September 4, 2015

Forget Entrepreneurs — Let’s Get ‘Intrapreneurial’

“We live in an age of entrepreneurship and imagination,” said Menlo Innovations CEO Rich Sheridan at a Google for Entrepreneurs Hangout last year.

One would be a fool to argue with Sheridan on this point. Research suggests that more Americans are becoming entrepreneurs than ever before, and it often feels as if not a day goes by without some new company springing up to “disrupt” an industry you didn’t even know needed disrupting.

But here’s the thing about entrepreneurship: we often think that it’s limited to the founders of startups, but that may not be the case after all. In fact, a recent survey from the University of Phoenix found that 93 percent of all working adults in the U.S. feel they “possess some entrepreneurial qualities.”

“The entrepreneurial spirit doesn’t just apply to those who are starting businesses,” says Dr. Lena Rodriguez, program dean at the University of Phoenix School of Business. “It also applies to individuals inside organizations — and those are the individuals we call ‘intrapreneurs.'”

Intrapreneurs, as you may have guessed, are those who utilize their entrepreneurial skills and qualities in more traditional modes of employment. For example, a marketing associate at a tech company who regular proposes and spearheads new marketing initiatives might be considered an intrapreneur.

According to the University of Phoenix survey, 37 percent of working adults in the U.S. identify as intrapreneurs.

Employers should note that the chance to be intrapreneurial at work is strongly correlated with employee satisfaction: 61 percent of satisfied employees say “their organization[s] provide opportunities to be entrepreneurial.”

And satisfied employees, as we all know, are good for business.

“If an employee feels they are part of an organization — if they feel that sense of pride and ownership — then they are really going to look at ways to invest in the organization and the success of the organization,” Dr. Rodriguez says.

Encourage Employees to Be More Intrapreneurial

Given the links between intrapreneurship, employee satisfaction, and employee performance and productivity, it’s a good idea for employers to find ways to “ignite that intrapreneurial spirit in individuals who are inside an organization,” Dr. Rodriguez says.

On that subject, Dr. Rodriguez offers three pieces of advice:

1. Communicate That Yours Is a Culture of Innovation

This, Dr. Rodriguez says, is the most important thing companies can do to encourage intrapreneurship within their own ranks.

In order to “embrace the intrapreneur,” Dr. Rodriguez says, employers must make it known that they appreciate, encourage, and thrive on innovation.

Employees are often afraid to share new ideas with supervisors and colleagues for fear they may rock the boat or get shot down. It’s important for employersPropellor to reinforce that this will not be the case, and that new ideas are not only welcome, but wanted.

2. Encourage Creative Thinking

Is yours an organization in which everyone sits at their desks all day, going through the motions, doing the same thing day in and day out? Then you don’t have an innovative culture. You can tell your employees all you want that yours is a culture of innovation, but that doesn’t change the fact that no innovation is occurring.

Employers have to walk the walk, if they’re going to talk the talk. Rather than just communicating that innovation is welcome, employers need to give employees the chances and resources they need to actually be innovative.

“Solicit suggestions and ideas from employees,” Dr. Rodriguez says. “Hold brainstorming sessions to see what types of innovative ideas or solutions might come up.”

Dr. Rodriguez also notes that employers should offer compensation to intrapreneurs who come up with good ideas. Doing so will incentivize other employees to join in and get creative.

3. Share Your Mission and Values With Employees

Of course, employers don’t want to encourage just any innovation — they want to encourage innovation that will help their particular businesses. That’s why employers need to make sure that every employee understands the missions and goals of the organization. Employees should have a clear picture of the journey they are on and where they are headed.

“That way, employees will really understand what direction the company is going in,” Dr. Rodriguez says.

If employees understand that, they’ll be better equipped to innovate in ways that fit into — or productively expand — the company’s vision.

Employees: Take Matters Into Your Own Hands!

Of course, an employer can’t make its employees tap into their entrepreneurial skills to become intrapreneurs. The very definition of entrepreneurship — and, by extension, intrapreneurship — precludes that possibility.

That means employees will have to take some initiative when it comes to leveraging their entrepreneurial qualities at work.

Moreover, some employers may not be so great at giving employees the resources or opportunities they need to be intrapreneurs. In that case, it’s good for employees to know how they can go about being intrapreneurial even without tons of company support.

1. Embrace the Organization’s Goals and Missions

This is sort of the flip side of Dr. Rodriguez’s advice for employers. The organization needs to communicate its goals and missions clearly, but the employee also needs to actively embrace those goals and missions.

“Really understand what the organization’s mission is,” Dr. Rodriguez says to potential intrapreneurs. “Be knowledgeable about the organization.”

This knowledge, Dr. Rodriguez says, will allow employees to see the ways in which the company could expand and innovate.

2. Find a Mentor

This is especially helpful for employees whose employers aren’t doing a great job of promoting intrapreneurship. In those situations, management and leadership may be reluctant to listen to — or do anything about — employee-generated ideas for innovation and expansion. An employee can greatly improve their chances of really getting somewhere with their innovation if they have someone on their side.

Pencil“Find that mentor, that coach, that champion who will help [you] promote that idea that [you] want to bring forward,” Dr. Rodriguez says.

A lowly entry-level employee with a great idea may not look like much to the executives, but an entry-level employee with a great idea and a senior manager backing them is something else entirely.

3. Think Through Your Ideas Critically

Entrepreneurship is all about invention, and invention is all about risk-taking — but, Dr. Rodriguez warns, it should be calculated risk-taking.

“We talk about entrepreneurs as being risk-takers, and the reality is that they are calculated risk takers,” Dr. Rodriguez explains. They really think through their ideas and innovations critically before they try to develop them.”

Dr. Rodriguez advises that intrapreneurs study their ideas for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats before taking them to leadership. This critical reflection will help intrapreneurs refine their innovations, making their ideas more valuable for themselves and their companies.

Read more in Entrepreneurship

Matthew Kosinski is the managing editor of