Why intrapreneurs are the leaders of the future

By Jamie Qiu

Staying ahead of the curve in a rapidly changing global landscape requires us to embrace new ways of doing business.


For Jamie Qiu, founder of Studio Zao, having leaders with intrapreneurial skills is key in uncertain times.  


According to McKinsey, some 84% of executive leaders identify innovation as a crucial factor in their growth strategies but 80% say that their present business models are at risk in comparison to their forward-thinking competitors. Leaders agree that building a workforce fit for the future is a top strategic priority for their businesses to differentiate themselves and thrive in their sector.


The new business landscape requires leaders to demonstrate a different set of skills, and talent leaders are increasingly focused on developing internal entrepreneurial capabilities to ensure the workforce is able to tackle the most complex challenges innovatively and creatively. Studies show that many organisations aim to focus 40% of their innovation measures on intrapreneurship this year. 


Yet some 75% of HR leaders admit that their workforce lacks top soft skills such as communication, creative problem solving and the ability to deal with ambiguity.


As an HR leader, how can you define the role of an intrapreneur? How can you empower and harness entrepreneurial skills inside your teams to gain a competitive edge? 


What is an intrapreneur? 


According to MENAT Head of Innovation of HSBC Bank, Pamela Attebery, intrapreneurial skills, creativity, out-of-the-box thinking, and learning to deal with ambiguity are the skills large organisations need the most to excel in today’s world. These skills define entrepreneurial talent and leaders of the future, or what we call intrapreneurs.


Intrapreneurs are similar to entrepreneurs in many ways as they share six top attitudes and skills:

  • Critical-thinking
  • Problem-solving
  • Strong communication
  • Creativity
  • Dealing with ambiguity
  • Resilient growth mindset

However, intrapreneurs are employees who also drive value-generating opportunities to give their company a competitive edge. They also differentiate in the way they set goals, access resources, mitigate risks and approach failure.


At Davos earlier this year, Christian Klein, CEO of SAP, highlighted the importance of intrapreneurial capabilities in uncertain times:  "In this unpredictable environment, companies need to achieve incredible business outcomes – across all dimensions. They need to drive resiliency – allowing them to steer their company through challenging times and adapt quickly to change. They need to drive profitability – both top and bottom line, enabling growth and increased productivity. And they need to drive sustainability – by reducing carbon footprint, waste, improving working conditions and transitioning to the circular economy." 

At Studio Zao, we believe organisations can support this by considering how to equip talent with “lean startup” practices and systematic innovation skills. Delivering this through a 'learn by doing' approach will help teams to acquire critical capabilities to deliver on new requirements. 


Employee upskilling has now become an imperative. Current trends have accelerated the need for HR leaders to transition learning from a cost-centre or 'nice to have' to a central role in organisational success. 

Identifying intrapreneurial talent and leaders

Executives and HR leaders are increasingly recognising the importance of talented individuals with these characteristics to build a future-proof workforce, and the recruitment firm Michael Pagehighlighted intrapreneurship as the top skill of 2020. 


HR leaders play a significant role in highlighting the value and potential of intrapreneurs to senior executives. Organisational success depends on intrapreneurial skills and HR is well-placed to ensure the business has the right processes in place to identify and nurture intrapraneurs. But finding these individuals can be tricky. Intrapreneurs often are unnoticed and unempowered, without the tools, environment and resources they need to flourish. 


Here are five ways you can spot intrapreneurial talent in your business:

  1. Listen for the endorsements: employees who talk about the successes and abilities of others
  2. Listen for the plusses: employees who entertain others’ ideas
  3. Look for intentional practice: employees who make room in their day for stretch work
  4. Look for co-creation: employees who encourage discretionary effort towards their projects from other teams
  5. Find the conversation starters: employees who challenge cultural folklore openly with data in order to add better value for tomorrow’s customers.

How to support intrapreneurial culture

Intrapreneurs are best positioned for driving innovation as they have a 360 degree insight of the business, industry and customers, but it's important to create the right environment for them to be supported and empowered so their endeavours can be impactful and sustainable. 


We recently held an event with Google, Uber and Pentland Brands, which explored how organisations can nurture internal entrepreneurs for innovation success. From this, we gathered a series of tips to help you unlock intrapreneurial talent and innovation capabilities:

  • Align innovation with strategic direction
  • Select and create a risk-taking workforce
  • Form blended teams
  • Define a set of shared values
  • Celebrate innovation success and learnings.

Combining your organisation’s resources with an experimentative environment will help create the optimal playground for intrapreneurs to grow and thrive. Implementing a start-up like culture will help your organisation to be more agile.


As an HR leader, you could also support the development of internal talent through dedicated learning and development initiatives, including internal incubators, innovation labs, and startup partnerships.

Empowering internal talent

As the world is rebuilding itself towards a new normal, organisations wanting to stay ahead need to understand the importance of empowering, nurturing and rewarding intrapreneurial talent.

Leading organisations are increasingly recognising the crucial value of intrapreneurs in their recruitment, development and retention processes. Whether it’s focusing on the hiring process to select the right leaders or delivering innovation bootcamps to develop new ideas, identifying and empowering internal talent is the secret to embracing a successful workforce. 


Interested in finding out more about the processes and mechanisms an organisation needs to have in place to identify, explore and deploy successful innovation? Watch Studio Zao’s webinar where Natasha Gedge, Chief Operating Officer at JHub, Central innovation hub of Strategic Command, UK Ministry of Defence, shared her experience on empowering internal talent to drive business growth. 



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