Bow Ties, Crazy Socks, and Hip-Hop: Tactics For Successful Intrapreneurship
On the eve of my first lecture in my most anticipated winter term Course - Social Intrapreneurship - I wanted to think about my experiences as a social intrapreneur. (For more discussion of intrapreneurs, please see a post I penned a few weeks ago about the importance of cultivating intrapreneurs in Detroit). I've learned a few things along the way on how to be a successful (social) intrapreneur when I was working at a fairly conservative Big 4 Consulting firm. I'll try to break some of them down here. [See postscript for info on two of my intrapreneurial experiences]. Some tactics are similar to points raised in our first lecture's required reading. I wish I could take credit for having these thoughts first!:
Bow ties, crazy socks, and hip-hop I have a penchant for wearing slightly ostentatious clothing on a semi-regular basis. Right now, for example, I'm wearing socks that look like hamburgers. At work, I would also wear bow-ties and slip hip-hop colloquialisms into discussions with colleagues. At business school I'm not shy about carrying my Yelp lunch box either (it's really cool).
It's helpful to do this because pushing little organizational or social boundaries adds up. After a while, you earn permission to bend larger rules and do things that are increasingly unorthodox. You get known as the "creative guy" or the "gutsy guy", which makes it easier for people to trust you as you mobilize an initiative that seems to buck the company's normal culture.
Do it on the cheap It's very hard for a manager or executive to say no to an idea that's cheap. So, if you're trying something new don't ask for much money, if at all. Also, try to get people to volunteer their time to help you. By doing this it not only allows you to stay under the radar, it validates that other people actually support what you're doing. Moreover, forcing yourself to a $500 or even $50 budget makes you think cleverly and creatively about how to maximize the impact of your resource endowment.
Don't coerce people to be on your team When going out and doing something crazy and/or foolish, it's a pretty natural instinct to try sweet-talking people into helping you. I actually think this is a terrible idea, especially at the beginning. If you misrepresent what you are doing - or over promise rewards - you'll end up attracting people who are not truly committed to your cause. This is exactly what you DON'T want because early on in an unorthodox initiative you need people around you who are committed to seeing something to completion, even if it has some reputational cost in the short-term.
Instead, tell people the truth and find people who are passionate about what you're doing and give them assurance that they can leave your team when they want to. In my experience, those passionate people are the ones who stick with you through thick and thin...because they care about making an impact not, what they'll get out of joining your team.
That being said, take care of your teammates, make sure they get the type of reward/recognition they wish.
Be consistent and take the long view Intrapreneurship, especially social intrapreneurship, seems to follow an S-curve. It takes a long time to get going and reach a critical mass of influence or people. Then, it takes off and you can make big gains. Then, it tapers off as your innovation becomes adopted and goes mainstream. This is to say that intrapreneurship takes time (it's very difficult, but very rewarding).
For that reason, it's really important to pick a cause that you're willing to stick with consistently for a long time. The old adage applies here: think of intrapreneurship as a marathon and not a sprint. Moreover, I suspect successful intrapreneurs stick with their companies for a long time. After all, intrapreneurship takes coalition-building and that's very difficult to do if you're jumping from company to company.
Beware of bullies / seek out anti-bullies In my time, I've come across a few bullies who make it tough to be an intrapreneur. They are the types that manipulate situations to get what they want. They like control and care more about their personal advancement and definitely do not care about broader concerns like social impact. Working with these people is hard, because they guard resources and influence closely. I'd say try to never owe them any big favors, and, get strong allies to counteract their power over you. Even if the bullies are powerful in your organization, be wary of trusting them. Certainly don't trust them blindly.
At the same time, be watchful for "anti-bullies." These are the sort of people who care about advancing in the company, but also care about broader concerns. Many times these people are motivated by more than their paycheck or promotion schedule. These leaders truly care about transforming the company or the community. Help these people first, then worry about making sure they know you. Don't "network" with them, ally with them and help them. They will help you when they are ready.
Don't be shy about your passion Communicating passion is essential for two reasons. First, communicating your passion will make it easier for like-minded people to find you across organizational boundaries. They will hear about your passion and someone will introduce them to you, if they trust that your passion is authentic. Second, nobody will follow you unless you're willing to stand for something and take a risk. So, don't be shy. Speak up (without being insincere or obnoxious). There are lots of ways to communicate passion too, especially as social software percolates across large enterprises.
As a sub-point to this broader point, join cross-functional initiatives so you can get to know people across your organization. It becomes easier to do something intrapreneurial if you have networks and knowledge across your company.
Be good at your job The better you are at your job the more people will think you are competent and trust you when you do something different. You'll also have more leverage in negotiations if you're an indispensable employee. More than that, if you advance in your job you'll have bigger and bigger platforms to advance your intrapreneurial agenda. So do your job well. Really well.
Here's a bit about two intrapreneurial initiatives I worked on in my previous job. (Yes, I bring these up to establish a modicum of credibility on this topic):
1 - I co-founded a pilot initiative to bolster skills-based volunteer initiatives at the conclusion of a seminar a team I was on gave about skills-based volunteerism and pro-bono work. We launched a pilot program to pair non-profits with volunteers, and provided tools and coaching so that the pairs could build a plan for a skills-based volunteer project. The idea was that if there was some infrastructure to help non-profits plan a solid project, it would be easier to attract volunteers. The initiative continues today.
2 - I worked on a cross-functional team to have a once-a-quarter event where two members of the office would give a short talk on a topic of passion or interest. At the first event, for example, one of my colleagues gave a 5 minute talk about his experiences training as a world-class pairs figure skater. It was just a way to build camaraderie and the program still continues today, as well. It was the first event of its kind across our office and presumably across all US offices of my firm.