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Intrapreneurial Leadership – A Fine Balancing Act

We all know that entrepreneurial leaders are passionate individuals, with a zest for life, and a willingness to conquer opportunities despite the risks. They typically enjoy operating outside of their comfort zone to chase their ‘dream’.

Despite these positives, entrepreneurs are also challenged by continual setbacks and sometimes failure to pursue their long term aspirations. This might include dealing with sceptics, managing cash-flow issues, and an avalanche of day-to-day operational issues.

Even more challenging is learning how to effectively manage their entrepreneurial employees, or ‘intrapreneurs’, to create a harmonious and productive workplace environment for all those involved.

Innovative companies like 3M, Google, Apple, Toyota, Lockheed, and Virgin, would have not existed so successfully if it hadn’t been for the innovative ideas of their passionate intrapreneurs, and the effective leadership by the management team.

Co-existence between Entrepreneurs and Intrapreneurs

So what happens when you mix entrepreneurial leaders with intrapreneurs in the one workplace environment ? A good analogy is to ask what would happen when you throw a lion in a cage with a hippopotamus ?

My guess is that there will be bloodshed ! This is because both animals are powerful, competitive, courageous, determined to win, and perhaps even fearless. In other words, they possess very dominant characteristics and habits that would suggest they are better suited living on their own, rather than co-existing with other animals or breeds.

If we use this simple analogy and we come back to the entrepreneurial leader and his or her intrapreneur, my experience has taught me that when entrepreneurs co-exist with intrapreneurs in the one environment, the chances are that it will be a volatile mix of emotion and ego. The end result can be either constructive or destructive, and this is dependent on the effectiveness and management style of the leadership team.

The Mindset of Entrepreneurs and Intrapreneurs

Entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs can be stereotyped as being passionate, independent, imaginative, risk takers, fearless, competitive, persistent, and simply never giving up in order for them to pursue their goals and dreams.

So, how can entrepreneurial leaders employ people with intrapreneurial characteristics or work habits to fuel growth, without the relationship ending in bloodshed ?

Let’s firstly look at the definition and mindset of the intrapreneur. Most popular dictionaries define the intrapreneur something like –

a person that operates within an organisation and embraces innovation to pursue opportunity”

Personally, I find this definition quite ordinary and simplistic.  A better definition would be –

“a person that drives growth through innovation, creative imagination, and pioneering of new ideas; an entrepreneurial employee that exploits the opportunity at hand for the well being of the company and its stakeholders”.

The truth of the matter is that the intrapreneur is very similar in mindset to the entrepreneur, but very different to the conventional (non-entrepreneurial) employee. Because of these traits, intrapreneurs need to be handled with special care and with a different set of rules.

Effective Leadership of Intrapreneurs:

To successfully manage intrapreneurs, the business owner or entrepreneurial leader should adopt the following strategies:

1. Develop Company Culture:

Ensure an entrepreneurial culture is developed within the organisation from the roots up and across all divisions / areas of the company. The business leader should embrace healthy / regular entrepreneurial habits, and effectively communicate the right entrepreneurial values and beliefs to its people.

This may involve encouraging innovation; thinking outside the square; encouraging autonomy; establishing ‘brainstorming’ sessions amongst staff; pioneering of new ideas; challenging the status quo; accepting failure as a catalyst to success, etc.

By establishing these work habits, the entrepreneurial spirit will gradually manifest and spread amongst its people.

2. Let the Intrapreneur know Who’s the Boss:

What happens if company protocol is ignored, the boundaries are pushed too far, and ego gets in the way ? A similar question would be ‘how do you control or tame a wild dog to obey its Master ?’  The simple answer is ‘let the dog know who’s the boss !

Let’s face it. The business owner or entrepreneurial leader will typically absorb all the risks, especially financially. The intrapreneur may suggest great ideas or identify an opportunity at hand, but the truth is that they can generally walk away if the plan fails. The business owner, on the other hand, has to pick up the pieces and face the consequences of an idea not going to fruition, and the financial consequences of a failed attempt at launching a new product or service in the marketplace.

Therefore, intrapreneurs need to be more mindful and respectful of this reality, and understand the ongoing risks entrepreneurial leaders need to regularly face.

3. Understand the Difference in Mindset

So far we have identified many similar traits between the entrepreneurial leader and their entrepreneurial employee. In contrast, how do their mindsets differ, and how do entrepreneurial leaders co-exist with their intrapreneurs to achieve a win-win situation and overall harmony ?

Firstly, let’s stress one key point. Intrapreneurs prefer to work within an organisation, as compared to entrepreneurs choosing to be at the top of the food chain or hierarchy. For me, this implies that intrapreneurs tend to be more risk averse, or require a higher degree of clarity, support, certainty, normality, habit, or even guidance (from their employer).

If we come back to our previous analogy of the animal kingdom, not all animals are alike. In fact, not all lions are the same. There is a big difference in habit or even mindset between the wild lion compared to the lion held in captivity (ie. within a protected zoo environment). The primary difference is their ability to survive on their own regardless of the resources available.

So, intrapreneurs are less capable of surviving completely on their own, as compared to entrepreneurs. The bottom line is that intrapreneurs need to be aware of this difference and respect the authority and brave nature of their entrepreneurial leaders who can better cope in the wild / hostile environment of business.

4. Embrace Fast, Effective Decision-making without the Angst

In a fast paced entrepreneurial environment, time means money. In other words, issues need to be resolved promptly, and opportunities need to be materialised swiftly, in order for competitive growth to occur.

Even-though intrapreneurs are good for pioneering of new ideas, and embracing innovation, they often lack effective ‘decisionship’ skills. They often spend too much time finetuning the idea, rather than simply bringing the product to the market earlier than desired.

If pushed, intrapreneurs will find the experience too challenging and even discouraging, creating angst.

Business leaders need to therefore manage this anxiety and encourage decision-making to occur more effectively. This can be best achieved by formulating a regular meeting place, or hub, where issues can be openly discussed, and experiences and wisdom of individual staff can be shared throughout various divisions of the organisation.

Sharing of knowledge and relying on a databank of knowledge is a powerful antidote for fast, effective decision-making.

This article has been exclusively written by Federico Re for ‘CEO Magazine’ – December, 2014 Edition.

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