The world as we know it has changed dramatically and things may never be the same again.  Yet, during this time we’ve seen a marked improvement in our environment and in humanity. The very things that social intrapreneurs have been fighting for and advocating for decades.

It is now time to shine a spotlight on social intrapreneurs.

A social intrapreneur is an entrepreneur inside an existing organization that is creating new products, services, processes or businesses that have a social or environmental impact.

The emergence of social intrapreneurs has been in response to rising expectations about the role of business in society.  Today we can no longer ignore the warning signals about what we are doing to our planet when we cannot see clear skies over polluted cities or clean waterways. Nor can we dismiss the impact of business and globalization on the health and well-being of our citizens.

Social intrapreneurs are focused on driving social change and addressing unmet needs in the market that generate long term value for their organizations and society. They understand the role that business can play in contributing to society while still making money. They know what it will take to do both.

The challenge for social intrapreneurs is finding a voice during this economic crisis. Especially when the very survival of many organizations is at stake.

Tania Ellis, author of The New Pioneers defines social intrapreneurs this way. “Social intrapreneurs are corporate change-makers – leaders or employees who build their actions on inner values and apply the principles of social entrepreneurship by developing socially innovative solutions that have both ethical fiber and business potential for mainstream companies.”

Social intrapreneurs have an opportunity to turn a bad situation into one that promotes a better future.

Like corporate entrepreneurs, social intrapreneurs have the resources of the organization at their disposal, brand equity, talent, and financial support to pursue projects that can have an impact in the market. The only difference is that social intrapreneurs are more interested in transforming the way business operates than monetary rewards, although they work toward both. They want to create lasting social change. It is their belief that an organization can do well at the same time they do good. They are more conscious about the social and environmental impact the organization will have on the people they do business with.

So, what does it take to be a social intrapreneur? Is the skill set different? What do social intrapreneurs do? What do they look like? Those were the questions I asked myself before embarking on my journey to see if and how social intrapreneurs were different than corporate entrepreneurs.

The goal was to determine if social intrapreneurs possessed the same key competencies as corporate entrepreneurs. Our prior research had found that corporate entrepreneurs were in fact a distinct group of individuals inside organizations. They were true mavericks, looking for new opportunities that were outside the scope of business as usual. They were focused on transformational innovations that had the potential to generate significant financial growth for their organization. Unlike social intrapreneurs they were less concerned about social or environmental impact.

Prior academic research had identified a few key attributes for social intrapreneurs which helped set the stage for my research. This academic research had found some consistency across mindsets, skills and behaviors.

According to a study at Cranfield University, “Social intrapreneurs demonstrated some dominant behaviors in the process of becoming aware of societal challenges and their approach to resolving them. Three behaviors were most common: persistency and self-belief, learning, and outreach.” This research went on to describe key skills that social intrapreneurs possess; marketing and communications, developing in-depth business case for action, designing and implementing a project, working with partners, deep knowledge of business and the ability to inspire others. This was a good starting point for going deeper.

The findings from our research showed that social intrapreneurs have their own distinct set of competencies. Some of them were the same as corporate entrepreneurs but many were different.

Interestingly social intrapreneurs are more closely aligned and connected with the core business than corporate entrepreneurs. Leveraging existing assets in new ways for social good was more important than developing a blue sky idea. Having a deep understanding of the core business was important to knowing how to navigate, influence and solicit support. Interpersonal skills and collaboration were far more important. Social intrapreneurs are more structured, disciplined and process oriented. They are more strategic and analytical than corporate entrepreneurs.

We worked with senior executives across a wide spectrum of industries in the United States, Europe and Asia. These individuals were responsible for their organizations social innovations, corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts or social initiatives. Each of these individuals exhibited behaviors and competencies that set them apart from their peers.

In addition, we worked with industry experts, foundations and organizations focused on developing social intrapreneurs; The League of Intrapreneurs, Ashoka, the BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt and we leveraged existing research from the Skoll Foundation, Cranfield University and Bainbridge Graduate Institute.

A few of the key insights about social intrapreneurs included the following:

  1. Aligning market and customer needs to the business is critical
  2. Being independent and politically savvy was important
  3. A deeper understanding of the core business was needed to succeed
  4. Higher levels of collaboration and partnership was required
  5. Effective and passionate communication was needed to gain support
  6. Energy and vitality was required to push through barriers
  7. Dealing with complexity and uncertainty was extremely important
  8. Sharing information, instructing others, and influencing people was key
  9. Flexibility and resilience was needed to deal with set-backs
  10. Self-confidence and personal power was needed to stay the course

All of these insights helped refine our understanding of what it takes to be successful social intrapreneur inside an established organization. The Social Intrapreneur Profile™ was developed from this research. It is a success profile that provides a comprehensive and in-depth analysis of the competencies and behaviors that social innovators need to be effective in that role.

It’s like a GPS for your innovation journey!

Recently we worked with the League of Intrapreneurs to create the League IQ,  an assessment tool designed to help social intrapreneurs and social innovators understand their own intrapreneurial orientation – key competencies, mindset, thinking process, decision making, propensity to act, self-awareness, presence, brain dominance, and engagement. Key characteristics that enable social intrapreneurs to be effective and successful as an innovator inside of an established organization.

The League IQ not only helps you see yourself more clearly. it helps you understand the gaps that exist between you and the rest of the organization.  Enabling you to find new and creative ways to close those gaps so you can move your project forward.

Social intrapreneurs are needed more than ever but you can’t leverage this valuable resource until you find them.  Both the Social Intrapreneur Profile™ and League IQ help you do just that.

It’s time we started to look to social intrapreneurs to help solve some of today’s pressing problems.

Who are the social intrapreneurs in your organization? What are you doing to identify and develop them?


This article was originally published in 2014 and updated in 2020.

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