The impact of the current crisis has put extraordinary pressure on CEOs and executives to react quickly, deal with uncertainty, experiment with new ideas, reallocate resources, accelerate decision making and drive change needed to deal effectively with this new environment.

It has challenged them to adapt to a new way of operating that is foreign to most executives.  They have had to change their mindset and their actions to align with a new reality – dealing with the unknown.  It has also given them time for reflection, time to assess their own leadership style, and time to enhance their communication skills.  It has driven them to become more open, transparent, and humane.

CEOs recognize that existing strategic plans may no longer make sense.  That the current operating environment may be getting in their way – creating barriers to higher levels of productivity.  That organizational policies and procedures designed to streamline processes may be too rigid and inflexible – stifling innovation and growth.   That leadership practices that worked in the past may be ineffective moving forward.  That there is a shift taking place that will change the direction and culture of the organization.

More importantly CEOs have a deeper appreciation for all stakeholders especially workers that have become energized, more creative and inspired by the need for change.  CEOs see how the crisis has motivated employees to work harder, smarter, and engage themselves in their work.  They see the value and contribution that workers are making to keep the organization vibrant and moving forward in the face of adversity.

The crisis has forced change on all of us but nowhere is it more evident than with the CEO and senior executives.  We are talking about leaders that have built their careers exploiting the core business.  Now they must explore building a new one – one that leverages the best of the past and incorporates the potential found in new technology,  socially conscious workers, and demands from stakeholders to build a better, more just world.  Like a startup, CEOs must reimagine a future that blends the best of both worlds – the old and the new.

According to McKinsey in the article The CEO Moment: Leadership in a New Era, “The changes have been birthed by necessity, but they have great potential beyond the crisis. …. It has unfrozen many aspects of the CEO role, making possible re-fusing of new and existing elements that could define the CEO role of the future.”

All of this begs the question whether the crisis is turning CEOs into Intrapreneurs?

The crisis has set the stage for CEOs and senior executives to experience what it takes to be an intrapreneur or Intrapreneurial leader.  As we know, being an intrapreneur is not an intellectual exercise – it is developed through experience.  The crisis has placed that type of experience directly in the hands of CEOs.  They can respond to it as a traditional leader or an intrapreneurial one.

The best way to think about this is to look at what it takes to be an Intrapreneurial Leader and evaluate the way’s CEOs are responding to the crisis.  We can use our checklist of Intrapreneurial competencies, characteristics, and success factors to help us answer the question.  Looking first at competencies.

  • As the crisis unfolds, we see CEOs networking with other CEOs to solicit ideas, input, and advice on how to best deal with the situation. They see value and solace in working with peers. They are less comfortable relying on their own observations and experience to guide them.  Just the opposite of what intrapreneurs do as independent thinkers. CEOs are however, seeking new knowledge, questioning the status quo, willing to try new things and open to exploring the unknown which are all key aspects of independent thinking – the top competency of intrapreneurs.
  • CEOs recognize that speed is critical in this uncertain time. Finding new ways to accelerate their response to market changes has become an imperative.  They cannot afford to wait until things become clearer or more certain.  According to The Need for Speed in Post Covid-19 Era, “It requires executives to rework many of the long-standing constructs within their organizations.” As a result, CEOS are open to blazing new trails by looking for opportunities to stretch themselves and their organizations.  They are willing to take risks, navigate uncertainty, and change systems and structures to move their organizations forward into the future – like Intrapreneurs do.
  • Every CEO is being pressured to establish new goals and reimagine a new future. To do this they must not only be committed they must be actively involved. This requires a concerted effort on their part to be totally engaged while motivating and inspiring the rest of the organization. They need to be self-motivated to do whatever it takes, deal with barriers that get in their way, have a high tolerance for stress and achieve closure. CEOs appear to be energized by the challenge in front of them. Being engaged and thriving leads to higher levels of productivity and financial performance – a key competency of Intrapreneurs.
  • The unprecedented challenge facing CEOs is magnified by the pace and nature of change. It is forcing CEOs and leaders throughout the organization to lead change.  Not just changing structures, policies, or practices. It requires a shift in mindset, beliefs, and behaviors. Behaviors that need to be learned, experienced, and modeled that show what is expected, what will be tolerated, and the value these changes can bring.  McKinsey found that “More than half of leaders surveyed are considering or planning large scale changes.” Many CEOs are now driving change in their organizations – something that Intrapreneurs do well.
  • To be an effective leader during a time of uncertainty leaders must shift their focus, their posture, and their communications. They must deal with all the complexity of starting something new, build a commitment toward a common goal, break down self-imposed barriers and those of their team, erect structures that are fluid and changeable and find creative ways to leverage limited resources.  CEOs are doing just that. They are reallocating resources, communicating more effectively, becoming more transparent, listening more, and building trust.  Things Intrapreneurs do to build a more adaptable, flexible, and responsive environment for growth.
  • CEOs have stated that speed is paramount, but that execution is the ultimate test in defining success in this new environment. According to Art Petty, Leadership and Management Expert, “The challenge for senior leaders is to create the environment and systems to enable emergent and adaptive strategies and flexible execution, all fueled by rapid learning.” That requires having a clear understanding of the end goal, knowing how the target may shift, changing course when it is necessary, or killing a project when it no longer makes sense. This requires being decisive, balance acceleration with control, explore variability and contingencies and effectively communicate – things CEOs are doing and intrapreneurs have always done well.

The crisis has put a spotlight on leaders and their response to the situation.  It has given them time to look at themselves, their leadership style and assess their own performance.  Leaders that are successful exhibit the following characteristics.

  • The crisis has given CEOs more time for self-reflection which has enabled them to step back and evaluate their leadership style and look at what is required moving forward. Understanding one’s strengths, weaknesses, thoughts, beliefs, motivations, and emotions is the first step in becoming more self-aware.  CEOs are showing their willingness and ability to be mindful, take time for self-reflection, and to look at their own beliefs and values.  There is a strong correlation between self-awareness and leadership effectiveness – a key characteristic of intrapreneurs.
  • Executive presence is the ability to connect and engage with others in a manner that is authentic, intentional, resilient, balanced, and trustworthy. It is how you perceive yourself and how others see and respond to you.  According to Shruti Dhupia, in his article, How COVID-19 is Redefining Leadership, “In these challenging times, leaders seem more intrinsically motivated to be visible and have a heightened sense of responsibility and ownership.” This has created a stronger connection and higher levels of motivation for employees.  A strong presence helps leaders drive innovation, change and transformation successfully – like intrapreneurs.
  • Understanding your brain dominance (left brain analytical or right brain creative) has an impact on communication and leadership effectiveness. The current crisis has highlighted the growing need for more whole brain thinking.  “Unfortunately, most of today’s C-suite leaders say their right brain is the weakest – that includes intuition, empathy, self-awareness and vigilance to the external environment,” according to Accenture Research.  Their research showed that “Adopting a more whole brain leadership style has resulted in a positive bottom line, higher revenue growth and profitability.” Intrapreneurs are more likely to be right brain or whole brain thinkers.
  • A measurement that organizations use to gauge their commitment of employees is level of engagement. Not surprisingly we see that CEOs are highly engaged.  They recognize the value of keeping themselves, the organization and its various stakeholders engaged during this crisis.  Leaders and teams with higher levels of engagement, produce substantially better financial and operating outcomes, treat customers better and attract new ones, and see higher levels of innovation and productivity. In this case, CEOs are the ones that have been instrumental in setting the tone for greater collaboration among stakeholders and creating higher levels of engagement among them – the same things Intrapreneurs do.

The pandemic has forced executives to move outside their own comfort zone to think and act differently. It is how they see and react to the external world.  Thinking and acting differently are key leadership success factors for Intrapreneurs and CEOs.  It is not whether they are competent to do something, but how they approach a situation. There are four key success factors – intrapreneurial mindset, thinking process, decision making and taking-action.

  • A challenge facing CEOs is changing their mindset to be open to new possibilities. “CEOs are recognizing that the barriers to boldness and speed are less about technical limits and more about such things as mindsets toward what is possible, what people are willing to do, the degree to which implicit and explicit policies that slow things down can be challenged, and bureaucratic chains of command,” according to How Covid Has Forced CEOs to Change the Way They Lead. CEOs are taking stock of what is now possible. There is a focus on people, rethinking their portfolios, taking a longer-term view, experimentation, and willingness to take bold moves. These are things that distinguish a fixed mindset from an intrapreneurial mindset.
  • As CEOs rethink their strategy and business models they are focused on iterative and scenario planning. The crisis is challenging everything they have known to be true. It is changing their thinking process and how they gather and evaluate information. In the article, How to Think Differently About Leading and Managing, “Much of the work of thinking differently feels counterintuitive.  The ideas fly in the face of the patterns and approaches we’ve grown conditioned to in our lives,” The crisis is forcing leaders to rely more on intuition, see patterns and relationships to form new concepts, analyze and synthesize large amounts of data, evaluate ideas through experimentation, and create new innovative solutions – the way intrapreneurs do.
  • Decision making has taken on increased importance during this crisis. Speed in decision making has become a priority.  Decisions that may determine the future direction of the organization. According to The CEO Moment: Leadership for a New Era, “CEOs are being called upon to make decisions they have never been trained for.  Tough decisions with profound human consequences.” They must be willing to make decisions without having all the data, take calculated risks, be flexible and adaptable while balancing short-and-long term demands.  In the article, Developing Speed for the Post-COVID-18 Era, “CEOs…are using technology, sharpening their focus on customers, and improving communications to expedited decision making and collaboration,” – things intrapreneurs do.
  • The pandemic is being called the ‘burning platform’ that has ignited change and prompted action among CEOs around the world. In the article, Innovation in a Time of Crisis, Larry Clark states that the pandemic is “Creating a bias toward action. Unfreezing organizations and generating real demand for action.” This requires being creative, leveraging contingencies, embracing surprises, and controlling uncertainty by acting.  Intrapreneurs understand the value of taking- action without having all the answers – something CEOs are doing now to adapt to this new environment.

The changes brought on by this crisis has prompted CEOs, leaders, and workers to be more creative, decisive and action oriented.  Illustrating the value of being more intrapreneurial in a world that has been changed forever.

Is the Crisis Turning CEOs into Intrapreneurs? – It is starting to look like it.


Find out if the crisis has turned you into an intrapreneur – check out the Intrapreneur Scorecard.

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