What qualities define an entrepreneur? I’ve always thought of the classic entrepreneur as being someone capable of seeing the big picture through the lens of a visionary, while simultaneously being able to sweat the small things on which success so often hinges. The defining qualities of an entrepreneur include risk-tolerance, ambition, passion, optimism and a high dose of resourcefulness. But there is no reason that these qualities should be exclusively associated with professionals who are starting new ventures. These are characteristics that, when properly fostered, can be invaluable assets within any organization, no matter how established. This concept of “intrapreneurship,” the implementation of entrepreneurial skills and initiatives within the organization, is one that I was first introduced to back at NYU Business School by the late Professor Zenas Block, who wrote the book Corporate Venturing: Creating New Businesses within the Firm. The unbridled pursuit of creating a company that embraces this concept has been the foundation for the $400 million in revenue growth TransPerfect has enjoyed from 1992 to today.
More than 20 years ago, we took on the challenge of entrepreneurship creating our business. As the business has grown, my entrepreneur badge has stuck — and it’s certainly one I’m proud to wear. Many of those early philosophies, put into practice while the company was in its infancy, still permeate our day-in and day-out operations. But I think what I’m even more proud of than being labeled an entrepreneur myself is coaching the next generation of our company’s managers to carry that torch forward in the form of intrapreneurship. The same entrepreneurial skills that bootstrapped us to early success are mirrored today in the intrapreneurial skills that we’ve encouraged in our team. Now, it’s quite a challenge to create a platform upon which entrepreneurial spirits can succeed and grow businesses and revenue within the structure of a larger organization. However, it’s a challenge that unquestionably pays dividends when executed correctly, and it is exactly the challenge that motivates me daily after 21 years in business.
What do I mean by, “executed correctly?” While many qualities of entrepreneurs are desirable in an intrapreneurial context and should be fostered, this does not come without trip wires. The people who possess these attributes are by nature high-performing individuals. With that penchant for success, they are virtually all blessed (and cursed) by a highly competitive streak that can easily get out of hand if the right thought-process is not instilled early in the employment relationship. Internal competition can be an incredible motivator, but it must remain healthy, or it runs the risk of detracting from the company’s overall success.
We coach intrapreneurs to understand that they should spread their wings and soar with individual achievement, but they are still part of team, and the team’s success is of paramount importance. At the heart of our management training is a goal to instill the team values that encourage high-performing intrapreneurs to buy into the concept that their success is intertwined with every other team member’s success and the success of the company as a whole.
Another risk in managing intrapreneurs, which is well worth the reward, is that they are usually very charismatic characters capable of engendering incredible loyalty from their teams. It can be a huge blow to morale when one of our visionaries moves on. Of course, you fight like hell to retain these people, but losing one on occasion is an inevitability, and the business needs to be prepared for when it happens. We coach our managers that “personal” loyalty is a nice to have, but what is even better is loyalty to our cause. If you can coach your managers to instill loyalty to a business cause (I’ve also heard this referred to a company’s “noble cause”), then your intrapreneur managers are creating a legacy of success that will last. And the best entrepreneurs and intrapeneurs alike want to see their legacies sustain through anything, even their own career move.
It’s impossible to reach perfection in managing intrapreneurs. But as entrepreneurs we wake up, get our game-face on, and we strive for it every day. After two decades, we’re still making mistakes, we’re still learning, and we’re still trying to improve every day. While things will never be perfect, if your business environment can walk that razor’s edge of not stifling individual and entrepreneurial spirit, keeping those egos and big personalities in check, maintaining fun and healthy internal competition, and instilling true team values, then as Kipling might say, “Yours is the [business world], and everything that’s in it.”