Dear Business Leader, there are people right now in your organization with the ideas and drive you seek to take your business to the next level–or at least start the company on the way to new innovation. They are intrapreneurs. You will do well to invest in them, and in their ideas.

According to Gifford Pinchot III, the revered proponent of intrapreneurship, these intrapreneurs are:

  • Employees who do for corporate innovation what an entrepreneur does for his or her start-up.
  • Dreamers who do.
  • Self-appointed general managers of a new idea.
  • Drivers of change to make business a force for good.

They are the ones who challenge the status quo, bring forward new ideas, and find fulfillment in translating new ideas to change and innovation. Sometimes, they are the odd employees who think differently, who appear way more critical of the new product, the ones constantly wondering, often aloud, “maybe there is a better way” to carry out a certain process or to design a certain product.

The Demand and Opportunity for Innovation

The global startup culture is both a boon and a threat to established organizations. In a world where there are no guaranteed markets or revenue sources, in one where the competition is not just other players in your industry but those in unrelated industries, companies must ramp up their innovativeness in order to survive and thrive in the market.

This innovativeness is how readily you adopt new ways in your operations or introduce positive change in how the customer experiences your offering. There are generally three ways to achieve this:

  1. Acquire another business to leverage its innovation.
  2. Partner with external parties such as other startups to pursue innovation.
  3. Develop internal capacity to mine ideas, explore and nurture them to deliver value to the customer.

Of those three means, the ability for organizations to develop innovation internally is highly significant. Such innovation helps the organization to grow organically and offers obvious cost-savings over going outside to shop for innovation, at least in the short term. How do you achieve this internal-driven innovation? You can achieve this through intrapreneurs.

Examples of Intrapreneurs’ Impact

For instance, Sony’s largest business segment as of 2020 was its game and network services (Source). Did you know that the top executives at Sony rejected the idea of developing a gaming division when an employee Ken Kutaragi first proposed it? They thought it was a waste of time, a fad not worth the company’s time and resources. There are more examples of intrapreneurs literally at work:

  • Gmail came into existence because a Google employee Paul Bucheit invented it outside his routine job.
  • Freddy Anzures first came up with Apple’s iconic ‘swipe to unlock’ feature.
  • Shoppers on Amazon can be assured of two-day delivery because employees developed Amazon Prime.
  • Starbucks ramped up its personalized customer experience because one intrapreneurial barista had a habit of writing customer names on coffee cups instead of the coffee type.

Typically you would expect to find intrapreneurs in product development, marketing, and sales departments or teams but increasingly the organization must look beyond such roles in identifying and enabling entrepreneurial employees to share and implement their ideas. The organization thrives as intrapreneurs drive innovation within it.

How to Empower Employees to Become Intrapreneurs

Here are some steps you can begin to take to awaken an intrapreneurial spirit in your employees:

  • Become a Learning Organization. Encourage everyone to learn and grow. Provide learning opportunities and amenities. Nurture a community of curious people, learners and thinkers. Evaluate your learning and development programs to include everyone.
  • Bring your people closer to your customers. Find opportunities to expose your people to customers so they understand your business better. People across the organization will feel empowered to pitch in when they experience the processes of serving your customers firsthand.
  • Encourage everyone to share ideas. If you have a think-tank, a committee or team responsible for generating ideas, repurpose the team to serve as an engine for collecting and refining ideas.
  • Demonstrate that you value good ideas. Sponsor the ideas or have other leaders adopt the ideas employees propose. Recognize and reward ideas. Let your people develop confidence in the process.
  • Ask for problems, ask for solutions. Share problems, ask for solutions. If you are defensive when employees come up with problems, they will clam up when they should be initiating or furthering conversations that lead to change. Rather than justifying the company’s position, ask for solutions instead. In fact, go one step further by being the one to share problems first and invite employees to provide ideas and solutions.
  • Give new ideas room to grow without the pressures of the regular performance metrics. Large companies do this when they expend much resources on new innovations and experiments without expecting returns for extended periods. One way to achieve this as a small business is to take small bets. Encourage new ideas with minimal resources in test markets, look for ways to piggyback new ideas on your current cash cows.
  • Allow idea champions to lead or take active roles in developing the ideas. As appropriate, support them with a cross-functional team to see the idea through to delivery.
  • Recognize and reward good ideas. Work with the mix that works best for your organization–company recognitions, cash awards, promotions, and others.

Intrapreneurs Drive Innovation from Within

More than ever before, innovation driven from within will help businesses stay relevant in the ever-demanding marketplace. Without this, your business cannot be nimble enough to adapt to changing market conditions. No matter how well-established your business is, it must adapt to the environment, and in many cases learn to pivot like a startup. Raising a company of intrapreneurs will create a force of innovation that will help your business thrive in the seasons ahead.

The story of Airbnb’s early days lends credence to this maxim. When Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia pitched their idea of a service that would offer people accommodation in random homes instead of hotels, investors decided it was a bad idea and refused to fund their startup. Paul Graham of Y Combinator also thought it was a bad idea but he put down the money to help the founders run the business.

Why? He was convinced the guys would at least be smart enough to pivot to a reasonable venture when reality had rid them of their delusion. He believed in the founders enough to invest even if their idea was doubtful. Today, that bad idea has a valuation of $80 billion! The startup’s success is perhaps a combination of many factors, but the attributes of the founders contributed to raising the necessary funding in the first place.

Entrepreneurs Focus on Ideas, Smart Investors Want to Know More

Many entrepreneurs swear by their ideas. They think their ideas will change the world. And they guard these ideas with all they have, protecting them, nursing them, waiting for the smart investor. They are certain the smart investor will jump at financing their super ideas as soon as he or she hears them.

Smart Investors Invest in People, Not in Ideas


While these investors truly want to hear those great ideas, they are more particular about the person (and increasingly the people) pushing the idea. They are more interested in the entrepreneur’s history, their exposure and experience, their education and networks. They want to know about the person’s capacity, character, and competence. Investors want to know what they have been able to achieve in the past because past success could be a predictor of future success. Beyond ideas, investors are keen on the entrepreneur’s ability to execute.

You can begin to take certain steps to become that prime candidate smart investors are looking for no matter where you are on your entrepreneurial journey.

Pay Attention to Your Growth

So, what do you need to do? Focus on building your three Cs — Your Competence, Character, and Capacity.

1. Competence: Keep learning, keep developing the right skills to do the job. This includes not just technical skills relatable to your specialty but entrepreneurial and business skills as well. Take courses in marketing, finance, leadership, or even public speaking. Take an inventory of your skills and begin to bridge your competence gap.

2. Character: Pay attention to your attitudes, values, and priorities. Be your authentic self, but above all strive to inculcate the disciplines and habits for success. Do you value delivering on your promises? Are you a person of integrity striving to do as you say? What do the values of integrity, respect, collaboration, and perseverance mean to you?

3. Capacity: Your competence and character naturally lead to building your capacity. How much of what you can do are you able to do? It refers to your stamina–physical, mental, psychological, essentially how far you can keep going under the demands of work and responsibility.

The good thing about all these traits is that you can learn, grow, and improve in all three dimensions as you address them. This is the way to develop qualities as a person who brings value to the table. Certain ideas will only occur to you as you grow in those three areas.

Teams Offer Confidence

Just a note on teams: Investors feel more comfortable with teams of founders than with single stars. They want to know that critical roles such as product development, marketing, and finance are manned by competent members of a founding team. The team’s competence is a reflection of each member’s competence. A mediocre team can take a good idea and create nothing significant of it. But a good team can take a plain, obvious-to-the-eye, plain-as-vanilla idea and make an empire of it.

Members of a team are able to complement one another thereby presenting a strong case to investors. That is another reason to pay attention to your personal growth. It becomes easier to attract smart people to yourself as you grow.

In conclusion, great ideas only translate to value with the right execution. It takes the right mix of competence, character, and capacity to take an idea from concept to value delivery. Smart investors know this, which is why they invest in people, and not in ideas.

When Satya Nadella became Microsoft CEO in 2014, he embraced a mission to transform the organization’s culture from one of infighting to a culture of collaboration. Where the organization was previously depicted as a group of warring factions, employees are now rewarded for helping their colleagues to succeed. That culture shift has helped Microsoft to chart a path of success. Microsoft has now overtaken Apple as the world’s most valuable company with a valuation of over $2.5 trillion.


Culture is Critical

In a survey of executives by researchers at Duke University, 92% admitted that improving a firm’s culture would improve its value, but only 16% felt that they had an ideal corporate culture. (Link) An overwhelming majority of leaders agreed that their culture was preventing them from achieving their business goals. 

If that is the case, what then stops companies from changing their culture to help them achieve their goals? The reason might be similar to the reason most of us struggle with habits. Trying to change an organization’s culture could be complicated and resource-consuming. But like personal habits, an organization’s culture can also change with conscious and consistent effort.


Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast (and Lunch?)

An organization will make progress or decline in line with its culture. A company’s culture refers to the prevailing values in an organization, the type of behavior that gets rewarded, or as any employee might say, “this is how we do things.”

An organization’s culture may help or hinder it from reaching its target. It is possible for an organization to adopt some seemingly rock-solid organizational strategy and yet fail when it comes to execution. Among other variables, a key reason may be because acting towards realizing the goal of the strategy is in conflict with the way work is done. 

On the other hand, a company’s culture may help it to prosper. Harvard professors Philip Kotter and James Heskett studied 200 companies to find out how each company’s culture affected its long-term economic performance. They discovered that “those companies with strong corporate cultures that facilitate adaptation to a changing world are associated with strong financial results.” 

What does it mean for a company to have a “strong culture”? A strong culture is one that highly values people, that is, employees, customers, and owners. It is also a culture that encourages leadership from everyone in the organization. The authors called these performance-enhancing cultures. The values embedded in the culture made it easy for employees to fulfill the organization’s strategy. 


Examples of Strong Cultures

1. Cisco

Ranked as #1 on the 2021 list of Great Place to Work, this is a quote from an employee:

“The attention that the executive team pays to the health and welfare of the surrounding community is extraordinary. Company leadership works to ensure that the company is an active member of the communities in which we operate and are quick to provide resources to support the most vulnerable. I also am heartened by our CEO’s focus on social justice issues, specificly [sic] those in support of the Black community. Before it became en vogue to do so, he was vested in listening and taking authentic strategic, meaningful actions.” (Link)

2. Zenefits (Human Resource Software as a Service Company)

Amidst a crisis, Zenefits’ interim CEO David Sacks announced a change in the culture based on three core values:

    • #1 Operate with integrity.
    • #2 Put the customer first.
    • #3 Make this a great place to work for employees.

3. Southwest Airlines

Southwest Airlines decided to place their employees first, and not customers. The leadership believes that happy employees will lead to happy, satisfied customers and improved revenue. At a point in 2020, Southwest Airlines became the world’s biggest airline by the number of travelers.


How Long Does It Take to Change a Corporate Culture?

On the question of how long it takes to improve an organization’s culture, the answer is: it depends. The desired change depends on factors such as the existing system of recognition and rewards within the firm (who gets the applause? what gets rewarded?), the buy-in of people in management positions, and the behavior of top management (i.e., founder or CEO).

Leadership is the Key

Of these dependent factors and more, the most important element is the behavior of the leader. Employees will mimic or reflect the leader’s interest and focus. But the level of influence a leader has on the company depends on the level of employee engagement, or to put it very simply, trust. 

In laying the foundation for cultural change, the leader must begin by asking such questions as: 

  • What are our values as an organization?
  • What behaviors will we reward? 
  • How shall we continue to do business?

Leaders must start with themselves when addressing these questions. Employees may also be encouraged to speak up about what they consider an ideal corporate culture. More importantly, leaders must be deliberate about communicating their priorities to the organization. 


Changing Your Corporate Culture

To sum it up, the quality of leadership is the critical factor to changing an organization’s culture. Employees will imitate the desired behaviors when they see leaders consistently demonstrating those attitudes and values.

The corporate culture would evolve in the anticipated direction in due course. The process of transformation cannot be engineered but with the right models and incentives, a company’s leader can alter the corporate culture to become a performance-enhancing one that helps to generate growth, revenue, and goodwill.

Entrepreneurship is about identifying and solving problems using new ideas. The greater the scale or impact to which this is achieved, the more successful people and organizations can be. Let’s talk about three important elements you need to achieve success as an entrepreneur. You need to have

  • an intuition for identifying problems,
  • the character for seeking solutions to the problems, and
  • the acumen for monetizing the solutions.

Of course, many other variables come into play such as the team involved or marketing, but these are the core components. Let’s take a quick look at these core activities.


1. Identify the Problem

You need to identify a real problem faced by people at a location you can reach. You cannot assume, the issue must be real. Now, saying this does not mean it must be a functional problem, some problems are psychological or luxury-seeking.

For instance, the lack of potable water in an African community is a functional, life-threatening problem. Searching for bottled water in the UK is also a problem, not one of thirst or survival, but of preference or choice. But a problem is a problem, it just depends on whom you are addressing and where you are, that is, the context.


2. Develop a Problem-Solving Idea

Secondly, you should seek to develop a problem-solving idea. Consider the context, that is, the people, economy, or timing, what type of solution would eliminate or at least begin to address the problem in question?

With Project Loon, Google tried to address the problem of internet blackout or poor coverage in the remotest parts of developing countries. The idea was to deploy wi-fi using balloons floating over the areas with poor or service blackouts. On the other hand, Elon Musk’s Starlink is on a mission to solve the same problem using satellite technology.


3. Convert the Idea into a Source of Income

Finally, you have to find a way to convert that idea to a form in which people can pay you money for it. Again, the factor of context must be considered.

For instance, someone may identify the problem of poor infant nutrition in her community. Her idea may be to offer nutritious food to families to solve this problem. Now, should families be able to buy the food on-demand or have it delivered monthly? Should it be a large food basket able to sustain the child for the month or should it be chunked up into more affordable units (in the short term)?

The answers to these and more questions would depend on knowing the attributes of the target customers and tailoring the solution to fit their capacity as it meets their needs.


Successful Entrepreneurship

Lifebank founder Temie Giwa-Tubosun identified the problem of access to safe blood for women in cases related to pregnancy and childbirth in Nigeria and Africa. She came to this reality after her own “complicated and harrowing” experience during childbirth despite the fact that she had her child in the US.

The question was: how did women in less fortunate situations in Africa fare during such experiences? With the rate of maternal deaths in Nigeria at nearly 20% of the global count, she knew she had identified a real problem she could help solve by providing briding the logistics gap.

Having identified the problem, she founded Lifebank to provide the required logistics to source for and deliver the much-needed blood to hospitals on-demand 24/7. The organization partners with blood banks across Nigeria and Kenya with other countries on the horizon.

Patients and doctors place orders for whole blood, other blood products, and oxygen via their website, mobile app, or telephone, Lifebank contacts the nearest blood bank closest to the patient, and delivery is made. This could be by car, motorcycle, boat, or a drop-in delivery by drone if that is what the occasion demands.

Lifebank continues to innovate by launching new solutions such as the

  • SmartBag, explained as “a blockchain-powered product that helps patients and health providers discover the safety records of blood and blood products”,
  • Blood and Oxygen Access Trust (BOAT) for creating universal access to healthcare for low-income patients,
  • Home Kit for COVID-19 tests, and
  • DonorX, an online portal that allows blood donors to book donation appointments at the closest blood banks.

In 2019, Lifebank won the $250,000 first prize of the Africa Netpreneur Award Initiative by the Jack Ma Foundation.


It’s Your Turn

Look around and you will find that these three key building blocks are the pillars of successful businesses around you, regardless of the industry. Do these thoughts stir up any ideas? Do feel free to comment, like, and share this post.