does the world need novel approaches and solutions to pressing social issues, but companies themselves need to figure out how to keep their talent engaged and motivated. Today, in countries like the U.S.A., Millennials are the largest segment of the workforce and according to a recent Deloitte survey fewer and fewer of them are loyal to their current employers.

In fact, this study finds that nearly 50 percent of those surveyed would, given the chance, leave their current employer within the next two years. This remarkable lack of allegiance represents a serious challenge to all businesses. However, it's not too late for employers to turn this around. The Deloitte survey also found that creating opportunities for Millennials to pursue purpose and profit simultaneously within their existing organizations is one of the best ways to bridge this loyalty gap.

Graphic by Deloitte

So despite the fact that companies are facing significant headwinds, there may be an elegant solution: companies need stable, prosperous environments in which to operate and grow their businesses; growth requires attracting and retaining the best talent -- including Millennial talent. Pursuing Corporate Social Innovation opportunities and turning to corporate intrapreneurs to lead these efforts could help both build the business and fill the talent pipeline. Could there be a more win/win/win solution?

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