Finding Ways To Make Your Employees Intrapreneurs

by Joyce Gioia

In our everyday work, we talk to a lot of people about what they want in their careers. It seems that many people--especially the young people we talk to--tell us that they're pretty happy doing what they're doing right now, but that eventually, they want to do their own thing. They want to own their own businesses.

After all, that's the American Dream, right? Everybody wants to own his or her own business? Aren't entrepreneurs the kind of people who are most celebrated in our culture, these days, corporate or otherwise? Don't all of us harbor dreams of doing our own thing?

What we've learned, though, from our conversations with today's young professionals is that even though three-quarters of the folks with whom we speak express these dreams of owning their own business, most of them don't know what kind of business they want to own. In other words, they know that they want to do something for themselves, but they don't know what they want to do.

Whereas many business professionals see this drive among younger workers toward entrepreneurship as a hazard to workforce stability, we see an opportunity here. You don't have to keep losing your valued employees to the desire to work for themselves--you can give them the opportunity to find that sort of ownership and satisfaction within your company, right now. How can you do it? You can do it by intrapreneuring.

What is Intrapreneuring?

Though the term intrapreneuring has been in use for a while, it may not really be in practice as much as it should be. Put simply, intrapreneuring is the process of allowing--and encouraging--your employees to initiate and oversee new ideas or improvements within the framework of your organization. It means developing the kind of corporate culture that will allow employees to find all the opportunities for innovation and ownership they're craving--without their having to leave your organization to do it.

Does this mean that you should stop the presses right now and let every employee do his or her own thing? That would be taking the concept too far. Not all employees are feeling that entrepreneurial itch, and not all employees are even ready to be given the kind of responsibility we're talking about here. However--and this is important--some employees are not only ready for these kinds of opportunities, but they'll be ready to leave if they don't get them. You don't want to lose your best and brightest employees. And, by practicing intrapreneuring, you won't have to.

We've all heard the lament in exit interviews or resignation announcements that a given employee liked his or her job, but was leaving to "branch out" or was leaving "in search of something more," or was leaving "to start his or her own business." A large measure of this desire is that the employee is looking to gain responsibility for his or her work. Today's employees are looking for more than just a desk and a paycheck; they're looking for the opportunity to create, establish, and nurture an identity--a corporate identity, a work-related identity--of their own. They want something to be theirs.

Employers are slowly beginning to recognize these drives, and some are finding innovative ways to meet these needs, so that their best employees will have reasons to stay. They realize that they must provide challenges for their rising stars. They must provide opportunities for autonomy and for leadership. They must find a way, within the framework of the existing company, to allow their star employees some room to create, to maneuver, and, therefore, to thrive. You can do this in your company, too.

The key in any intrapreneuring concept is making sure that the new idea, or the revision of an old idea, fits within the framework of your existing company. Giving employees autonomy and ownership is fine, but you need to make sure that your new division, arm, or even corner of the room fits in well with the direction in which the company is already headed. You're looking for complementary concepts here.

Intrapreneuring in Action

What the firm IHS Helpdesk Services has done with their arm, IHS Helpdesk Services NEED CORRECT NAME, is an excellent example of what we're talking about here. IHS is a company that provides help desk staffers, on-site, in client corporations and organizations. IHS used to only provide on-site service. However, a young employee, a person already identified by management as someone with great potential, approached management with a simple idea: why not provide 24/7 phone support as well? That way, IHS could be the "first line of defense," so to speak, people looking for help at their client companies would call an 800 number, and speak with a trained IHS staff member, first to see if the problem could be resolved. The IHS staffer could then determine if the designated person on call for the client needed to be disturbed. Basically, the new division of IHS Helpdesk Services, would be hired by clients to be their on-call people. The idea took off, business is booming, and the young pro stayed on with IHS to run the new division.

The IHS example (IHS, by the way, was itself a spinoff of this type, from Leverage Technologies in New York) highlights a good marriage of new ideas and existing company services. Look around your own company to begin to identify needs and opportunities for your rising stars. Intrapreneuring can help you keep your best and brightest employees, and they, of course, can help you maintain and improve your position in the marketplace.

Intrapreneuring at Your Company

Here are a few quick ways you can get started with intrapreneuring initiatives in your own company:

Identify your best and brightest employees. Not only are these folks your greatest assets, but they're also likely to be your greatest risks to leave. Start looking for ways to keep your most important people from day one.

Identify the strengths and weaknesses of your star employees. Look for ways to play to their strengths and improve their weaknesses. Discuss their goals and dreams with them, so that they know from the start that they won't necessarily have to leave to find what they're looking for. (You should, by the way, be having these sorts of conversations with all of your employees on a regular basis, regardless of intrapreneuring.) See if you can find ways to help them achieve their goals in alignment with the goals and objectives of the company.

Ask your at-risk employees--those most likely to leave--to come up with ideas that might allow them to stay. Give them the chance to sell you on their plans.

Support these ideas in any ways you can. Find ways to make employees even more excited about their own ideas, and they'll want to stay.
It is important to keep in mind that if, for some reason, you can't follow through in supporting your employees and their ideas, you need to offer that feedback immediately with an explanation as to why you couldn't support that idea. As well, you should know that you will need to provide some other sort of opportunity, in order for the employee to stay.

Intrapreneuring is really a win-win idea--your very best employees become more energized and motivated, and want to stay, and, if and when they're successful your bottom line improves. The key to workforce stability is finding ways for your employees to feel happy, successful and important...and intrapreneuring can do just that. Listen to your employees. Give them the chance to do their own thing. You won't be sorry.


Joyce Gioia is the co-author of the brand new book How to Become an Employer of Choice as well as Workforce Stability and Lean & Meaningful. She is also President of The Herman Group and a Fellow of the Institute.

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