In the article, Intrapreneurs – The Road Less Traveled, the focus was on why intrapreneurs take the road less traveled and what that means. Intrapreneurs also face another fork in the road on their journey – especially if they want to be a serial intrapreneur.
What is a serial intrapreneur? If you search for the term you only come up with a handful of entries. Most of them point you to articles on Serial Entrepreneurs with an ‘E’. Even Wikipedia didn’t have a section on serial intrapreneurs but they had one on, you guessed it – Serial Entrepreneurs.
Digging deeper there were only two definitions of serial intrapreneur that I could find. One by JP Nichols, host of the Serial Intrapreneur podcast, that read “A serial Intrapreneur is about the leaders who battle the status quo inside their own companies to innovate and drive change.” The other by Quora, “A serial intrapreneur is someone who innovates inside their jobs and company in any way they are able to: finding new working methods, software that better fit their goals, ways to stay motivated/inspire co-workers, seeking efficiency even in the smallest things”.
There must be more definitions out there for serial intrapreneur but after searching for a while it was time to move on. It seems that we still have a long way to go until the term Serial Intrapreneur becomes part of our lexicon.
A serial intrapreneur is an intrapreneur that continues to innovate, time after time, project after project, no matter what they are working on or where they are working on it or what their role is at the time.
They consistently and continually operate in the same way. You give them a problem and they solve it. You ask them to identify an opportunity and they find one. You ask them to create value and they identify ways to do it. You ask them to drive change and they lead the way. You ask them to take a leap and they calculate the risk before jumping. You ask them to do the impossible and they will give it their best. They are willing to do whatever you are willing to throw at them. They just want to make sure that you do.
A lot of intrapreneurs don’t have the luxury of being asked by their organizations to take on challenge after challenge. If that is the case intrapreneurs must choose to find their own challenges inside their existing organization or in a new one.
According to Ian Lavis, author of Rise of the Intrapreneur, “The concept is simple: your organization empowers employees to take the initiative and solve problems. They become entrepreneurs from within.” Or they leave to become intrapreneurs somewhere else.
This is the ultimate fork in the road for most intrapreneurs. How many times have we heard, “Should I stay or should I go?” The answer is always the same. If you have exhausted everything you can possibly learn there, pushed the limits of every organizational boundary, explored every possible opportunity, questioned authority one too many times, or if you are no longer challenged or just board, it may be time to go.
In her article, Creating Change from The Inside-Out, Laura Whitman states, “Intrapreneurs refuse to sit idly by while the world happens around them. They are interested in disrupting things.”
You can’t be a serial intrapreneur unless you continually innovate and it is not always possible to do that in one organization. That said there are serial intrapreneurs in very large, bureaucratic companies that approach the situation by recreating themselves and the work that they do. One serial intrapreneur in particular has spent over fifteen years in a Fortune 50 company navigating her way around organizational roadblocks by finding new opportunities for the company to explore. Then she takes charge of developing those opportunities, turning them over and moving on. The constant need and desire to be challenged and grow provides new and greater opportunities for her to stay energized and engaged.
No longer is she constrained by process and practices that stifle growth and innovation. She has become the spark that lights the fire for each new business. The freedom and flexibility enables her to expand her reach into new areas and to build a portfolio of startups within an existing organization. For now she has one of the best jobs in the company. Over time she may find the work less challenging, less exciting but for now it makes total sense. She has the benefits of a large organization and the independence to be entrepreneurial. Like all intrapreneurs the day may come when she decides to leave but by then she will have created substantial value for the organization and herself.
This particular situation is less prevalent today because organizations do not fully recognize the value and contribution of serial intrapreneurs. It is often only when the intrapreneur is gone that the loss will become more evident.
One concept that has emerged from this is called, “The Intrapreneurs Illness. Described as the widening gap between an institutions platitudes and the realities of innovating within organizations,” according to Hans Balmaekers. “Many innovation gurus refer to this contradiction as the new reality of organizational life. Causing frustration, disillusionment, wanderlust.” No wonder we see so much consternation among intrapreneurs.
The other option or fork in the road for serial intrapreneurs is to hop in and out of organizations to find challenges. Once they’ve accomplished their project they move on to the next opportunity, most likely in a new company. This was the path of another serial intrapreneur. He was lucky to have started his career in a Fortune 100 company but he soon realized that his company only invested in a few new innovation efforts each year. His ability to find creative solutions to some of the companies most pressing problems helped him build the confidence and competence he needed to excel. But despite his successful track record he found that he was not being challenged and he was hungry for something more exciting.
So he found an opportunity in a totally different industry that he knew nothing about. The opportunity enabled him to develop new and different capabilities. Once that project was completed he moved on to another project in the company. When that project was successfully completed he moved on to a new project in another company. Keep in mind that each of these projects kept him busy for 2-3 years at time but when they were completed and with no other opportunities in sight he’d move on. He worked in and out of both large and small companies which provided a unique perspective and helped him develop a diverse set of capabilities.
Needless to say this serial intrapreneur was also building a portfolio of successful projects along the way. He created value for each of the companies he worked for and eventually was able to create his own opportunities in other companies.
The companies that hired him were hiring him for his skills not for any one project. They seized the opportunity to leverage a set of skills and competencies that they did not currently have in their company. This serial intrapreneur was the catalyst that enabled these companies to become more entrepreneurial. They followed his lead and let him show them the way. Today, he is a successful management consultant helping large organizations implement intrapreneurship.
If you envision yourself as a serial intrapreneur you will eventually face this fork in the road. Do you stay or do you go? That is a decision only you alone can make. It’s not about having a career it’s about creating a future as a serial intrapreneur and these are the two paths you are likely to take. Both are great opportunities, each with their own challenges but they lead you to the same place. Developing your capabilities as an intrapreneur.
You may not have a choice like our first serial intrapreneur to stay engaged and thrive in one company for as long as she has by moving around from project to project, business to business. Most serial intrapreneurs are probably more like our second serial intrapreneur. Destined to move around from company to company which isn’t a bad thing.
In his article Integrating Entrepreneurship with Professional Leadership, Barry Dym says “The entrepreneurial journey is never straight or easy.”
Perhaps these are some of the reasons we don’t know much about serial intrapreneurs. They are either hidden inside these large organizations or hopping around from company to company. In his article, How Corporate Intrapreneurship Can Help Entrepreneurs, Vikram Upadhyaya, states “It’s not about creating intrapreneurs, it’s about finding and recognizing them.” Rest assure that they are out there and will continue to be out there.
We just need to find them and have them tell us their stories until we fully understand and appreciate the value and impact that serial intrapreneurs are having in companies, across industries and around the world.