I came of age in the 1970s with the understanding that once I finished school I would, much like my dad and grandfather, work fairly regular hours at the same job, performing more or less the same duties, for the next 40 years until I retired. At that time, companies were managed according to set principles and the typical workplace looked and functioned pretty much the same across most industries. This article is about challenging some of those entrenched presumptions. In her book, A Manager’s Guide to Unleashing the Intrapreneur, Debbie Wooldridge argues that the company that wants to survive in the 21st century needs to change in some key and unexpected ways. To hire and retain creative and entrepreneurial talent, Wooldridge advises, be prepared for a revolution in workplace culture. Many of today’s workers are looking for a company that promotes learning and innovation, is flexible with the structure of a work day, promotes team work and unconventional thinking and rewards creativity. How do you make this happen in your company?
What is an Intrapreneur?
Intrapreneurs are not ordinary employees. The term intrapreneur is used to describe a kind of employee who pushes the boundaries of her defined work position, works long hours and makes use of company resources to further an idea, create efficiencies or improve company processes. With the right work environment, these workers are prepared to give a lot to their employers. Had these energetic Millennials not been saddled with college debt or other circumstantial limitations they would have been out in the marketplace, pitching ideas, starting new businesses and inventing new products and services. With no other sustainable outlet for their ideas and creativity, however, would-be entrepreneurs morphed into intrapreneurs, content to take risks, experiment and take flight within the protective arms of the right company.
Given encouragement and support, intrapreneurs will use the safety net provided by a corporation to kickstart and take ownership of an idea, presumably giving their host company a competitive edge. Intrapreneurs are often eager to work and learn, keen on contributing to a social cause, but also intent on maintaining a balanced work and home life. Beware to the employer who wants to recruit top talent but isn’t prepared to make a few changes; This group of workers is on a warpath to redefine the workplace.
More than Cogs
Early models of employment are top down, managed by a factory owner at the top and workers at the bottom, with some middle management supervisory layers in between. If any ideas were forthcoming, they were expected to come from the management tier, not from first year hires. Intrapreneurs are flipping this structure on its head and flattening the hierarchy, if not tossing it out the window altogether. Intrapreneurs are looking for a work culture that functions more like a team across all management levels and celebrates innovation and experimentation, whether it comes from a fresh hire or a senior employee. This is a workplace that rewards hard work, treats hires equally, and welcomes dialogue and ideas, even those that may trigger mini revolutions. This is a stimulating environment that is more laboratory than factory, more experimentation than routine, more a growing organism than a fossil.
More Laboratory, Less Factory
In an intrapreneur’s ideal place of work, all members of a team are treated equally and held accountable in an environment that favors discussion and open discourse. Here are guidelines to move in this direction:
- Draft a vision statement that captures a spirit of innovation. Encourage creativity. Provide a platform for team members to contribute and offer ideas.
- Articulate a plan that gives individuals the freedom to experiment and test ideas. Strike a balance in which job duties and responsibilities are carried out as required, but employees are given time to be creative as well. Some companies like 3M allow employees a certain percentage of work time to test new ideas. Create a physical space that is conducive to collaboration and invention. Move away from cubicles, build spaces for discussion and encourage an atmosphere of give and take.
- Intrapreneurs are eager for responsibility. Today’s intrapreneurs are ready to start work with a bang, take charge, learn as they go if necessary, and assume responsibility for the ideas they promote.
Learning Doesn’t Stop with the First Paycheck
Intrapreneurs are an inquisitive bunch and hope to learn new skills throughout their careers. Provide learning opportunities when you can.
- Give employees a chance to work with senior level employees in a variety of fields. Exposure to different perspectives enhances the collaborative process between departments and fosters good working relationships.
- Be a coach, know the talents of your hires and help your intrapreneurs learn and develop new skills. According to Woolbridge, many new hires leave a company because mentors were absent to guide and give feedback. Know the career goals of your employees and help them achieve these objectives.
- The onboarding process needs to be multi-dimensional and include not only job shadowing and exposure to different kinds of employees, but also access to different training media. Millennials are savvy and appreciate cutting -edge technologies that help them learn efficiently and on the go.
Not your Usual 9 to 5
Most of us are familiar with the standard 9 to 5 gig that defined the jobs held by our parents. Intrapreneurs are interested in the kind of flexibility that permits work outside of the normal time frame. Some companies have adopted a “results-only” system that allows an employee the freedom to perform work on his own terms provided a quality product is delivered on schedule.
- Intrapreneurs appreciate a work/life balance. Millennials, more than any other generation, feel that work does not define who they are. Companies that adopt a “people first” approach have done well in recruiting and retaining top talent.
- As with any change, flexible workdays should be approached thoughtfully and with incremental steps. Consider forming a focus group to consider options.
The 21st century seems to be ushering in a real era of change. Millennials of a certain character and drive, the intrapreneurs of our times, are requesting that companies reconsider the old order of things and inject a bit of experimentation into the standard work environment. Where an employee is allowed to grow, thrive and create, innovative ideas and products are sure to follow.
Wooldridge, Debbie (2017). A Manager’s Guide to Unleashing the Intrapreneur, Debbie Wooldridge and ttc Innovations, Carlsbad, California.