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Mavericks in the workplace

November 2, 2009
Sunset & the Thinker
Image by Esparta via Flickr


What is your experience of developing / or dealing with an entrepreneur inside an organisation?


To my experience, it is a question of balance. Every organization I consulted with, wanted their people to be entrepreneurial, unable to realize that doing this would involve certain changes to the fabric of the organization itself.

The challenge of course, is that organizations (or their leaders) do not understand what it takes to be an entrepreneur.

Entrepreneurs are fundamentally rule-breakers or challengers. Organizations survive on conformism.

Entrepreneurs are focussed on finding new ways of doing the same things, most large organizations say, follow my way!

British Pakistanis
Image via Wikipedia

Some organizations I worked with experimented with hiring Entrepreneurs and getting them on board as full time employees. That didn’t work either.

Over a period of time, after having tried to inculcate entrepreneurism and having experienced some Internal Entrepreneurs, I realized that to be a successful entrepreneur INSIDE an organization, requires some competencies that are different from a stand-alone entrepreneur. So I am going to respond from the perspective of the Internal Entrepreneur.

Here’s a brief note on what I have learned so far:

1. Internal Entrepreneurs (IE for short) need to be more flexible than their standalone counterparts in their ability to work within constraints and systems. They tell themselves that this is a necessary evil and learn to deal with it. Their standalone counterparts reject this reality and either try to change it (which usually fails because the organization culture is stronger than an individual) or quit the system
2. They have an ability to leverage the system against the system
3. They have an acute sensitivity to how much stretch the system they work within can take. And they stretch the system to near-breaking point and then pause there.
4. Networking/Relationships play a critical role in an IE’s success. Specifically, their ability to build Allies, to find Executive Sponsors, who in a sense “protect” them while they do some “wild” things, or who give them the legitimacy to do so.
5. IEs have an ability to clearly demonstrate that while their methods may appear to be “illicit” their hearts are in the right place and that they’re aligned to the same larger goal of organizational success as everyone else. This is a very powerful process and it leads to a dynamic where most of their detractors begin to see them as necessary allies in getting some things done which would normally not be possible. Kind of like old western towns hiring gunslingers to clean up the town –they didn’t like it, but they knew these guys were needed.
6. They ensure that when they do something outrageous, they have someone “watching their back”
7. They have an acute sense of corporate politics and while they don’t get ensnared in it themselves, they understand the minefield and are able to navigate it well
8. Unlike their standalone counterparts, IEs have more patience. They realize that in order to work within the system, radical things might take a little more time. They have a high emotional resilience and an ability to articulate, communicate and market their strategies and ideas – to the appropriate audience! And that’s another key differentiator.

I attended a 3 hour session by Prof. Bala Chakravarty of IMD, Laussane, who gave us this awesome example of an IE. He said James Bond represents all the qualities that are needed. The man is part of the British Civil Service – probably one of the most bureaucratic organizations of all time – and yet continues to defy systems, processes and rules, but survives because his commitment to cause and country is unquestionable. And delivers consistent results. I loved the example!

Entrance of the James Bond exhibition, Science...
Image by Craig Grobler via Flickr

I also think that in today’s day and age when competition is at warp-speed, we need to cultivate IEs and build the necessary culture to enable them to thrive and not just survive!

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 14, 2009 3:59 am

    During most of my corporate career I was blessed by a series of bosses who gave me all the rope I needed to hang myself and presented me with the challenge to go mountaineering!

    This was true whether it was teaching my Japanese colleagues to do Marketing (something that I thought I was hopelessly under-prepared for), rebuilding confidence in those same colleagues when their business needed turning round years later or indeed building the second largest and by some measures, the most profitable account in our organisation within just over four years.

    Being an internal entrepreneur definitely demands similar skills to an external one, in my view these would be:

    1) Networking – knowing who to turn to for support, insight and shared knowledge.
    2) Passion – a determination to succeed against the odds (and the internal barriers).
    3) Street-smarts – the ability to know as you describe in your blogpost, how far you can push the boundaries and then have to pause.
    4) Innovation – not just in the thinking, but also and more importantly in the doing!
    5) Inspiration – entrepreneurs (internal or external) have to possess the ability to inspire others to achieve greater things than they ever thought possible; they have to inspire curiosity, they have to inspire belief and they have to inspire action.

    The major differences lie in the politics, environment and social cultures – external entrepreneurs play by the big picture rules, internal entrepreneurs have to look at how to evolve, stretch, bend but not break the internal rules!

    Good thought-provoker and I was prompted to revisit the blog thanks to your 5,000th vistor milestone on LinkedIn. Look forward to catching up next week.



  2. November 2, 2009 8:42 am

    Great post there!

    I feel two things here make a hell of a difference:
    1. The ability to build relationships with key stakeholders, executive sponsors and the like.
    2. The ability to sell one’s ideas to this group and get their backing & support.

    There is no organisation which doesn’t have its own unique systemic / cultural constraints. And what really differentiates these IEs is the fact that they are so individually driven and smart enough to figure out workarounds, as long as the “ends” are right.

    BTW…the site redesign is cool!


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