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Foster “Intrapreneurs” Through Leadership

April 20, 2017, 07:00 AM
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These days, there is much discussion about the entrepreneurial spirit and how to capture that essence within an organization – in particular, touching high value team members and executives with it, even though they may have never founded a company (and perhaps never will). But in reality the challenge is inspiring them to create and innovate, and bring new life and sustained value to your organization. In other words, what you really want are “intrapreneurs” – people who understand the essential principles of entrepreneurship, but who can apply that knowledge to their respective internal roles.

Intrapreneurship Explained

The concept of intrapreneurship – a term first coined by Gifford Pinchot III in a 1978 paper written with his wife, Elizabeth – was popularized by Steve Jobs in his famous 1985 "back to the garage" Newsweek interview. In that interview, Jobs said: "The Macintosh team was what is commonly known as an intrapreneurship…a group of people going, in essence, back to the garage, but in a large company."

Basically, what Jobs was describing was that the team was given the freedom to act like entrepreneurs, but within the support system of a company.

One critical error many organizations make—accidentally or implicitly—is they create a culture that stifles creativity, which in turn negates an intrapreneurial system. After spending hours and days, sometimes even weeks and months, going through an employee selection process that is supposed to garner the brightest and most ambitious picks, why stuff them into a system that will dampen their light and hamper their ambitions?

What was the purpose of picking them if not to harness their capabilities to help your organization flourish?

Benefits of Being Creative

A creative culture and management structure incubates ideas and supports internal problem solving, which is essential to nourish employees' KSAs—knowledge, skills, and abilities—and decrease turnover. After all, no one wants to bash into a glass ceiling when attempting to proffer ideas and innovations; and an organization benefits from leveraging the knowledge and experiences of those employees who possess certain KSAs better than anyone else.

Leaders should encourage a person or team to take on a pet project and make it into a new revenue generator within the company. Your management style and structure should support such activities. This can sometimes be so successful that the organization may someday partner with an external organization to create a joint venture. Other times, that project can spin off into a completely independent company.

Set the Table for Intrapreneurs

As the leader of an organization, it's imperative for you to develop potential intrapreneurs. To do this, first you want to support an intrapreneurial culture and teach people the skills they need to be innovators. Then, free up people to think critically on their own, while giving them the space to innovate and providing support from the organization.

Many organizations do this. Google, for instance, gives its employees up to 20 percent of their time to develop projects that relate to the business. GMAIL was created this way. Another example: 3M encourages its workforce to devote 15 percent of their time to playing around and developing new products. That's how we got “Post-It Notes.” Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg hosts hack-a-thons, which spawned the platform’s "Like" button.

Re-invent Your Culture

Re-inventing your culture into one that supports intrapreneurship starts with you and your leadership style. If you practice what I call ABLE Leadership, you can help foster intrapreneurs within your corporate culture. This system of leadership revolves around four principles: Analyze, Build Relationships, Look at Processes, and Execute and Repeat.

Intrapreneurs need some free time to analyze their surroundings and their projects and processes. This is where you can give them a hand. This doesn’t mean simply giving them “thinking time," but also giving them the resources they need to play around with whatever idea strikes their fancy. That could mean extra materials or information. You can demonstrate this through your own leadership style by making it a habit to analyze your company's processes, and including stakeholders throughout.

Intrapreneurs are like entrepreneurs in that they need to build relationships, albeit mainly within the company. This helps them get what they need to work on their projects. Collaboration can lead to organization-wide learning. Leaders should demonstrate to managers and employees how best to interact so they can access the information and resources they need. Encourage innovative instincts and allow flexibility within daily routines. Let managers and employees own their tasks at any level so they are empowered to make informed and critical choices that lead to change or new and improved products.

Demonstrate to your intrapreneurs how to look critically at processes. Being able to break down a process or problem into its granular state will open their minds to new ideas on how to do things or even create new products and services. Here, you can allow people to accept personal responsibility for their actions, much as entrepreneurs do. They can take on a task and either succeed or fail, but to inspire intrapreneurship they need to know that whatever the result, the organization has their backs.

Empower these intrapreneurs to execute their ideas. Show them how to present what they've discovered and direct them toward the right person in the organization who can help them bring their discoveries to fruition. Then, encourage them to repeat their analysis in other areas that interest them.

This should be a cyclical process: Find something that warrants improvement or change, analyze the components, build relationships that will garner assistance in making improvements or creating something new, look at the processes to ensure efficiency, then execute the findings by testing and presenting the discovery to the people or person who can make things happen.

Executive Commitment is Crucial

To harness the entrepreneurial spirit and build intrapreneurship into your organization to create sustained value, executive commitment is crucial. Why? Because the organization is ultimately what creates and provides the conditions that foster individual intrapreneurial mindsets for the purpose of opening all levels of employees' minds.

Look at your organization and your management style. Are people free to create? Are they encouraged to own their processes without fear? Do they have access to resources (both personnel an material), needed to innovate or create? If not, make the commitment to take stock of your own management style and see how it shapes your culture. Then change things up. Open up. Open your organization, and start fostering your own intrapreneurs.


RJ Grimshaw
President & CEU | UniFi Equipment Finance
RJ Grimshaw is the President and CEO of UniFi Equipment Finance, a Bank of Ann Arbor wholly owned equipment finance subsidiary that is headquartered in Ann Arbor, Mi. UniFi was founded in 1978, and serves manufactures, distributors and resellers in four main market segments which include industrial, specialty markets, technology, and health care. Reach RJ at rgrimshaw@unifiedge.com and on twitter @rjgcoach. Learn more about UniFi Equipment Finance at unifiedge.com
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