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Intrapreneurs: The New Entrepreneurs?

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Recently, the CEO of a Fortune 500 company invited me to lunch at a very nice private club in Los Angeles to pose a rather interesting business question. After hearing me give a speech on the subject of small and big businesses helping each other, he wanted to explore how that entrepreneurial energy could be harnessed inside a multi-billion dollar company. That question was a thought provoking challenge to which lunch became the side dish! I've long felt that companies of all sizes need to have that can-do spirit at every level to survive, adapt and grow. Founders of businesses usually have it, but I say that reaching the peak and staying there requires employees that can show that sparkling and spunky side of themselves as well. The word I've adopted to describe this phenomenon is "intrapreneur." I know it's a new word because spell check always wants to change it, but soon I expect the dictionaries will have an official definition.

What does that word mean exactly? Here's my definition. An intrapreneur is a person who has some clear strands of entrepreneurial yearning in their DNA, but who is working inside an organization they don't actually own. Most often it is a large company where the CEO isn't seen by the person in cubicle No. 600! To the classic entrepreneur this may be puzzling, but I hope that for a growing class of smart 21st century "employees," it may sound like a wonderful opportunity to learn and grow.

Though many of us have trouble just spelling the word entrepreneur and its variants, we do know the boldface names such as Howard Schultz, Steve Jobs and Russell Simmons. Many of us want to be like them, but the truth is that most of us won't be climbing to their heights. Even if business magazines aren't yet trying to get our private phone numbers, learning to think like those more famous folks is something that we can do. Whether you are toiling away in cubicle No. 99, or about to get the top floor corner office with a 20-mile view, thinking as an intrapreneur can accelerate your upward path. Years ago, a very successful business owner advised me "If you want to have what they have, then do what they do."

What does that really mean? First, be sure that you have chosen a job that you like a lot or preferably love a lot. That is the fuel for your enthusiasm which is the catalyst for many very good things. People gravitate to those who bring a positive attitude to everything they do. Those folks who are attracted to you become your team or army who are ready to tackle just about anything. Without having to say so, they begin seeing you as a leader. An early business mentor said to me "learn to love your problems because they are the only thing you are certain to have everyday." Solving problems by having a supporting team and demonstrating leadership is the hallmark of great entrepreneurs. If you are doing that in a small unit within a mega corporation, the intrapraneur star may get tacked to your office door.

Though the dream of business ownership is strong, most individuals don't really want to go off on their own and build something from scratch and having to deal with the insecurities, pressures and unrelenting responsibilities. In my opinion, too many people become adults believing their professional lives must be lived in one of two realities. One is that you become a numbered cog in the machine of a mega corporation that has been stripped of its soul. The other is that you have to be the brilliant lone wolf working in a garage or spare bedroom to be fully in charge of your destiny. This is an age of the hybrid and you can you can bring your bold, resourceful thinking inside the right large enterprise and that is the spirit of being an intrapreneur. While entrepreneurs are now the rock stars of the business world and the path of starting your own business is enjoying a golden age of sorts, going it alone isn't for everyone.

Where and how do intrapreneurs thrive? When looking at the org chart of a multi-billion dollar company, I think the most entrepreneurial people are either about two levels below the CEO or one level above the bottom. Those folks near the bottom have seen enough of the company culture to be clear about how they can benefit from contributing fresh approaches to processes and products. They haven't been overwhelmed by a bureaucracy or the old way of doing things. If they can see blue sky above them in the company, they will stay, develop a sense of ownership and bring great value to the enterprise.

For those who are two levels down from the CEO, they have had to show some intrapreneurial spirit to get there. Now, they have credentials, a reputation in the business community and the confidence to be bold. If there is a new division to be started, the smart CEO will consider them to run the show. If there's trouble in paradise, the top person will listen carefully to the employees at either of these two levels for advice on solving the problems. The president of a well recognized Los Angeles-based company recently said to me "To deal with the future, I have to see the business as a start-up and help my key people embrace that kind of thinking."

The speed of change today and the size of our problems demands entrepreneurs. Whether it is a social network or private space travel there are entrepreneurs behind them. That is the spirit necessary to revive America's business leadership on the world stage. It will be the intrapreneurs who wake up the sleepy mega companies and give them a new lease on their business lives.