Agents on the Inside

Do You Have What It Takes to be an Intrapreneur?

With the 2015 Intrapreneurship Conference concluding in New York, we thought it was about time to answer the ever-elusive question: “what IS an intrapreneur anyway, and why should I be one?” Well my friends, courtesy of Lindsay Clinton (Intrapreneurship Conference speaker, innovator-extraordinaire, and Director of SustainAbility), we have some answers for you. 

SustainAbility, a think tank and consulting firm that helps large corporations achieve social and environmental impact, defines a social intrapraneur as follows:

Social intrapreneur, n. 1 Someone who works inside major corporations or organizations to develop and promote practical solutions to social or environmental challenges where progress is currently stalled by market failures. 2 Someone who applies the principles of social entrepreneurship inside a major organization. 3 One characterized by an ‘insider-outsider’ mindset and approach.

And that is just what Ms. Clinton has been focusing on ever since she moved from the world of impact investing in India to the halls of SustainAbility. Based on her experiences inside a for-profit firm working to develop other social-minded leaders in some of the world’s biggest corporations, here’s what you need to know to succeed as an intrepreneur.

Intrepreneur vs. Social Intrepreneur: There’s a Difference

Anyone has the capacity to be an internal company changemaker. In-fact, according to Ms. Clinton, 80% of the people at the Intrapreneurship Conference were self-identified “do-ers” who actively challenge the status quo to get their initiatives through the pipeline.

But a “do-er” does not a social intrapreneur, make.

It is not sufficient to simply advocate for change inside a corporation. To be a social intrapreneur, you have to utilize your influence to work towards social impact. What sets these people apart is a strong moral compass that guides their innovation in the direction of addressing social and environmental needs. 

Adaptability is Key

Some of the best intreprenuers are what Harvard Business School likes to call “tri-sector athletes.” These people can flow seamlessly between the public, private, and non-profit sectors and use their combined knowledge to catalyze change. But because these arenas often present different barriers to success, adaptability is essential. 

Lindsay discovered the need to adapt firsthand when she made the drastic shift from social enterprise at Intellecap India to the world of Fortune 500 companies. Suddenly she found that not only did the type of business change, but the very words used to define and describe value were completely different! 

Speak Their Language, Or Miss Out

There are plenty of jibes to be made about consultants using jargon like “value propositions” and “leveraging synergies,” but the reality is, if you want to create change inside a company, you have to learn how to speak the language. If you are unable to get people to understand why your innovation is important, impactful, and relevant, you won’t get very far. For that reason, it is absolutely essential to align both your vocabulary and your metrics with those of your company. So in a for-profit corporation, being able to communicate in the rhetoric of your colleagues and build a strong business-case are indispensable to your success.

Make Mosaics, Build Bridges

While there is certainly value to specializing in your job, sometimes the best intrapreneurs’ resumes look more like mosaics than cohesive narratives. One of Ms. Clinton’s fellow conference presenters, Jennifer Holland (Program Manager of Google Apps for Education) explained that jumping from department to department during her time at Google Inc. may have appeared scattered to the outside world. However, because she was able to build relationships with leaders of various departments, she could act as a bridge bringing different spheres of Google together to promote more sustainable and accepted innovation. If you don’t get the buy-in from key stakeholders, your innovation may be dead in the water before you even draft your first memo.

Be Persuasive

People and companies are inert—they like to stick to what they know. So if you want to shake things up, you have to, HAVE TO be a master of persuasion. No one person can go it alone in introducing change from the inside, so you need to bring a team on-board who will champion your ideas and stick their necks on the line when the going gets tough. 

And sometime, in order to convince for-profit institutions to adopt solutions to serious world problems, it takes more than encouraging your equals. Indeed, the most effect intrapreneurs are those who are able to inspire company leadership to take action. Lindsay called this the ability to induce a “moral transformation,” leading to a shift in thinking at the very top of the corporate structure. But whether you work your way from the bottom-up or the top-down, being persuasive is imperative. 

Good People are Needed on the Inside

This brings me to my last take-away from my conversation with Ms. Clinton. I know I struggle with the dichotomy of working from the inside-out or the outside-in, as do many of my peers. Lindsay’s answer is this: if you are struggling with that question, you are desperately needed. You are needed to be the instigator, the thought-leader, the provocateur inside of the Fortune 500 companies of the world. Good people are needed on the inside of for-profits, and sometimes, that is where you will find the opportunity to create the biggest impact. For all the problems that one may have with Walmart (and I have A LOT), whoever worked inside that company to raise the minimum wage affected the lives of over 500,000 people. That is no small feat. And that ability to create wide-scale social impact is exactly what is attracting so many young innovators to the role of “inside agent” in large organizations. 

So perhaps the question you should be asking yourself is not “why intrapraneurship,” but rather, “do I have what it takes?” If the answer is yes, there is a whole world of social problems that need your leadership. Go out and fix them.