BRASS TACKS: Finding, empowering and cultivating ‘intrapreneurs’

Successful firms are coming to realize that their success is not a “forever” thing. The shelf life of entire companies is shrinking almost as fast as the shelf life of their products and services.

For years, internal research and development departments were seen as the launching pad for new endeavors that would keep an enterprise “fresh.” However, sad experience has shown that it’s a long leap from drafting table to store shelf. Good ideas do not easily or quickly become good products. A great deal of entrepreneurial ingenuity and effort is needed to successfully implement an idea.

All too often, otherwise capable managers do not harbor the unique personal traits needed to introduce and sustain new, innovative initiatives. While most are good at managing that which already exists, few have the ability to do the kinds of things required to actually create a new business.

Enter the intrapreneur. The intrapreneur works within an established enterprise with the mission of developing entirely new product lines, functions or business opportunities. The intrapreneur is officially charged with the responsibility of establishing a new business initiative within an existing enterprise.

Sure, a lot of effort is expended today in companies in much heralded, but less-than-enthusiastic and short-lived, campaigns for “innovation” and “progress.” But the truth of the matter is that inertia commonly stifles initiative, and foreign, creative managerial “tissue” is generally rejected.

Just like railroaders, who didn’t want to jeopardize Pullman ticket sales by attempting diversification into newfangled air transportation and not in the transportation business, many business operators fail to see the need to cultivate change and, in fact, condone concerted efforts to squeeze out nonconformists. “We’ve got a good thing going. Why tinker with it?” becomes the common conference room refrain.

This is why small companies typically produce more innovations than large ones. It’s also the reason that, for decades, small, independent businesses have produced most of the job growth in the United States.

Finding the innovators

While all managers should demonstrate an entrepreneurial flair in the administration of company affairs, a composite “executive” style, by itself, will not make the critical difference. The change-maker within an organization must be a dyed-in-the-wool, card-carrying entrepreneur who lives and breathes innovation and who is undaunted by change-averse “resisters.”

Hard-charging business builders like this would actually be labeled entrepreneurs if they were out in the world on their own, unsheltered by the corporate umbrella. Within the corporate structure, however, these movers-and-shakers are almost universally referred to as “intrapreneurs,” people with entrepreneurial talents working “intracorporately” to create the “new and different,” to create new products and services or new and better ways of producing the old.

Since these corporate soldiers function more like “guerillas” than “grunts,” they are not universally loved by their “straight” compatriots. They are, like classic entrepreneurs, self-confident and determined, with a “damn the torpedoes” mentality. Often, they are proven entrepreneurs who have been recruited from their own pursuits outside the company. Sometimes they are found within the corporation, typically restive souls who were underutilized and unhappy, just waiting for the right opportunity to “do their own thing.” Peter Drucker has called them “monomaniacs with a mission.”

The trick for corporate CEOs is to find these latent innovators and emancipate them before they are subsumed by the system, or jump ship in an effort to realize their dreams.

To bring success to an enterprise, these individuals must be given their heads and empowered to make a business out of a subsidiary venture or new product or service line. They must have P&L and balance sheet accountability. The intrapreneur’s salary, pension plan and perks cannot be his or her primary motivation. Independence, freedom to create and do something well and the self-satisfaction derived from realizing a goal along with actual or “virtual” equity in the enterprise must be their fundamental turn-ons. If this isn’t the case, you’ve tapped the wrong person to run your “enterprise within your enterprise.”

True intrapreneurs, like their “entre” counterparts, prefer incentive-based rewards and a generous “piece of the action.” These talented people should be able to earn, in total, much more than their salaried colleagues in line and staff positions of the firm.

Intrapreneurs, like their fellow entrepreneurs, are self-confident, determined, desire freedom and independence, want to accomplish a major goal, want incentive-based rewards, are willing to assume risk and from time to time will need input from the “top dog” in the organization. This, naturally, makes them demanding, difficult to deal with, dissident and downright disruptive — all the traits necessary for singular success in today’s competitive world. nhbr

Paul Willax is a professor of entrepreneurship and chairman of the Center for Business Ownership Inc., Amherst, N.Y. He also is the author of the book, “Brass Tacks Tips for Business Owners,” available at If you have a question or suggestion for his column, or to receive a free, weekly e-mail newsletter, “Brass Tacks BrainFood,” write to

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