Staff of Doers: How to Build an Army of Intrapreneurs

Business.com / Strategy / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

If so many major companies are fostering and encouraging a culture of entrepreneurship, why doesn’t everybody?

What do Post-it notes, Gmail, and the iPhone all have in common?

You might be thinking all three can be found on the average creative’s desk, but they share something deeper, too: They were all born from a spirit of intrapreneurship in pre-existing companies.

These products aren’t alone, either. Shutterstock has found success through intrapreneurship, hosting annual hackathons for its employees to discover creative methods of moving the company forward.

Meanwhile, employees at LinkedIn have the opportunity to pitch new ventures every quarter. If an idea is approved, the team responsible gets to spend three months transforming it into a viable venture.

But all these successes leave us with one big question: If so many major companies are fostering and encouraging a culture of entrepreneurship, why doesn’t everybody?

Ad agencies in particular, often filled with large creative egos, have never embraced the idea. Owners wanted to keep the spotlight on themselves, preferring nondisclosure agreements and non-competes to more transparent and open systems that help team members become independent professionals.

This is a feeling that needs to change, as it does nothing more than stifle the chance for explosive growth in an organization.

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Foster the Spirit

I love the entrepreneurial spirit. It’s been my dream to foster entrepreneurs ever since I became one myself, and with 40 percent of Millennial employees very or extremely interested in these opportunities, it’s a great way to engage people in growing the business.

Individuals who are motivated by growth and self-reliance are better employees than those who rely solely on their employers. They constantly work to improve their skills and hone their killer instincts, and these efforts mean they’re more likely to take calculated risks and work well under pressure.

So how does this desire for an intrapreneurial team get translated into reality?

To help foster this culture, we take the entire company, from intern to CEO and board, on a four-day retreat to a tropical destination every year. The first two days are spent socializing, and then we get down to work on company projections, what we learned from the last year, and what strategy to follow in the next. By including everybody, we ensure we’re all responsible for our goals (and that we’ll work together on them).

Building a retreat of this kind doesn’t require massive funds for traveling to exotic locales, but it does require an understanding of what needs to be accomplished while away from the office. Regardless of whether the focus is on building a collaborative spirit through fun activities or creating a more structured plan of attack regarding pain points within the company, this understanding will guide the timeline, format, and agenda of the event. From there, trust the great minds on your team to fill in the rest.

Planning a retreat should not be a compromise between fun and actionable work tasks. These are not mutually exclusive. The key is to have a perfect mix of work and fun for everyone at the company while pursuing a common goal, planning your company’s next path to success.

We’ve hosted retreats in such locations such as Jamaica, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic to facilitate team bonding and dedication to our goals.

We usually do half-day sessions during the first two days, and then we focus on team-building activities afterward. The key is to make sure everyone understands the purpose of why we’re holding the retreat. Beyond that, we look to engage with employees on a personal level. We usually start planning all activities three months in advance, and the management team is highly involved in arranging every nuance of the trip.

Along with the retreat idea, we also set up an investment fund to enable team members to bring new ideas to the table, no matter how junior-level they are. These funds do not need to be applied for all ideas presented. However, the existence of this resource not only encourages team members to express their ideas, but it also encourages senior management to take these considerations seriously because the corporate budget already allows for taking risks.

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We had one employee who started out as an intern, moved through the ranks to become an analyst, and now heads our UK office. It was actually her idea to expand into Europe in the first place. When her husband’s job transferred him there, she approached us to suggest this new direction for the company. Our European operation is expected to turn a solid profit this year, and it’s all down to empowering that employee to break new ground.

She’s not our only success story, either. Our public affairs practice started with a friend who was laid off from her previous job and started out as a consultant with us. In 2016, we expect that practice will generate close to seven percent of our revenue. Soon we’ll open a production company with a third employee as well. 

Allow for Mistakes

The most important step in the process of creating intrapreneurs is to allow people to make their own mistakes. Nobody ever masters a skill set without a few missteps along the way, and those mistakes are an essential part of the learning process. Rigid, bureaucratic command structures, on the other hand, can stifle opportunities for individual growth.

Creating an intrapreneurial culture is not simply about giving speeches celebrating the approach, but it’s also about empowering employees to make those strides forward. Encourage the breakdown of hierarchy within meetings by opening up the floor to questions, comments, and new directions of thinking to get those ideas flowing.

Show Them the Money

You have to be transparent with the numbers. Don’t be afraid to show your revenue numbers internally. Nobody will judge them. Instead, you’ll gain a trusted partner who understands the business more deeply and will try harder when needed.

We inform every employee about the projected revenue for the year by account and then work together to plan for next year’s revenue. Employees are individually responsible for their goals, and the group is collectively aware of where we need to be at the end of the year.

It’s also important to be receptive when employees bring numbers to you. In one publicized case, an intrapreneurial idea was rejected because the projected revenue in the first year was less than $40 million, but this attitude is unhelpful and can damage the mindset of employees. Without the necessary context behind such a decision, employees are left with the idea that the door to intrapreneurship has been irrevocably closed, with no reason to make another attempt.

Training your team to become well-rounded professionals is a far more effective way to build trust and cohesion, as well as grow your business. Practice job enrichment by rotating people between positions, help them to obtain critical skills for tomorrow’s economy.

Furthermore, spend time with your employees to explain any challenges the company is facing.

Individuals, when left siloed within their limited positions, lack the necessary knowledge that fosters expansive ideas. By exposing them to a wider view of the organization through meetings and training, you provide them with the tools to create the next big idea for the company. 

Related Article: 5 Really Good Reasons You Should Re-Think Your Open Door Policy

Don’t worry that those employees might take their skills elsewhere. At Gravity, we’ve only had one case of that happening, and it was the best outcome for both the employee and for us.

At the end of the day, it proves our mission is working, and it helps to encourage others to join us and learn new critical skills. By fostering a culture of intrapreneurship, you can open new horizons for both your employees and your business.

 

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