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Five Ways to Know If You’re Cut Out to Be a Corporate Entrepreneur

Although the myth is that innovation doesn’t happen in big companies, the reality is that corporations have a major role to play in fostering this crucial economic driver. Apple and Google have launched game-changing new enterprises, and so have companies as diverse as Cargill, DuPont, Linde, Baxter, and Wawa. Could an independent entrepreneur have developed and launched the Boeing 787 Dreamliner?

Although the myth is that innovation doesn’t happen in big companies, the reality is that corporations have a major role to play in fostering this crucial economic driver. Apple and Google have launched game-changing new enterprises, and so have companies as diverse as Cargill, DuPont, Linde, Baxter, and Wawa. Could an independent entrepreneur have developed and launched the Boeing 787 Dreamliner?

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For large companies, fostering corporate entrepreneurship means a new focus on attracting and retaining people with the determination and skill to build bridges to future growth. It also means moving outside the comfort zone, and recognizing that optimizing the current business does not always require ignoring new opportunities.

Assuming your company is open to the possibility of entrepreneurial growth, do you have what it takes to be a corporate entrepreneur? Here are five characteristics of the species entrepreneurus corporatus, which is distinct in some ways from the start-up entrepreneur:

Head in the Future, Feet on the Ground. Do you thrive on building the future, rather than focusing on efficient execution in the present? Usually it’s one or the other. But if you are drawn to devising opportunities that don’t yet exist, then developing a new business might be for you. However, corporate entrepreneurs are doers, not just dreamers. You’ll need to convert vision to practical action.

Thick Skin, Open Mind. Can you face criticism and learn from it? Navigating corporate power centers is a key to success. No matter how fair or foul the critics, you must put your ego aside and ask, “What can I learn from these objections?” This takes healthy confidence and awareness. Without an open mind, you’ll miss the wisdom of others’ perspectives.

Political Savvy. How savvy are you at operating within your company and in attracting the right talent from outside it? Unlike independent entrepreneurs, the internal kind must operate within a corporate environment where politics are critical. In our research with more than 30 global companies, corporate entrepreneurs spent more time than they originally anticipated communicating company wide, with everyone from functional and division leads to mid-level managers, as well as with strategic outside partners. The most successful venture leaders create what we call an organizational game plan, in which they analyze who is for or against them, and who they can ignore. They prioritize relationships, building bridges before they need them.

Value Obsession. Can you demonstrate the value of your concept not just to your customers, but also to functional and divisional managers, external partners, even regulators? If the right people don’t see value in your concept, you’ll fail. It’s not enough to show off new features and functions. Internal decision makers need to see solid business cases to allocate resources. Partners must understand how they’ll benefit. Many passionate engineers blame people in marketing or finance for ‘not getting it.’ Perhaps so, but it’s your responsibility to design the right value propositions and communicate with others in their language, not yours. Great corporate entrepreneurs constantly question and refine the value for everyone involved.

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Flexible Conviction. Can you judge when to hold tight and when to change course– or even when to quit and move on? Flexible conviction is tough to grasp until you’ve experienced it, and it’s a hallmark of great entrepreneurs. With new ventures comes adversity: things won’t go as planned, and frustration will be commonplace. Without passion to lead and determination to succeed, your team might not make it. But don’t let conviction become over-confidence. Your assumptions might be wrong.

Individual entrepreneurs don’t need to embody all five of these characteristics, but their teams do. Remember, being a corporate entrepreneur is tough, but if it were easy there’d be no glory (or money) in it. While the entrepreneur is the critical actor, it is also the corporate leadership’s responsibility to create an environment where teams can discover and pursue new value. Rather than losing some of their best and brightest, companies that enable their own entrepreneurs will build sustainable growth from within.

Read more from Robert Wolcott and Michael Lippitz on how corporate entrepreneurs can take their vision to market and help their companies Grow From Within.

Robert Wolcott and Michael Lippitz are leading authorities on innovation and corporate entrepreneurship at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, and co-authors of Grow From Within: Mastering Corporate Entrepreneurship and Innovation (McGraw Hill, 2009). In the past six years, they have studied more than 30 companies across industry sectors and developed an ongoing dialogue with them about corporate entrepreneurship through the Kellogg Innovation Network (KIN).

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