My grandfather was an apple and cherry farmer in upstate New York. After high school he went to work with one of the prominent apple farmers in the area to learn about the business. He was an apprentice, a student, an intrapreneur whose practical ideas were used to help his boss build a thriving and successful business.

Eventually he set out on his own buying parcels of land in the area and built his own successful apple and cherry business. His products were sold to large companies like Motts and Comstock that turned those apples and cherries into some of the same products we have today. He had learned the business by doing the business and then took what he learned and set out on his own. So, by the time he died he had become the prominent farmer he had started out working for those many years before. He learned to be an entrepreneur by being an intrapreneur first.

Although his business would compete with his former employer they remained friends and shared techniques, tools and new approaches that changed how they both farmed. The apple and cherry orchards that he planted are still there today. A tribute to the energy and passion of one man who like many intrapreneurs set out to build a business in and then outside of an established one.

Intrapreneurs are not born they are made through their own sheer will and determination. Like my grandfather, today’s intrapreneurs must find their own way. They must learn, do, and learn some more. They are in charge of their own destiny. There is no job security, no job for life anymore. We must build the skills and capabilities that will enable us to create our own future in or outside of an organization.

As the world around us speeds up it has become increasing clear that by the time a person gets out of college the things they learned may be obsolete. There is a significant shift going on in education, book learning is not enough. Experiential learning is key. We see this in the adoption of entrepreneurship in most college and universities. The creation of incubators and venture groups on campuses.

According to Dick Resch, “Schools should put more emphasis on teaching entrepreneurship skills that students thrive in an economy that rewards people who are flexible and resourceful enough to adapt to the changing nature of work. The future of work is not predictable. That’s why students need transferrable, creative skills and competencies. No matter where the future takes us entrepreneurial skills will never be obsolete.”

Like students, today’s workers need the same entrepreneurial skills. The key is learning to be an intrapreneur inside an organization, so you build the skills and competencies that are transferable no matter where you go or what you do. It’s why you hear so much about creating an entrepreneurial mindset. A way of thinking that enables you to be creative, innovative, and entrepreneurial. But thinking alone is not enough. It’s the doing that builds the skills and competencies that are needed. It’s about taking action. Thinking and action are two bookends that you need for intrapreneurial success.

These are a few of the ways that Intrapreneurs Think and Act.

Intrapreneurial Thinking:

  1. Independent Thinker – you rely on your own knowledge and experience to guide you.
  2. Explore the Unknown – you challenge what you’ve always know to be true.
  3. Whole Brain – you rely on both the analytical and intuitive side of your brain.
  4. Integrative Thinker – you are able to hold two diametrically opposite concepts in your mind at the same time to create a new solution.
  5. Pattern Recognition – you see patterns and relationships that form new concepts and ideas.
  6. Synthesizer – you can analyze and synthesize large amounts of data to make decisions.
  7. Experiential – you do not rely on past experience; you evaluate ideas by experimenting.

Intrapreneurial Action:

  1. Inherently Creative – you develop creative ways to leverage existing resources to solve complex problems and explore new opportunities.
  2. Iterative Planning – you find iterative planning more useful because things are continually changing and so are your options.
  3. Leverage Contingencies – you can’t eliminate variability, so you explore contingencies to see if there is a better way.
  4. Take Calculated Risks – you look at the upside and downside of a risk before deciding.
  5. Embrace Surprises – you embrace surprises because it refines your thinking and your actions.
  6. Control Uncertainty – you control uncertainty by acting on it not sitting back to see what happens.
  7. Focused on Execution – you take action and get things done; execution is not a goal but a process.

It is not surprising that the number one competency of intrapreneurs is thinking – independent thinking – and the number sixth competency is taking action – execution – they are bookends. Intrapreneurs are effective in putting their thoughts into action. We’ve seen an increase in the number of individuals that are being trained to be independent thinkers, but execution is still one of the weakest competencies within organizations.

In between Thinking and Action you will need to be able to deal with uncertainty, ambiguity and the unknown. You need to be fully engaged, self-motivated and able to motivate others. You will need to drive and model the change you hope to achieve. Plus, it requires effective leadership – the ability to leverage existing resources in new and creative ways. These are the competencies that separate the true intrapreneurial leader from more traditional leaders.

If thinking and action are bookends then the competencies listed above (navigating uncertainty, engaged and thriving, driving change and leadership effectiveness) enable leaders to be effective in their role. Of course, there are handful of other competencies you will need but our research shows that these are the top, most important.

A competency is a set of abilities, capabilities, proficiency, expertise, and proficiency that one needs to do a specific job (intrapreneur) successfully and effectively. A competency* is developed through action and experience.

In the Reflective Practitioner, Donald Schon looks at “knowing in action – a form of acquired tacit knowledge – and reflection – the ability to learn through and within practice. The basic idea is that through reflection-in action which responds to the belief that our knowing is in our action, we can gain verifiable insight into our thought processes. It is the practice by which professionals become aware of their implicit knowledge base and learn from their experience.”

Just as my grandfather did so many years ago, Intrapreneurs can develop the critical competencies they need to lead, drive growth, and transform their organizations by doing. As their actions evolve, so does their thinking. Intrapreneurs put their thoughts into action and their actions inform their thinking. As a result, they become better intrapreneurs and more effective leaders.

Thinking and action are intertwined. It is the interplay between these two that build entrepreneurial muscle and the competencies Intrapreneurs need to succeed.


To learn more about the core competencies of Intrapreneurs download our brochure, Top Competencies of Corporate Entrepreneurs or take our Intrapreneur Scorecard and get a personalized snapshot of your own intrapreneurial orientation. Available at a 25% discount through the month of August 2022.  Use coupon code: Summer22 at check-out.

Originally published in 2018, updated 2022.

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