The legend of the natural-born entrepreneur – the successful founder who started their first side hustle in kindergarten – looms large in our culture.
And sometimes, it is true – folks like Steve Jobs (building “blue boxes” in high school!) and Zappo’s Tony Hsieh (reselling worms at age nine!) are often used as examples.
But is this true? Are entrepreneurs – and by extension, intrapreneurs – a special breed? Or can these skills and attitudes be trained?
We caught up with her ahead of her session at #IntraCnf Singapore to find out how entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs are different, whether intrapreneurship is innate or teachable, and what surprised her most about her research so far.
You’ve worked with both entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs. What’s the difference between those two worlds in terms of skills and attitudes?
In the startup world we have a very nimble, agile environment where things can go really quickly; and so, when we experiment and things don’t go as planned or we don’t get the validation that we’re looking for, we can pivot or move quite fast.
In the corporate world, of course, we can’t really do that – there are a lot of structural differences, a lot of differences in terms of speed and agility. It can often take six to eight months just to get a budget approved or to get the green light to go ahead with an experiment.
And so, while both worlds require an understanding of and openness towards experimentation and collaboration for the sake of innovation, in the corporate world you must have an additional attitude and skill set around collaboration.
What I saw in the work that I’ve done with both JFDI, Asia’s first startup accelerator where I was the director of business development for corporate venture building, as well as my ventures ACM Works and The Creative Experience, was that the successes within intrapreneurship were closely related to relationship skills and how you approach navigating the structures and politics within large corporations. In the startup world it is less so, because the amount of people you have to convince are a lot fewer.
I’ve recently partnered with Fingerprint for Success, a tool that benchmarks entrepreneurial attitudes and motivations based on pretty sophisticated research. It’s shown, for example, that people with a very high level of initiation tend to do pretty well in the early stages of entrepreneurship. We’re still finalizing a study with regards to intrapreneurship, but we can directly correlate that as well.
But people who are highly motivated towards structure? That is negatively correlated with early-stage venture success. So if we place too much emphasis on planning and strategy at the early stages of entrepreneurship, there is evidence it might prevent projects from getting off the ground quickly enough. Whereas in the intrapreneurship space we’re surrounded by structure, and planning, and the world of MBAs, so we have to incorporate that language.
The motivations and attitudes you need in the intrapreneurial space are similar to the entrepreneurship space, but you need that additional ability to navigate the corporate sphere.
As far as success cases go, what makes a difference in terms of personality traits and attitudes? What matters most?
First, I want to point out a slight differentiation between personality and attitude. This particular research has shown – and, to be honest, this is also my strong belief – that personality, being something we are, of course, born with, is difficult to change. Motivations and attitudes, on the other hand, can actually be coached and changed.
We’ve realized the level of motivation towards innovation is critical, as well as the ability to make decisions quickly. For example, the research I mentioned earlier measures something called ‘being convinced automatically’, and examines individual convincer patterns in depth. My own results showed that I’m not quick to be automatically convinced; now, you would think that’s a good thing because it means I’m slightly critical before I make a decision. But in the context of early-stage entrepreneurship, and also regarding innovations that we’re trying to test within a large organization, sometimes that is not a good thing at all!
So for success, we want people who are fairly fluid with regards to their decision making, who are very, very high on collaboration, and not overly obsessed with strategy and structure at the very early stages.
That’s quite counterintuitive for those of us who went to business school; I have an EMBA, and we were pretty much taught that we have to plan and strategize forever before we do something. So we need to reverse this and let go of the need to strategize and plan before actually engaging in talking. We need people who are open to trying out new things.
Now, in the corporate world innovation is risky, entrepreneurship is risky, right? I mean, over 95 percent of projects are likely to fail. It’s a fact. That’s why you see investors building multiple portfolios and companies investing in multiple different initiatives and projects, hoping one of them will actually pick up. There is a high level of risk, and large corporations are all about mitigating risk. In some of the industries they operate in, it’s essential to do so. But when it comes to intrapreneurship, you need to be able to push the boundaries on the risk while getting buy-in from all the different departments that you need to go through.
In my experience, once an innovation project starts, everyone in the company wants to get involved. Everyone wants to know what’s going on, what’s happening.
How is this going to affect me? Who is controlling it? And so for successful intrapreneurship, besides the typical skills, you need very, very deep people skills. You need a very high level of EQ, because being able to really understand the concerns around risk, power – any kind of concerns the different departments within the organization have – is essential for success.
Most of the projects that I’ve seen fail didn’t fail because of the intrapreneurs driving them; the failure came from the organization.
Either the company was too big, too slow, and too political to move forward, or the project got absolutely bashed by politics and the inability to get buy-in.
You mentioned that while personality is difficult to change, attitude can be coached or trained. What’s the best way to train intrapreneurship? How should a company move forward?
Mindset. It’s all really about the mindset. I know it sounds a bit cliché, and we read and hear this everywhere, but it’s really the truth. You need to sure the environment supports the investment and training that you put into your people.
You can’t learn Mandarin in a weekend, right? It’s a process.
And if I start learning Mandarin somewhere in, say Germany, and I never hear other people speaking Mandarin, the chances of me really picking it up and using it and integrating it in my everyday life is much lower than if I immerse myself in a Mandarin-speaking environment.
So, it’s training plus environment. Training by itself quite frankly won’t work.
It’s great to empower, let’s say, an entire department and put them through a transformational training program that allows them to look at things differently, to not be afraid to collaborate, not be afraid to lose power. But if the company as a whole doesn’t support that mindset, then what happens is you end up with a very small open-minded department in a very big closed environment.
There are two ways around this. The first is a pretty large feat, and it would essentially look at transforming the culture overall. If that’s too big of a feat, then I would suggest to perhaps take a department and completely remove it, really completely remove it from the organization. Give it a life of its own and let it experiment, like in a little greenhouse.
That approach has pros and cons. The pro is that it’s free from all the limitations and harsh pressures of the larger organization, which may not have an open mindset. The con is that you’re very detached, so if there is ever a need or a desire to bring new innovations or projects back into the organization, there might be a clash there.
So successful training really comes down to mindset and culture and across the organization. Too often, companies think investing in just one innovation department is good enough.
And while this innovation department might be amazing, if you have a silo innovation department that’s fighting against marketing and finance and compliance – and often times, to be honest, it’s compliance they fight with the most – then that’s going to be a waste of effort and time, and it’s going to result in a lot of frustration. It’s the same when you start hiring entrepreneurial people from the startup world – if you don’t create an environment for them to actually do what you’re hiring them to do, then it’s going to be very difficult.
How, specifically, would a mindset-centred training program work? What would the outcome be?
I started off talking about experimentation and collaboration; essentially, these are the two main areas I think large companies struggle with because, again, it’s about this mindset of minimizing risk. Very few companies have a truly collaborative culture, where they work together and completely let go of who will get credit, for example.
Often times companies are set up like dysfunctional structures of power: people tend to be really, really reserved about sharing ideas because they’re afraid that they’re going to be stolen, that they’re going to be held against them, they might lose their jobs. This needs to change.
So as far as outcomes go? We would let people experiment. We would accept that failure is not a bad thing. We would create an environment where experiments do not have detrimental consequences to the organization, where we can look at failure as feedback and actually move forward. But that’s not the case right now.
I see this trend around the world: we’ve had all these companies investing in labs, building all these corporate accelerators, because everyone realizes we live in a very uncertain and disruptive world and we need to be proactive.
But after a while, what happens in the corporate world is we say okay, where are the results? Where are the KPIs on this?
Innovation can’t be measured in the traditional way we in the corporate world understand, again coming back to our MBA thinking. If we really want to move forward on either incremental or disruptive innovation from within our organizations, we need to liberate ourselves from being obsessed with traditional KPIs and measuring it in the ways that we measure other things. And we need to stop limiting things for the sake of risk before they even can take any shape or form. But as you can tell, this is very uncomfortable to do because, essentially, it has to do with letting go of control.
Should liberating ourselves start at the leadership level, or can it happen from the bottom up as well?
It can happen bottom up, I’ve seen bottom up; but, if the leadership is not on board with it, it’s going to be very difficult. They have to be involved. Really, neither way works if one or the other isn’t on board. Often times companies invest either only in leadership or only in the bottom. It puzzles me, because I know they have the funds to invest in both, and if you don’t it’s almost like you’re not using both wheels: only one wheel is actually turning, and of course nothing will move unless both wheels turn together in the same direction.
But in terms of where to start with the training, it really depends on the culture of the organization. Some organizations have changed from the bottom up and they’re very powerful, because this means their entire bottom layer feels empowered to move the organization forward. But, at the same time, they have to be able to do things. If the leadership doesn’t move that forward it’s going to just be very frustrating for the organization as a whole.
In closing, I’d love to know what, if anything, surprised you in your research – and if you’ll be sharing any of that with us in Singapore?
At this point I can’t share too much on the research, though I will be able to share more at the conference in January! I’m honored to be doing this work with a group of very experienced people comprising innovation facilitators, trainers, coaches, and people who have actually developed innovation methodologies. What we have begun to identify with the initial sharing and the initial exchange of experiences did actually surprise me.
What we found is that the people who really bring forward intrapreneurial success are not the people you would expect: the loud ones, the ones who want to stand in the limelight.
Rather, they are the very humble ones who have a very deep connection, a very deep passion, for innovation. And to be honest, often even a very deep passion for entrepreneurship.
Some of the people that I have seen bring projects the furthest in big companies were actually an entrepreneur before, a failed entrepreneur, or they were dreaming of once having their own business. So it comes from a very deep personal passion, and these are people with a very high EQ that are totally fine with the boards and the big guys taking credit for the work that they actually quietly do. My collaborators have validated this on their end as well – it’s very interesting.
And again, I’ll be sharing part of that work, and the experience, when I have the pleasure of coming to the conference in January.