This article was co-written with Dr. Petar Stojanov, co-founder, Ebtikaar.
It was some time ago, over a shared coffee, when I found myself frustrated, complaining about having started working for a corporate organization. My observant coffee companion listened patiently, before suddenly retorting, “Well, of course, you can’t stand working there! You’re an entrepreneur at heart, and we all know that entrepreneurs make terrible employees.”
This is when I began to wonder: do entrepreneurial employees really make for bad employees, or is it something else that’s causing the problem?
Entrepreneurial employees, commonly labeled as intrapreneurs, are employees that embrace entrepreneurial thinking in order to bring value to their organizations. My companion’s misjudgment was the same that tends to run through most organizations, which is that intrapreneurs make bad employees.
But are they really such a bad fit? In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. When correctly nurtured and managed, intrapreneurial employees can become standouts, contributing broad-ranging benefits to their employers and organizations. So who are these employees, and how can we identify them?
Vilfredo Pareto of the Pareto Principle fame noted that roughly 80% of the peas in his garden came from just 20% of the peapods. Whilst it is amusing to draw a comparison between peapods and employees, we observe a similar phenomenon in the workforce, where both productivity and talent are disproportionately weighted amongst high-performing employees. There is an undeniable link between high-performing employees and intrapreneurial tendencies. The litmus test for the long-term health of an organization is when their highest-performers begin to leave. In fact, most organizations will readily admit to not being able to retain their top-performing talent. At the same time, a recent Bayt.com survey of entrepreneurship across the MENA region found that 64% of respondents would rather be self-employed.
With that being the case, this bad rep for intrapreneurs can thus be linked to the fact that organizations often tend to be really bad employers of highly entrepreneurial employees. It is no coincidence that Airbnb, Bain and Company and GuideWire (ranked the top 3 in Glassdoor’s 2016 Best Places to work) are themselves examples of highly innovative companies, whose success is made possible by the intrapreneurial tendencies they seek out and nurture in their own employees. That’s why in this article, we turn our focus toward the perspective of that of an organization- here are the five key traits of intrapreneurs that employers should look out for:
1. Intrapreneurs question the status quo Organizations run on rules, lots and lots of them. The structures, systems and processes that are necessary to run the existing business require rigid, structured thinking. The problem arises when the same rigid structured thinking is applied in innovation and the creation of new business models. Without questioning the status quo, any attempts at innovation are doomed from the outset.
Intrapreneurs are driven by purpose, not by process. Rather than being motivated by answers, they are motivated by questions. Filing a weekly team report or a regular meeting simply “because it was always so” will invite vigorous questioning. The phrase “that’s just the way we do things around here” will never be acceptable to an intrapreneur. Apple, itself famous for challenging the status quo, embodies the philosophy of its former CEO Steve Jobs, who famously said, “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”
2. Intrapreneurs work best unfettered and without boundaries Leading on from the first point, another stereotype of intrapreneurs is that they have issues with authority. This also couldn’t be further from the truth. During my time at Lehman Brothers, our teams were actively supported and encouraged by the organization to work outside of conventional boundaries. Given that Lehman hired the very best talent in the market from an extraordinarily diverse range of backgrounds, the single common rule was that senior management never attempted to micromanage.
Intrapreneurs despise being kept on a short leash, as most talented and independent-thinking employees would agree. In the right work environment, intrapreneurs can be enormously productive; however in the wrong one, they can be more difficult to handle than petulant problem children.
3. Intrapreneurs are focused on the pursuit of excellence Intrapreneurs strive for excellence, whilst there are plenty of organizations and people within them that strive for mediocrity. Average employees, conscious not to disrupt the status quo, can be excellent at creating a façade of “busyness,” spending vast lengths of time trying to do as little work as possible. New ideas and new ways of doing things are seen as extra chores with no direct benefit. The feeling extends to the higher ranks, with former employers of mine having openly said, “Let’s not question the status quo,” or worse, “We don’t get paid for this.”
On the other hand, intrapreneurs are keenly aware of connecting the dots between their work and the broader vision of the company, tending to view disruptions to the status quo as opportunities to make a difference, fueled by their purpose.
4. Intrapreneuers are impatient (and that ’s a good thing) This isn’t a misconception; I must admit that this one is true. Intrapreneurs tend to be extremely impatient. But it is important to understand why- side note: intrapreneurs tend to ask “why?” a lot. Whilst many employees in corporate organizations don’t wish to feel rushed or pressured, and are happy to ride along the organizational wave, intrapreneurial impatience acts as a proxy for the fact that they connect their own purpose with that of their work; otherwise they simply wouldn’t care.
Impatience is a virtue to be nurtured, not a failing to be punished. It is this ambition to “get the right stuff done properly” that should be encouraged in all employees as part of the organizational culture.
5. Intrapreneurs know the value of time Intrapreneurs understand the importance of both efficiency and effectiveness, and tend to be “efficiently effective” to the point of ruthlessness. This means they tend to cut out the unnecessary or the redundant, especially when they see it is irrelevant to the outcome.
Politics, the social lubricant of the corporate environment and a wholly necessary evil for career success, tends to be seen as both inefficient and ineffective by intrapreneurs, who tend not to involve themselves with politics. Large corporates tend to be incubators of inefficient cultures and processes, riddled with layers of bureaucracy and endless, pointless meetings. If you’ve been following me so far, you can imagine how this would spell disaster for an efficiency-seeking intrapreneur.
In conclusion, the negative stereotype of the entrepreneurial employee simply isn’t true. In fact, it is exactly the opposite. Given the benefits, it makes sense for organizations to embrace intrapreneurs by creating an environment with the right support, leadership, rewards and compensation structures. Only then can organizations win over the people who hold the key to enormously positive impacts on companies.