In most organizations growth through innovation is a top priority.  So is talent. Yet, few organizations adequately look at the link between innovation growth and talent.

According to McKinsey, “The number one predictor of innovation success is leadership.” It is a special kind of leadership – intrapreneurial leadership. Research shows that there is a strong correlation between intrapreneurial leadership and higher levels of innovation growth.

The key to enhanced performance and innovation success is aligning the right leaders with your innovation goals. It is crucial to find, support and develop these innovators the best way possible. But do you know who they are?

Future leaders are often molded in the image of the existing leaders who run the core business.  That is a mistake.

The skills and capabilities that propelled most executives to the top of organizations in the past are not the ones required to build new innovations. These executives are often blinded by their own experience.  They rely on proven approaches that worked well in the core business but may not in a new business. They make decisions based on reason and argument not creative thought. They trust data more than intuition.  They focus on minimizing risk versus maximizing value. They will sacrifice the long-term potential for short term gain. They prefer to wait until things become clearer before acting.

Perhaps this is part of the reason that revenue and innovation growth in organizations has slowed. Organizations marginalize their innovation efforts by playing it safe with individuals who represent the past, not the future.

In the article, How to Innovate When You’re Not the Big Boss, John Beeson said “Given the unrelenting pace of change surrounding organizations in virtually every industry, companies are looking for executives who know how to innovate and introduce change, not simply caretakers who can manage the status quo.”

Often the types of individuals needed to lead innovation projects are not even considered for the position. These individuals represent a small minority of independent thinkers who do not fit the corporate mold.  They see the world differently and they think and act differently.  They don’t let existing systems and processes get in their way.  They find new and creative ways to get things done. They are energized and engaged in learning and driving change. They will leverage whatever resources they have available to them. They are focused on execution – creating value and generating revenue growth.

Keep in mind that there are no roadmaps or guidebooks for intrapreneurial leaders to follow. They must create a new path, new processes, and new ways of working.  They will encounter obstacles that the organization has not encountered before.  Face seemingly impossible hurdles and resistance to change. They will need to be strategic and tactical at the same time. Influence and negotiate effectively for ideas and concepts that many will find hard to comprehend. They will have to make decisions without sufficient data. Take calculated risks based on affordable loss.  Break rules and step on toes to get things done.

These individuals must have the interpersonal competencies needed to deal effectively with the turmoil and chaos that exists in innovation ventures. It is not just a matter of being adaptable or accountable but being collaborative, tolerant, and passionate. Listening for understanding, communicating effectively, and being empathic to the needs of those around them.  They need to have a realistic and honest assessment of their own strengths and weaknesses. They must have a high tolerance for stress. It is not about positional power but personal power that enables intrapreneurial leaders to break new ground.

A key challenge for entrepreneurial leaders is that they don’t feel like they speak the same language as many of the other leaders in their organizations.  They are probably right.  Not everyone can see what they say.  Bosses and peers may not have a frame of reference or experience base to relate to.  It is up to the leader to paint a clear picture of where they are headed and the process to get there so that everyone sees and understands the same vision.

Of course, that vision will change as the innovation moves forward so it is incumbent upon the leader to keep everyone up to date. Setting expectations that innovation is not a straight line but a series of twists and turns.  Its about embracing the unexpected, leveraging contingences and changing course when it no longer makes sense.

We found in our research that intrapreneurial leaders that are successful in leading innovation projects have three different types of competencies that enable them to be effective.

  • Intrapreneurial Competencies
  • Business Competencies
  • Interpersonal Competencies.

The intrapreneurial competencies help leaders step outside of their traditional role and operate as an independent entity or startup within an established organization. The business competencies are capabilities that are more traditional and are leveraged in both the core business and in an innovation project. The interpersonal competencies are unique to the individual and reflect their outlook and how they respond to the challenges they encounter.

According to research only 4 to 5 percent of individuals in large organizations are intrapreneurs or intrapreneurial.  The true intrapreneurial leader is rare. That is why the most innovative organizations are proactively identifying and developing their intrapreneurial leaders.

Innovation has become a critical imperative for many organizations and a survival strategy for others.  The difference between success and failure may rest with the leaders you choose to lead these efforts.

Intrapreneurial leaders give your organization an innovation edge.


Originally Published March 2012. Updated 3/9/ 2021

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