In most organizations new business growth is a critical imperative.  Yet, most CEOs don’t feel like they have the capabilities inside their organization to achieve their growth agenda.  They are probably right.

Despite the desire for growth thru innovation – it remains both a challenge and opportunity.  There is a gap between an organizations need to innovate and their ability to effectively execute.

The reason for the interest in Intrapreneurship is because organizations recognize that they need to close this gap.  Innovation alone is not enough – they need to create the entrepreneurial mindset and infrastructure to build and sustain innovation over time. Organizations have been good at creating ideas but not as good at implementing them.  There is a lack of understanding about the innovation process. A lack of understanding about how intrapreneurship enables and supports innovation.

A key part of the problem is that everyone is in favor of innovation, but nobody much likes change. The largest factor to an organizations success is its ability to drive and manage change, which is all about people.  Many organizations have underestimated the impact and value of their people in achieving their growth agenda. For many organizations innovation is all about process.  In the most progressive organizations innovation is about people.  It is people that create the entrepreneurial culture needed to support and sustain innovation.

The result is a shortage of entrepreneurial role models at the top of most organizations that is stifling innovation and growth.  The skills and capabilities that are needed in the core business are not the ones required to build new growth businesses. There is a growing need for organizations to think and act differently.  In his article, Why Culture is The Heart of Organizational Innovation, Chris Cancialosi says that “Many business leaders don’t recognize their own unconscious beliefs and behaviors that stifle the psychological safety needed for their organization to embrace innovation.” Leadership readiness varies considerably across organizations.

The answer for many organizations is to take high performers in the core business and turn them into intrapreneurial leaders.  But that may be a mistake. Research shows that a different mindset is required.  Leaders in the core business are more linear, fact based in their thinking and decision making. They rely on data more. Manage risk through analysis.  Are more likely to miss opportunities.  Have a tendency to place big bets slowly.   They have different motivations and aspirations.  They are most effective in an environment that is more stable and predictable.

According to 6 Leadership Paradoxes for the Post-Pandemic Era by Harvard Business Review (HBR), “To succeed in the post-pandemic era, leaders need new skills and capabilities, leaders must be proficient across a wide set of paradoxical characteristics.”

There is also an experience trap. Leaders reflexively rely on the skills and strategies that worked for them in the past, after all it was their previous successes that propelled them to this new opportunity. This is a mistake.  Most senior executives do not lead or manage these innovation efforts.  Only one third have managed or led them on an ad-hoc basis.  Few have led a project through from concept to implementation.  They intellectually understand what it takes but they have not experienced what it actually takes.  They don’t know what they don’t know.

Leadership effectiveness is more difficult today because of the uncertainty, ambiguity and the unknown that leaders face every day.  Intrapreneurial leaders must deal with all the complexity of starting something new.  Envision all the possible outcomes that could occur.  Build a commitment toward a common goal.  Seek and secure agreement among stakeholders.  Deal with their own personal barriers and those of members of their team.  Tear down old systems and build new ones.  Erect new structures that are fluid and changeable.  Find creative ways to leverage limited resources and build bridges across organizational boundaries.

“Leaders that want to succeed in this complex and fast paced business environment need to have clarity about what the new world will look like and what their company’s place in that world is going to be.” according to HBR

It is all about transformation.  Changing everything that is needed to support the new growth business.  That requires knowing where the organization is flexible and where it is not.  Making unpopular decisions and going against the grain.  According to McKinsey they found that “Executives focus too much on individual initiatives rather than on how the business must change.”  It is not just about how the business must change it is about how leaders must change as well.

“Being a good strategist, however, isn’t enough.  Leaders need to be equally skilled at execution.  They need to own the transformation of the company needed to reach the future.” HBR

As a result, organizations are actively building intrapreneurial capabilities to address these issues.  Many believe that what is missing are the soft skills.  The most innovative organizations are setting up intrapreneurial leadership development programs that integrate the soft skills and hard skills in their programs. They recognize that identifying and developing specific behaviors are the key to unlocking intrapreneurial potential. That learning by doing is how they build new, more relevant and more effective experiences that guide individuals through the innovation process.

Together these experiences embody what is needed to develop the intrapreneurial leadership skills that are needed for the 21st century economy.

In the article Defining the Skills Citizens will need in the Future of Work, McKinsey identifies Self-Leadership as a key component.  Within Self-Leadership they identify Entrepreneurship – risk taking, driving change, energy, passion, and breaking orthodoxies as areas that need to be developed to achieve proficiency in this new environment.”

Being an effective intrapreneurial leader requires a head and heart connection that is only gained through the experience itself.  It is a shift in mindset and behavior.  It requires leaders that are entrepreneurial thinkers and possess a core set of action oriented competencies.  It’s a process.

Making gut wrenching decisions that challenge your beliefs in what you have always known to be true.  Putting your words into action by stepping outside the boundaries of what has been acceptable behavior and business practices. Testing the limits of your own knowledge and capabilities.  Walking the tight rope between success and failure.  Leading others into the unknown.

This past year has been particularly intense, pushing leaders to make decisions for which they had no previous experience”, according to HBR.

The pandemic has shined a spot light on the true nature of leadership. It has sharpened our focus on the qualities and characteristics that will be needed moving forward and the leadership challenge organizations face in this new environment.  These are only some of the qualities that intrapreneurial leaders will need to be effective in that role.  They are also the qualities and capabilities of today’s intrapreneurs.

If organizations want to increase the speed in which they respond to change and achieve business growth, they must develop intrapreneurial leaders by changing their thinking and their behavior.


Originally published in 2017, updated in 2021.

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