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The Careers of Innovation Leaders and Intrapreneurs

by Stefan Lindegaard
October 15, 201210/15/12 16 Comments

Intrapreneurship is a hot topic for me at the moment. I will be moderating an InnoChat on this on Nov 1 and I will be speaking on the intersection of open innovation and intrapreneurship at the Intrapreneurship Conference in Paris on Dec 13.

As a way to tie this together and bring even more attention to intrapreneurship, I will publish a series of new and older posts on entrepreneurship over the coming months. Here we go with an older post in which I look into the careers of innovation leaders and intrapreneurs.

I have previously argued that companies need two kinds of people to make innovation initiatives successful. They need innovation leaders who focus on building the internal platform required to develop organizational innovation capabilities. This is work on the strategic and tactical level.

Innovation leaders are often also involved as coaches, facilitators and sponsors for the second group required for innovation; the intrapreneurs who turn ideas and research into real products and services that move the business forward.

For your information, intrapreneurship can be defined as using entrepreneurial skills without taking on the risks or accountability associated with starting your own business. Instead, intrapreneurs are employees in larger organizations, who act as entrepreneurs while having the resources and capabilities of the larger firm to draw upon.

More than intrapreneurs, innovation leaders need the ability to read the corporate landscape, and they need to maneuver within corporate politics to secure the necessary internal resources for the innovation projects. They must attend the issues of many stakeholders, including senior executives, middle managers, and external partners.

Intrapreneurs are more operational minded as they have to develop a new business that meet the needs of demanding customers. Of course, this also includes coordination with stakeholders from the corporate mothership and external partners, but intrapreneurs also have a special talent for understanding the need to address the needs of paying customers and making this happen.

Intrapreneurs are even rarer within a company than innovation leaders. Based on my experiences, only 2 to 5 percent of a white-collar workforce has what it takes to turn ideas and research into business as long-term key drivers. Sure, other employees will chip in as innovation contributors in various phases, but they are not as significant and important as the intrapreneurs.

These contributors are often junior people who are still early on in their learning curve or experts with specific skills. Unlike intrapreneurs, they do not take a guiding role in turning ideas into realities; instead they are assigned to projects where they contribute with sheer man power and/or their specific skills and talents. As such, they are important, but are also easily replaced.

The number of intrapreneurs is low for two reasons. First, intrapreneurs have the skills and the will necessary to become entrepreneurs and start their own company. This means they usually do not end up in a large company in the first place. Those who do are often stuck because they followed the traditional career path as shown below.

Traditional Career Path:

1. High School
2. University
3. Consulting company (for some)
4. Corporate world
5. Retire

This path is different from what you usually see from an entrepreneur starting his or her own company.

Entrepreneurial Career Path:

1. High School
2. University (not necessarily completed)
3. Practical experience or startup
4. Serial entrepreneur
5. Venture capital, business angel, board member
6. Never really retire

(Inspired by MIT Entrepreneurship Center).

Intrapreneurs often start out in the corporate world with the ambition of starting their own company once they get some experience and earn a starting capital. However, once they get used to the security of being in a large company, their entrepreneurial spirit gradually decreases although it is still much higher than most of their colleagues.

They might also get married and have children, which often dampens the entrepreneurial spirit. Entrepreneurship is very much about uncertainty and that does not sound appealing to a perhaps risk-adverse spouse worrying about making mortgage payments and building a stable foundation for children. Actually, you are unlikely to become a successful entrepreneur and at the same time enjoy a good family life unless you have strong support from your spouse.

The second reason for the scarce number of intrapreneurs is the corporate environment itself. Intrapreneurs have a constant drive and they seem to have an innate need to always question the status quo, which often put them at odds with colleagues. They are at risk of being labeled troublemakers, making their career path within the current organization much more difficult.

This often forces them to seek other opportunities. Ideally, they end up in a company that has discovered that troublemakers are not necessarily a bad thing. The lucky ones stay in their company and they become coveted pieces in the effort of developing the innovation DNA.

Talking about career paths for innovation leaders and intrapreneurs, this is my take on how it could look like:

Innovation Leader / Intrapreneur Career Path:

1. High School
2. University
3. Consulting company or a start-up (for some)
4. Corporate work (business development / innovation)
5. New venture projects within an established corporation
6. Senior management (sponsoring innovation projects)
7. Semi-retire (consulting)

It would be great to hear feedback on this.

Currently there are "16 comments" on this Article:

  1. Claudia Kuzma says:

    Stefan–couldn’t have said it better. I’m definitely a intrapreneur and have often questioned the status quo, thus resulting in being labled.

    My Master’s program in Liberal Studies/Leadership taught me the creative thnking skills needed to be an innovator/intrapreneur but organizations haven’t fully embraced the knowledge worker coming out of University with this mentality, and offered opportunities as you outline in your career path model. It’s still a very rigid organizational structure.

  2. Jeff says:


    Cool article, Thanks! As a serial intrepreneur, now I can show my wife what I do!

    Call me. Easier to chat. Been an intrepreneur across many successful ventures..each of which had unique twists and all of which had hidden risks….


  3. William says:

    Hi Stefan to make Innovation successful you need to be able to deliver the Strategic & Tactical requirements on the ground with the right type of Intrapeneurs….difficult word to spell and difficult to find these people.
    Some organisations appoint people into positions of Innovation delivery with limited competence on Innovation Management and Creativity. They normally start with Idea Management tools to capture ideas but don't have a SIMPLE process to convert the ideas in business benefit, or have the real insight to make the ideas fly. It's insight that converts ideas into reality…
    Ideas – X – Insight – X – Impact = Business Value

    Yes we need 2 types of people to make innovation successful but with Strategy must also come active particpation, not passive to steer, guide & sponsor where we need to focus our Innovation approach…and make sure stakeholders also are actively managed.
    1/ Product
    2/ Service
    3/ Process
    4/ New Business Model
    Innovation does not need to be too academic in it's approach, my view is to make it simple, non-technical business speak of ideas, IRR, NPV, etc.
    With these 2 key types of people you also need an innovation framework to piece together what elements of Innovation you will focus on.
    I'm involved on implementing Innovation on the ground working in a Global organisation….1st steps are to ensure the Innovation energy is focused in the right direction with an inspiring leader at the helm…

  4. Madhu says:

    Hi Stefan,
    Do you believe that innovation culture and intrapreneurship needs to be developed using the top down approach (management dictating how the innovation needs to happen or a few areas to focus on) or it is better to let it develop through the bottoms up approach (adopt a few ideas or innovations from the field and promote it)

    While the former has the advantage of being easier to get corporate funding and promotion, the latter has the advantage of being really grounded and hence the adoption value is much better and this can be turned into a success story more easily. This also enhances the innovation culture within an organisation and encourage everybody to think grounds up about how they can improve the situation.

    Interested in getting your thoughts


  5. Hi Mahid,

    I have developed a TBX (O) model which I believe is quite useful for developing an innovation culture. See below and check this blog post: http://stefanlindegaard.com/2009/05/12/open-innov


    • T (Top Down) – Get executives on board and require their personal commitment to the innovation activities. Without executive support, no change occurs.

    • B (Bottom Up) – Value creation begins with people—one by one, team by team. Nothing happens unless you get employees engaged, involved, and trusting that their voices are being heard by those higher in the organization. If ideas just seem to fall into a sinkhole, never to re-emerge, or if leaders are not able to commit resources to any ideas, you will lose the trust of the employees.

    • X (Across) – The biggest challenges will come from the middle managers placed across the organization, because they have a narrow focus on their own profit-and-loss responsibility. They do not see the full picture, and thus will not give up resources when doing so does not benefit them in the short run, even though it is the right thing for the company in the long run. If not dealt with appropriately and effectively, they can bring innovation to a grinding halt, which will destroy the trust of both executives and those doing the actual work of innovation.

    As we move towards open innovation, we should consider adding another factor: O (Outsiders). External partners will bring knowledge, skills, experience – and demands – to your organization.

  6. Todd says:

    Stefan…this is fantastic. This is a concept that should be taught throughout the organization. The young person often feels like an outcast. The middle manager often views them as a threat, and the executive team could leverage the ideas and spirit.

  7. Wilson Zorn says:

    The "Innovation Leader" path seems to be a recognition of an existing path many leaders take. Is it really differentiated by those championing "innovation" or is it, rather, the common path by anyone who pursues more business development-related tasks? If so, does that "matter," or can we thusly apply this preexisting and thus rather accessible track to anyone who "happens" to have an innovative and intrapenreurial spirit?

    I'm not sure. The "management" position may not capture many intrapreneurs, who might be the sorts who are less interested in personal achievement (or the recogition thereof) than "simply" the propagation of their ideas; they might – like many entrepreneurs – not really be managers, in conscious desire or emotional passion, whatsoever.

    (end of part 1, response "too long" so will post 2nd part shortly)

    • Wilson Zorn says:

      Part 2!

      What I think we are hitting on here and many orgnaizations are struggling with is the path fort hose who are highly motivated knowledge workers who enjoy having influence and creating solutions, but disdain (or simply are uninterested in) management and routine. Similar to some of the best (non-serial) entrepreneurs, they often do poorly in the actual running of an organization (and like some famous ones, e.g. Craig Newmark, who pass off such chores as soon as their idea is viable). I think the proposed path is okay for some but not the superset of intrapreneurs.

  8. […] good comparison of Corporate vs Entrepreneurial vs Intrapreneurial careers. It’s interesting how Entre / Intra – preneurs never really retire. This entry was […]

  9. A very interesting article. Unfortunately, the path you are talking about is not for everyone …

  10. Marek z CSL says:

    That's right, nothing works 100% is a study of cases

  11. Exactly Marek z CSL. You're absolutely right

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    wonderful post…

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