Intrapreneurs are Passionate Change Agents: How to Nurture them from Within

How can leaders act to ensure the passion and compassion of social intrapreneurs are allowed to blossom in big business?

Cafe Terrace on Rue Vieille du Temple

Cultivate a cafe culture: create time and space to talk about what is happening in the wider world and how your business can be a force for good in it. Photograph: Ludovic Maisant/Hemis/Corbis

The combination of passion and compassion creates a powerful force for positive change. There are always plenty of both on offer at the annual get-together of the hundreds of social entrepreneurs who attend the Skoll World Forum in Oxford, which ended last week.

While the straightjacket of big business can tend to dull our humanistic instincts, it’s difficult to hide the enthusiasm of individuals who have taken on the mission of integrating doing good with doing well, even if at times they can sound like members of the congregation at a Christian revivalist meeting.

Freed from the usual constraints and conventions, social entrepreneurs have less to fear from wearing their hearts on their sleeves. At Skoll, Ashoka founder Bill Drayton talked about the importance of developing cognitive empathy, and this means integrating both the spiritual and temporal.

This freedom to speak out is not age-related. Bill Strickland, 66, the president and CEO of America’s non-profit Manchester Bidwell Corporation, spoke of the profound and “blinding” spiritual experience that led him to work with disadvantaged and at-risk youth through involvement in the arts. Not the sort of conversation you hear at the usual corporate get-together.

In this atmosphere, everyone has the permission to open up. Gro Brundtland, the former Norwegian prime minster who is perhaps best known for creating the first internationally recognised definition of sustainable development, spoke movingly of how the love of her husband had given her the strength to get through the dark times. How many of us can relate our core relationships to finding the confidence to tackle the big sustainability challenges of our time?

Drayton, the godfather of the social enterprise movement, told me the goliaths of the business world would do well to follow the example of these up and coming social entrepreneurs by encouraging greater emotional intelligence within their own ranks.

This makes absolute sense at a time when new skills are needed to work in a business environment that is increasingly complex and changing rapidly.

The first action that big business can take is to support those individuals who share the passion of social entrepreneurs but have taken on the difficult task of seeking to create change within bureaucratic frameworks. Often, they do this by trying to shift development challenges up their CEO’s agendas or by bringing the expertise and financial clout of a multinational to bear on solving a specific social problem.

Last week, I interviewed the four winners of the League of Intrapreneurs competition, created by Accenture and Ashoka. What was clear was that it was a direct personal and heartfelt experience that prompted each one to take action, not looking at a spreadsheet or PowerPoint presentation.

Sacha Carina van Ginhoven, from TNT Express, for example, came up with the idea of using technology to help improve deliveries to the millions of small businesses in slums around the world, which do not have formal addresses. She decided to act after a slum resident of Kibera complained to her of having to walk 3.5km to the nearest post office whenever he ordered anything.

Another example is Mandar Apte, from Shell International, who introduced meditation to counteract the lack of time, stress, fear of failure, and self-judgments that were holding staff back from achieving the company’s innovation goals.

But few intrapreneurs find the going easy and many struggle to get the necessary resources for their projects, even within a supportive culture. Either projects, such as Van Ginhoven’s, get stalled by a lack of money, or in the case of Graham Simpson, from healthcare giant GSK, rely on someone doing all the work to develop cheap diagnosis kits for developing countries in his spare time.

The sad truth is also that for every intrapreneur who succeeds in taking a step forward, there are hundreds who either get stuck or don’t feel that the internal culture will allow them to speak out about an idea in the first place.

David Grayson, from the Doughty Centre for Corporate Responsibility, has just published guidance for large businesses on how to ensure that intrapreneurs get a chance to unleash their potential. He has come up with seven habits that companies should practice to build successful social intrapreneurism.

1. Cultivate ‘cafe culture’

Create time and space for people at all levels of your organisation to learn, think and talk about what is happening in the wider world and how your business can be a force for good in it.

2. Humanise your organisation to promote egalitarianism and generosity

Social intrapreneurism flourishes in egalitarian environments with flat hierarchies. People unencumbered by bureaucracy and politically induced fear will be free to think about “their mainstream day jobs in the broadest way”, and are more likely to take responsibility for innovation, sharing their ideas and learning with others with improved results.

3. Account for the social and environmental, as well as the economic, value you create

Conventional accounting rules and timeframes make it difficult to develop socially innovative projects. Managers of aspiring social intrapreneurs should look for ways to assess the social and environmental, as well as economic value that their proposed projects can create.

4. Network inside and outside your organisation to create consortia for action

Successful social intrapreneurs build alliances with partners outside, as well as inside, the organisation. Cross-border and cross-sector partnerships can form the basis for powerful consortia for change. Senior managers need to be open to working, not only with people in other departments, suppliers and other business partners, but with other organisations in other sectors in order for these partnerships to work.

5. Grow people into leadership roles for sustainable business

People given opportunities to develop self-confidence and skills for collaboration gain a deep understanding of the business and “do good” through volunteering and mentoring. If they are then recognised and rewarded for such behaviour, they are more likely to develop into successful agents for social change.

6. Experiment with social intrapreneurism pilots that can be scaled up for impact

Social intrapreneurs start with time-limited, small-scale projects – often in their spare time, at the margins of their organisations – which can provide proof of concept with minimal financial or reputational risk to the company before being scaled up. While it is desirable to be able to predict or calculate return on investment for such projects, most pilots cannot be assessed against quantitative criteria and therefore alternative qualitative criteria will need to be used to define success.

7. Strategise to achieve sustainable business and societal goals

The ultimate goal is for leaders of the business is to understand its wider societal purpose and to develop business strategy, vision and values that encompass this.

Perhaps if corporate leaders took Grayson’s advice, they would not only win the loyalty of a grateful staff, but might find their own way to integrate their heads with their hearts. Then the dream of a sustainable future may come a little closer to reality.

This article was originally posted on the Guardian
Jo Confino is an executive editor of the Guardian and chairman and editorial director of Guardian Sustainable Business. He also advises Guardian News & Media and Guardian Media Group on their sustainability strategies