The Careers of Innovation Leaders and Intrapreneurs


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Intrapreneurship is a hot topic for me at the moment. I will be moderating an InnoChat on this on Nov 1 and I will be speaking on the intersection of open innovation and intrapreneurship at the Intrapreneurship Conference in Paris on Dec 13.

As a way to tie this together and bring even more attention to intrapreneurship, I will publish a series of new and older posts on entrepreneurship over the coming months. Here we go with an older post in which I look into the careers of innovation leaders and intrapreneurs.

I have previously argued that companies need two kinds of people to make innovation initiatives successful. They need innovation leaders who focus on building the internal platform required to develop organizational innovation capabilities. This is work on the strategic and tactical level.

Innovation leaders are often also involved as coaches, facilitators and sponsors for the second group required for innovation; the intrapreneurs who turn ideas and research into real products and services that move the business forward.

For your information, intrapreneurship can be defined as using entrepreneurial skills without taking on the risks or accountability associated with starting your own business. Instead, intrapreneurs are employees in larger organizations, who act as entrepreneurs while having the resources and capabilities of the larger firm to draw upon.

More than intrapreneurs, innovation leaders need the ability to read the corporate landscape, and they need to maneuver within corporate politics to secure the necessary internal resources for the innovation projects. They must attend the issues of many stakeholders, including senior executives, middle managers, and external partners.

Intrapreneurs are more operational minded as they have to develop a new business that meet the needs of demanding customers. Of course, this also includes coordination with stakeholders from the corporate mothership and external partners, but intrapreneurs also have a special talent for understanding the need to address the needs of paying customers and making this happen.

Intrapreneurs are even rarer within a company than innovation leaders. Based on my experiences, only 2 to 5 percent of a white-collar workforce has what it takes to turn ideas and research into business as long-term key drivers. Sure, other employees will chip in as innovation contributors in various phases, but they are not as significant and important as the intrapreneurs.

These contributors are often junior people who are still early on in their learning curve or experts with specific skills. Unlike intrapreneurs, they do not take a guiding role in turning ideas into realities; instead they are assigned to projects where they contribute with sheer man power and/or their specific skills and talents. As such, they are important, but are also easily replaced.

The number of intrapreneurs is low for two reasons. First, intrapreneurs have the skills and the will necessary to become entrepreneurs and start their own company. This means they usually do not end up in a large company in the first place. Those who do are often stuck because they followed the traditional career path as shown below.

Traditional Career Path:

1. High School
2. University
3. Consulting company (for some)
4. Corporate world
5. Retire

This path is different from what you usually see from an entrepreneur starting his or her own company.

Entrepreneurial Career Path:

1. High School
2. University (not necessarily completed)
3. Practical experience or startup
4. Serial entrepreneur
5. Venture capital, business angel, board member
6. Never really retire

(Inspired by MIT Entrepreneurship Center).

Intrapreneurs often start out in the corporate world with the ambition of starting their own company once they get some experience and earn a starting capital. However, once they get used to the security of being in a large company, their entrepreneurial spirit gradually decreases although it is still much higher than most of their colleagues.

They might also get married and have children, which often dampens the entrepreneurial spirit. Entrepreneurship is very much about uncertainty and that does not sound appealing to a perhaps risk-adverse spouse worrying about making mortgage payments and building a stable foundation for children. Actually, you are unlikely to become a successful entrepreneur and at the same time enjoy a good family life unless you have strong support from your spouse.

The second reason for the scarce number of intrapreneurs is the corporate environment itself. Intrapreneurs have a constant drive and they seem to have an innate need to always question the status quo, which often put them at odds with colleagues. They are at risk of being labeled troublemakers, making their career path within the current organization much more difficult.

This often forces them to seek other opportunities. Ideally, they end up in a company that has discovered that troublemakers are not necessarily a bad thing. The lucky ones stay in their company and they become coveted pieces in the effort of developing the innovation DNA.

Talking about career paths for innovation leaders and intrapreneurs, this is my take on how it could look like:

Innovation Leader / Intrapreneur Career Path:

1. High School
2. University
3. Consulting company or a start-up (for some)
4. Corporate work (business development / innovation)
5. New venture projects within an established corporation
6. Senior management (sponsoring innovation projects)
7. Semi-retire (consulting)

It would be great to hear feedback on this.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Stefan Lindegaard
Stefan is an author, speaker, facilitator and consultant focusing on open innovation, social media tools and intrapreneurship.


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