Managing the mavericks

Valuing the diversity of mind-set as much as skill set

As a “big cheese” in a large multinational corporation, imagine the résumé of Jeff Bezos or Richard Branson landing on your desk; would you offer either of them a job? Or, say you were Elon Musk’s boss; how would you feel about offering him a promotion?

Most executives would say “Of course—I’d be crazy not to sign up to and encourage such talent.” After all, the battle to attract, retain and develop innovative talent is a top priority for most Fortune 500 companies. Yet, the reality is that, too often, socially minded entrepreneurial employees become attrition statistics. Most leaders don’t know where these changemakers reside in their organization, let alone how best to harness their innovation potential.

Internal entrepreneurs, or “intrapreneurs,” like to question things, test the approach of those around them, and see connections and opportunities that may not be apparent to the majority. It’s true, they can be challenging to manage—after all, they rarely follow the status quo. Yet, based on the results they achieve, the opportunity cost of not fighting to retain them could be far greater.

Big business has finally bought into the value of diversity—recognizing the latent potential of talent that is unconstrained by gender, race or sexuality. But, there has been less progress on addressing the broader diversity lens, accommodating people who think or act differently. What about embracing the diversity of mind-set as much as skill set?

This week in Oxford, United Kingdom, about 100 internal changemakers, from companies such as Barclays, Disney and BMW, came together for The Intrapreneur Lab—a new leadership development programme to nurture and support this new breed of ‘talented mavericks’. For too long, the intrapreneur has risked being unappreciated or becoming an endangered species in the corporate world. Globally, there are growing alumni: talented ex-BP, Vodafone, TNT and, as this article’s authors* can testify, leading management consultants’ employees who have become weary of the battle with what we identify as a “corporate immune system.” What do we mean by this? The corporate immune system is an invisible layer of antibodies—consisting of cultural norms, risk controls, policies and leadership inertia—that inevitably stifle anything, or anyone, that deviates from the fiscal drumbeat of maximizing profits in the next quarter. Hardly surprising, given the incentive structures for senior executives. And it is this immune system which may mean that corporates are inadvertently letting go of the next Branson, Bezos or Musk.

Intrapreneur is not a job title you’re likely to find on LinkedIn. Nor is it synonymous with the Head of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) or Chief Sustainability Officer. Instead, it’s more a vocation than a job—a mind-set and a behavior that could reside anywhere within the company. So, who are these talented mavericks and how can they be retained and nurtured?

First, there’s a rationale for preventing intrapreneurs from becoming an attrition statistic. Far from being “bleeding heart do-gooders,” these are people who not only have a keen eye on the bottom line, but also put purpose on par with profit. And along the way, they bring innovation potential. While the digital revolution has already disrupted most industries, being able to continue adapting and innovating will be key to survival in the coming decade. Empowering intrapreneurs, who are already within the organization and are open to the possibilities, offers a relatively straightforward way to bring some of the “magic” of the Silicon Valley mind-set into large, growing corporations.

Second, the social dimension of intrapreneurship is key. Innovating to solve the biggest social challenges we face—including access to healthcare, energy, education and so on—can provide worthwhile commercial market opportunities for business. The money transfer, financing and microfinancing service M-PESA, which enabled Vodafone to revolutionize mobile banking in Africa, is a highly successful FinTech example. Also in Africa, an intrapreneur in science-led global healthcare company GSK pioneered low-cost diagnostic tools to improve health outcomes. Founding and scaling the international not-for-profit Accenture Development Partnerships is further example of what can be achieved by a group of dedicated individuals. You can read more about that journey in a new book entitled The Intrapreneur which is launching early in 2018. These examples are positive evidence of the impact of this nascent movement.

Finally, encouraging intrapreneurship provides another lever for attracting and retaining tomorrow’s talent. There is growing evidence that Gen Y and Millennials are less interested in making a fortune and more interested in making a difference in the world. Increasingly, they want to work for an employer who has clear and visible values and a mission that recognizes both profit and purpose. Having a bolt-on CSR programme, running a Foundation or simply stating commitment on the website are fast becoming basic hygiene factors as opposed to differentiators.

Leading companies view tackling societal problems as opportunities for growth, and they are investing in technology, innovation and metrics to support this. Further, they are enabling their talented employees, or intrapreneurs, to help shape this vision of the future, recognizing it requires a different way of thinking and of doing.

Thanks to forums such as The League of Intrapreneurs, the Aspen Institute’s First Movers Fellowships and the Circle of Young Intrapreneurs, there is a sense that intrapreneurship is a concept that has finally come of age—one that even captures the corporate zeitgeist perhaps.

Are you ready to make the most of the intrapreneurs within your organization?

* This blog is co-authored by intrapreneurs Gib Bulloch, formerly Accenture and Sarah Buckley, formerly PwC