Company Culture

5 Essentials for Cultivating Intrapreneurial Employees

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I can’t even count the number of times I’ve heard, “I want employees who really take ownership in the business.”

Few of the people who said it could tell me what that looked like in practical application. Most of them really meant they wanted employees who took an attitude of ownership toward their job, not the business itself. These employers wanted people who applied the same values and standards to their own work that the business owner applied to running the business.

But some companies really would benefit from “internal entrepreneurs.” 

While a lot of people have taken a stab at defining what it really means to be an entrepreneur, and a lot of gurus have established their own criteria for what you have to do to earn the right to call yourself an entrepreneur, when we consult the dictionary we find that the origin of entrepreneur goes back to a French word, "entreprendre," which meant to "undertake." So an “internal entrepreneur” could be said to be someone who treats someone else’s business as their own undertaking. Someone who, although they don’t have legal ownership and most likely don’t have financial skin in game, is still putting something of value on the line and taking responsibility for the return on that investment.

The term that is finding its way into common usage is “Intrapreneur.”

Related: 5 Must-Have Skills of Intrapreneurs Inside Their Grown-Up Startups

If you can see the potential for having employees who approach creating value for the business as their “undertaking” rather than their job description, employees who are self-managed, who make decisions and exhibit behavior that is in line with the best interests of the business, someone who has an entrepreneurial mindset but no desire to have financial or legal responsibility for a business, here are the five essential elements of “intrapreneurship.”

1. Employee selection.

Just as not everyone is cut out to be an entrepreneur, not every employee is cut out to be an intrapreneur. The ideal candidates use discretion and make decisions that align with the mission and priorities set out by the owner. They must thrive on juggling a myriad of options and uncertainties. They have to understand the relationship between risk and reward and be willing, even excited, to put a lot into the pool in exchange for the opportunity to net a significant return with no guarantee of success.

The employee who needs externally imposed structure, who is most productive when someone else is setting boundaries and expectations, or who is uncomfortable with risk and uncertainty. will be miserable and fail miserably, if expected to take the “intrapreneur” level of ownership in the business.

2. Success metrics.

The traditional measurements of performance don’t apply to intrapreneurs. If you’re rating these employees’ performance and value (even subconsciously) by how visible they are, how late they work or how many hours they log on a project, all parties involved are going to be dissatisfied. If the job requires that level of attendance, billable hours or accessibility, then an intrapreneur isn’t what you need in that role.

I see a spectacular burnout in your future if, as a business owner, you rate your performance on how many hours you put in and how willing you are to be chained to your desk. The intrapreneur’s performance has to be measured much the way you would measure your own. What did you create, and what was the value of that creation? Who did you help, and what was that assistance worth? You measure the performance of an intrapreneur by value of outcome, not quantity of effort.

3. Transparency.

For an employee to succeed as an “internal entrepreneur” they need to have access to the same data you use to make decisions. If you aren’t prepared to share your measurements for success in the business as well as your goals and progress, you won’t be able to depend on this employee to make ownership level decisions.

4. Compensation.

The first question I ask when a client says they want employees who take ownership in the business is, “Are you willing to compensate them accordingly?” That does not necessarily mean paying them more, it means giving them more in direct compensation and benefits when their performance results in greater benefit to the business.

It also means giving them greater levels of privilege in exchange for greater levels of accountability. The trend toward what some call “unlimited vacation,” but is really more accurately named “unmonitored work schedules,” allows the intrapreneur one of the greatest perks of entrepreneurship; to “design their lives to offer maximum value to the business while affording maximum freedom of lifestyle.”

Related: Virgin's Unlimited Vacation Policy: PR Ploy or New Employment Paradigm?

5. Consistency.

Finally, everything about the business culture must support the intrapreneur. If, for instance, some managers or even peers are still measuring the commitment and investment of the employee by the traditional measurements of hours worked or effort on display, then the benefit of unmonitored work schedules will become a disincentive. If the goals and measurements of progress aren’t made readily available, then the employee has no way to truly own their outcomes.

Putting your company in a position to reap the full benefits of having employees who take ownership in the business requires some significant shifts in structure, strategy and mindset. But, depending on the roles of those employees it can certainly be worth it.

Related: 3 Things You Don't Know About Intrapreneurship