We spoke with senior executives who had built million and billion dollar businesses for their organizations.  They shared with us some of the insights and lessons learned from those experiences and they spoke about the challenges and obstacles that got in their way.

A number of these executives were new to the role and didn’t see themselves as an intrapreneur or entrepreneurial leader inside their organization.  But they were…..

In fact many of them were way ahead of their time.  They not only paved the way for all the corporate entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs and social innovators that followed, they laid the foundation for understanding intrapreneurship from an insider’s perspective.

They spoke with us about the issues that stifled innovation and entrepreneurship inside their organization.  As well as the things that enabled them to be successful in their role.

Here are a few of their insights and lessons learned that they shared with us.

Entrepreneurial Leader: “Our CEO was a corporate entrepreneur. He was an innovator willing to take financial risks for longer term gains, even though we took a loss in the short term.”

Strategic Goals: “The new CEO championed the project because it helped him achieve his innovation goals. You need a champion who is visionary and entrepreneurial.”

Executive Sponsor: “Executives were interested in the project only if there was political gain in it for them. They were not willing to put their professional career on the line if they did not think it would succeed.”

Political Capital: “In our organization the CEO was the good cop, the project sponsor the bad cop. The CEO gave us political capital, the sponsor a dose of reality.  We needed both to keep things moving.”

Fuse to Short: “The pocket book was too shallow for what we were doing. The company was looking at this project as an expense not an investment.”

Operating Model: “The existing operating model was not good for the new initiative so we had to work around it. The issue was breaking down stovepipes and leveraging existing expertise in new ways, a task that even the most astute find challenging.”

Power: “Power and politics began to rear its ugly head an soon became an anchor that slowed us down. The politics surrounding our project were huge. They extended way beyond what was visible on the surface.”

Operating Committee: “Decisions were made at the operating committee. We had to present a solid case for the new product. Despite pressure to put money back in operations the CEO would intervene and allocate funds to new projects.”

Right Environment: “The right environment for corporate entrepreneurship includes funding, freedom, top management support and a global agenda. The company must have the appetite for this type of project for it to be successful.”

Change Agenda: “Our CEO made it clear that the train was leaving the station and that the company was going to change. His commitment and the support of senior management were critical for paving the way to make change happen.  It reinforced our mission.”

Measurements: “The existing measurements and metrics didn’t work for what we were doing. We needed to develop new measurements to track and monitor our progress.”

Being Entrepreneurial: “Large companies don’t want people to be entrepreneurial. In most companies there is no career future for corporate entrepreneurs.”

Independent Agent: “Eventually I got a reputation as an independent agent. Organizations don’t know how to deal with independent people.”

Resentment: “We were getting all the attention, funding and resources. We were the rising stars, I think we were a threat to the rest of the organization. They were not supportive so we had to find ways to do it on our own.”

Self-Awareness: “These types of initiatives force you to see what you are made of, your strengths and weaknesses. Self-awareness is a critical factor needed for success.”

Resistance: “We found that jealousy and resistance got in the way of integrating new business/product/service back into the organization.”

Deliverables/Execution: “Everything is harder and takes longer than you expect. We did not factor that into our plans.  There was little choice but to work around the clock or be late on our deliverables.”

Diversity: “Having a mix of internal and external people on the team shook things up and got us to think outside the box.”

Pressure: “The pressure was on us to deliver something that many thought was impossible and many people were waiting for us to fail. They were critical of the effort and were more willing to criticize than help.”

Failure: “If you had a prior track record of success you were allowed a margin of error. Otherwise there was no room for failure.  Failure was not tolerated.”

These are only a few of the insights and lessons learned that the executives shared with us.  These insights help us better understand some of the complexity of building intrapreneurship as a core competency inside an established organization.  But they also show us the value of active involvement and commitment by the CEO and senior level executives.  Threaded throughout these insights are things that CEOs did that supported and enabled intrapreneurship in their organizations.

Innovation and intrapreneurship are inexplicitly entwined.  So is leadership.  Not traditional leadership but entrepreneurial or transformative leadership.  CEOs and senior executives that were actively engaged in innovation and intrapreneurship in their organizations had a deeper and richer appreciation for the challenges of transformative innovation.  They were instrumental in helping their organizations achieve their innovation goals and objectives.

In his article, Why Every Company Needs a Chief Entrepreneur, Alexander Osterwalder spells out the growing need to have an entrepreneur at the top of the organization inventing the company’s future.  As noted in the article, “The best CEOs are excellent at growing and running a company within a known business model.  What they don’t do well enough is reinvent and innovate.”

That said, the most successful companies we spoke with had a CEO that could do both.

Leadership support should be encouraged by a clear mandate and through performance management metrics that promote intrapreneurship.  Active involvement in innovation projects is the best way to understand the nuances that support and impede progress.

Leadership of course is only one piece of the puzzle.  It is clear that these executives had to deal with a host of issues and roadblocks.  Despite these challenges every one of them told us that they learned an extraordinary amount about themselves and their organizations.  It was the experience itself that taught them how to be an intrapreneur.  One CEO told us he put the lessons learned from their innovation center into a case study to share with the rest of the organization.

Innovation and intrapreneurship begins and ends at the executive suite.  It requires strategic oversight and involvement.  If the CEO and board of directors don’t fully understand or commit themselves to innovation and intrapreneurship it will not fly.

What about your organization?  Is your CEO and senior executives involved, committed or sitting on the sidelines?

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