4 ways to identify an intrapreneur in your company

Talented employees with the entrepreneurial spirit may be hiding in plain sight.

The Detroit News
Jennifer Markert for Marco

Innovation. Problem-solving. Flexibility. Perseverance. These traits describe some of the most successful entrepreneurs, from Jobs to Bezos. But companies should realize that such characteristics are far from limited to founders. In fact, valuable intrapreneurs are likely to exist in your ranks, whether you’re a massive Internet provider or tiny family company.

Identifying and nurturing these individuals should be a key responsibility for all leaders. Jeff Gau, CEO of technology solutions provider Marco, which serves the Greater Detroit area with offices in Dearborn and Macomb, recognizes that internal innovation is what keeps companies like his at the forefront of the industry. “As leaders, I challenge you to look inside your existing business model for opportunities to be innovative,” he wrote in Marco’s leadership blog. “They are usually right in front of us.”

Likewise, the innovators known as intrapreneurs are right in front of us. Intrapreneurship is defined by Investopedia as “an inside entrepreneur, or an entrepreneur within a large firm, who uses entrepreneurial skills without incurring the risks associated with those activities.” Intrapreneurs bring entrepreneurial skills to projects within a larger company, developing them as one might a startup.

How can leaders go about identifying intrapreneurs and putting their skills to work? It’s not as easy as an informal survey, but it’s not rocket science either. Most importantly, the work you put into identifying intrapreneurs will be almost certainly worthwhile once they are given the opportunity to flourish.

1. Ideas from all angles

Like entrepreneurship, intrapreneurship is all about ideas. It entails coming up with smart ones, sticking with them, collaborating to achieve them and adapting to face challenges and seize opportunities along the way.

In order to identify intrapreneurs, you must foster a culture where ideas are encouraged at all levels of the organization. According to Gau, Marco’s culture of continuous improvement utilizes a system to solicit input related to strategic planning from every employee. Managers should provide a safe space for brainstorming and act as sounding boards for new ideas.

Critically, you must do more than pay lip service to ideas if you want to keep them coming. This means considering suggestions and trying new things, or at least following up on ideas about their feasibility. Ultimately, when everyone is given the time and space to be creative, you’ll see more and more people flexing their intrapreneurial muscles to the benefit of the larger team.

2. Knowing what to look for

Good ideas are a sign of intrapreneurship but far from the only tell-tale sign. After all, 200 people could have come up with an idea like Facebook, but only Mark Zuckerberg had the exact recipe to make it into the phenomenon it is today.

If you’re nurturing an environment where your employees can be creative, they will have the space to employ other traits that make a great intrapreneur. If you are a leader at your company, you should be on the lookout for such characteristics and remind managers to do the same.

“Identifying strengths and weaknesses in the potential leaders in our organization allows them to become more confident, more competent, and more valuable to the organization,” Gau writes in Marco’s leadership blog. “When you invest in your people, you will always get a return.”

Look for commitment and passion; these qualities will prove that a potential intrapreneur has the drive to challenge the status quo, break boundaries, and explore totally new ideas. They should show an internal motivation that transcends the incentive of profit alone.

Look too for collaborative skills, empathy, and adaptability. Rolling with the punches is a classic entrepreneurial necessity; it is equally vital to intrapreneurial projects that chart the unknown.

3. Trial and error

Candidates with good ideas and intrapreneurial traits may or may not have what it takes to transition from their current role into a leader of successful internal projects. It may take some trial and error to identify the right people and match them with the right ventures. Additionally, be aware that not all of these efforts will be successful right away, and some will likely fail.

Allowing promising candidates the opportunity to take the reins on meaningful projects is the perfect way to let a could-be intrapreneur to shine. This means focusing your energy, Gau says: “Setting realistic goals and expectations helps guide our decision making [at Marco]. We narrow a pool of 30 to 40 suggestions in any given year to no more than five top strategies that we commit to in our business plan.”

Your business must offer the resources necessary to get a project off the ground because even the savviest intrapreneur won’t get anywhere in a raft without a paddle.

4. Analysis and implementation

If you’ve allowed several could-be intrapreneurs the tools they need to experiment, give them a timeline to get things off the ground without taking away from any of the company’s essentials. Afterwards, a formal analysis should help you figure out who and what has been successful and analyze the reasons why.

Your successful intrapreneurs should be rewarded for their impact. Recognition, in the form of praise, promotions and pay, is what will keep these high-achievers committed to applying their talents to your company’s mission.

Implementing their projects into your organization can offer them the opportunity to scale their ideas on a larger level. You’ll see the benefits unfold and make waves, from frontline employees to the bottom line. Even better, you’ll know for sure that no great talent is wasted or ignored.

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