Thursday, May 25, 2017

Managing Intrapreneurs

We hear a lot about entrepreneurs--risk-takers who create, design, and deliver a new product or service.  But what about intrapreneurs?

According to Wikipedia, “intrapreneurship is the act of behaving like an entrepreneur while working within a large organization.”   The idea is to allow opportunities for individuals and teams within an organization to integrate the innovation and risk-taking that characterize entrepreneurship into an established system.  Although this has great value, the practice itself involves some risks and willingness to rethink management and supervision.

For several years, I was responsible for the supervision of about thirty full-time and part-time ministers who provided collegiate ministry on campuses across the state of Tennessee.  This was an interesting task considering the size of the state, the variety of campuses involved, and the varied gifts of those doing the work.  Many of these leaders were intrapreneurs who knew their context better than I did and often brought significant gifts and insights to their work.  They needed to have freedom to exercise their creativity, and I needed to provide the supervision that would make our executive leadership happy.

Here are a few things I learned in that setting (from trial and error) that apply to the supervision of intrapreneurs in an organization.

First, provide as much freedom as possible while setting reasonable boundaries.  The leader’s role is not to find a creative spark and water it, but to fan the flame.  When a great idea emerges, give the intrapreneur the freedom to pursue it while making certain that the person knows the boundaries--policies, finances, and time.  

Second, achieve clarity through open communication. The supervisor of an intrapreneur must both give and elicit trust.  The supervisor trusts the intrapreneur to take ownership and execution of the project; the intrapreneur trusts the supervisor to support and encourage the execution of the project within the boundaries.  The old adage that “It is easier to get forgiveness than permission” only works one time.  This approach works only because the supervisor is willing to share the responsibility for failure and redirect the praise for success.

Third, be available as a coach.  The supervisor must practice a coaching approach in working with intrapreneurs, being accessible without taking control.  The goal of a good coach is the success of the client.  In the same way, the supervisor serves as a coach who calls out the best in the intrapreneur while providing a source of accountability.  When the intrapreneur succeeds, the trust of the supervisor and the organization is rewarded.

Adopting this approach requires a paradigm shift for most organizations, but the intrapreneurial approach is especially helpful in working with Millennials who tend to value freedom and flexibility anchored in a "results-only" work environment.  What better way for a person to prove themselves than to be given the responsibility for a significant project and the freedom to act?  

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