Hiring intrapreneurs: A practical guide with examples

If you go on a corporate safari, one of the hardest employee animals to find is the intrapreneur. Find out how to spot intrapreneurs at your company (and in the wild) and nourish them with creative freedom.
hiring intrapreneurs

What you need to know about intrapreneurship

How to spot an intrapreneur on a corporate safari

An intrapreneur is the one in a dazzle of zebras who introduces herself as a piano horse. Or a unicorn who introduces himself as a rhinocehorse. 

Those with intrapreneurial skills are exotic breeds, have strange professional migratory patterns, and stand out even while camouflaged by the jungle of office plants. 

At Board of Innovation, we have regular intrapreneur sightings. In fact, they flourish here. Mostly because they like the fertile grasses we plant to foster their creativity and the free-range, self-steering culture we create to give them the space they need to design solutions to challenging problems. 

We know only too well how valuable intrapreneurs are to the workplace animal kingdom. So much so, that we want to help you discover them at your organization before they move on to greener pastures, or go extinct. 

What they look like

Intrapreneurs are driven by a vision. They are motivated to get somewhere and will get there, come hell or high water. 

They have a thing or two to say about the way the organization is run and are not afraid to say it, even if it means challenging all hierarchy in the room.

  • They are rock-the-boat types who loathe stagnation, are allergic to bureaucracy, and get frustrated quickly and easily by long procedures and the status quo. 
  • They can identify the problem and hunt down a solution for it. 
  • They have a bias towards action, and become restless if they aren’t getting things done.
  • Their startup mindsets make them the most likely to have side projects and businesses on the go in their after-work hours. 
  • Their natural habitat is being out of their comfort zone, as this is where they feel the greatest opportunity to grow. 

Word of caution: Intrapreneurial types don’t take kindly to being reined in. Imagine a unicorn with a bit in its mouth. Or in a cage. That would be supernatural animal cruelty. No one wants that

What you'd least expect

Intrapreneurs crave professional development feedback and are not afraid of constructive negative criticism. Despite having an instinct for innovation, they are not entirely driven by the need to feed their egos. 

  • They openly challenge their own knowledge and experience on a regular basis.
  • Intrapreneurs are about variety over certainty, contribution over connection, and growth over significance. This could be why other colleagues are intimidated by and dismissive of them, meanwhile secretly admiring them. 
  • Intrapreneurial job candidates often have unconventional career tracks and gaps in their resumes. In a job interview, they might tell you they quit their last position to go on a soul-searching hike, and once took a three-month sabbatical to study African drumming in Kenya. 
  • They find meaning in challenge and almost thrive on failure. Their style of working is best described as “creative destruction” and “structured imagining”. They have an intuitive sense of where value exists and can sniff it out like a trained bloodhound.

Keep your eyes peeled

Before you go looking for an intrapreneur, know this: the wrong thing to wear is a Hawaiian shirt. Just kidding. That might actually work. Where we usually spot intrapreneurs is at the workshops we design and run for our clients.

  • They are the ones who approach us after we’ve led an innovation strategy workshop or accelerator program, frothing at the mouth and asking for the slide decks and where they can get all the templates.
  • They are keen learners (not teacher’s pets, mind) who bring the playbook or toolbox to every session and take sprawling notes. 
  • They are the types to come up to us during a break and make excited noises (we are fluent in bark, whinny, and roar) about how pumped they are to be in the workshop and how badly they have always wanted to do the sort of thing we’re doing.
  • They even ask how to get a job like ours, or tell us they are thinking about or actually applying for other jobs that support intrapreneurship. 
  • After a program is completed, intrapreneurs are the most likely to send us Christmas cards saying they have switched careers because of the workshop, with a P.S. saying how inspiring they found our training.
  • They’ve also been known to send emails of templates they created themselves and tell us how they applied our theory to their wife/husband’s business. And no, we don’t believe they are doing it for treats. The carrot is the work itself.

You don't need binoculars

Once you spot an intrapreneur, and have an innovation strategy in place, it is possible to lead that zebra to water and make it drink. 

  • Take them aside and speak to them to see if they would like to take the project forward with metered funding. 
  • Ask if they would be willing to take 20% of time out of their current role to work on their team project. 
  • Set up an innovation fund or corporate startup fund to incubate and further test and validate concepts. 
  • Define clear innovation KPIs in a dashboard to track progress of the project. Set up a growth panel/board for teams to pitch their validated learning to. 
  • Ask them: “If we create a full-time intrapreneurial role dedicated to innovation, would like you apply for it?” or ask whether they would like to become an internal project innovation coach. 
  • Speak to middle managers responsible and get them on board and okay to release their talent for short (and ideally longer) periods of time. 
  • Create clarity and transparency around the intrapreneurship process and manage their expectations so you don’t lose them halfway through. 

How to keep your intrapreneur unicorn happy

The most important thing when it comes to innovation is retaining talent.

Some intrapreneurs quit their jobs after the mindset shift an accelerator or incubator programs brings. The big question: where do they go?

We have two types of clients: those who have seen 25% of innovation program participants leave the company a year later, and those who have seen 25% end up in different positions within the company (lateral changes). 

Breaking away from the organizational herd might be innate for intrapreneurs, but if you create the right environment and nurture their skills, you will be able to get them stick to their habitual grazing lands at your company. 

  • Certain initiatives need to be sponsored by the top without middle management in between. People should be able to collaborate, interact and experiment regardless of who they report to. Roughly translated: when they are charging, get out of their way.
  • One of the biggest problems of corporate innovation is that busy agendas that don’t allow for innovation project development.
  •  Often, if it’s not a lack of time, it’s middle management that has the wrong priorities. These factors can cripple the innovation ecosystem and prevent your intrapreneurs from succeeding.
  • To avoid the common pitfalls, put up an internal ad looking for disruptors and troublemakers. Leave an email web forum where they can respond and apply for internal positions.
  • Reward employees who have their own side businesses with some gesture that shows your support for their endeavours — tax breaks, holidays, 30% equity if they can create spinoff businesses.
  • Offer three to six months pay, no commitments, and a budget to add value to the company. If they manage to build enough value in that time, they can keep it as a job. 
  • We have seen two intrapreneurs who resigned from a company, started their own service company, and signed an exclusive contract with the same company for €1M for the first year. 
  • At the very least, set up an informal innovation space and see who comes to use it. It should feel like a Serengeti for the mind, a place where the intrapreneur’s thoughts can roam free. Afterall, this provides the fodder for great ideas for your company.

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