If you work for a large, established corporation–or even in a department that has historically been resistant to change–the notion of thinking or acting like a startup founder feels like a non sequitur. But the concept of intrapreneurship, the act of applying a startup-like mind-set and behaviors within an established corporate environment, can become a powerful tool in accelerating career mobility and shifting company culture.
While the defining characteristics of an entrepreneur–grit, passion, creativity, a will of steel, and the unwavering motivation to always shoot for the stars–may not come naturally to most of us, anyone looking to innovate and succeed can apply entrepreneurial attitudes and skills to achieve short- and long-term career goals.
As the director of talent at IAC, parent to both large technology companies and emerging players, I see firsthand the qualities of executives who rise to the top, and there are some consistent traits that map to those key ingredients of entrepreneurialism that cut across gender, race, religion, or academic background. These traits are what I look for as I’m hunting to fill that next big leadership role at one of our portfolio companies.
1. Look for challenges and run headfirst into them
The hallmark of an entrepreneur is a willingness to embrace risk. So, get comfortable being uncomfortable. Do what you fear most. Then do it again. And again. Hate public speaking? Start asking questions at your regular Town Hall. Think you’re bad with numbers? Volunteer to start helping with the budgeting process for your department. Get social anxiety at networking events? Grab a buddy and start making the rounds. As you start taking on meatier and business-focused obstacles, take note of how you rose to these, what the results were, and illuminate those results. Even if you didn’t overcome the challenge completely, you will come away with new skills and a reputation as having the ability and courage to do more.
2. Always act like the underdog
Being the incumbent has its advantages, but so does being forced to constantly punch above your weight. At larger companies, it’s important to be hyper-aware of competitive threats and quickly changing trends with a healthy dose of founder paranoia. Being an intrapreneur also means tapping in to that creativity to get things done quickly with very little resources. Though you may have the luxury of an adequate budget, spending money like it’s your own will help you be extra judicious in making sure your company gets the biggest bang for its buck. And document any cost savings for future discussion with decision makers.
3. Conflict is your friend
Founders fight for what they believe in. While you shouldn’t go looking for battles for the sake of a good argument, don’t shy away from tough, intellectually honest debate. This is often where the magic happens. Watch and learn from those who argue their point of view effectively, with passion, conviction, and kindness. Research, prepare, and practice your point of view, especially if you have to sell it. Always remain empathetic and self-aware (this includes knowing when to cut bait), but lean into opportunities where your knowledge, expertise, or access gives you a unique edge, and you can fight for something you believe in.
4. Be willing to unlearn what you thought you knew
Both entrepreneurs and corporate leaders can fall victim to hanging onto ideas they have an emotional attachment to, or processes they are comfortable with. Whether it’s allowing the passion for your product vision cloud reality or automatically falling in line with, “Well, this is the way we’ve always done things,” it can be difficult to let go of ideas or beliefs that you hold dear. We all collect handed wisdom throughout our careers, but highly effective leaders are constantly questioning both those assumptions and the status quo. Don’t be afraid to deprogram yourself or abruptly shift course. Don’t be afraid to contradict yourself if the circumstances and data call for it. Having a startup mentality means being able to accept change at a fast pace, and your ability to succeed relies on the fact that nothing can be sacred.
5. Embrace a non-linear path
There are countless examples of leaders whose career paths are anything but ordinary or expected. Meaningful progress isn’t always a straight line, and your path getting where you want to go might take you somewhere else entirely. When practicing a startup mentality, the willingness to put aside or revisit what you thought you wanted might very well open a diverse array of opportunities. Be focused in your approach and establish goals, but with a degree of balance, as rooting yourself to narrow or specific goals may close you off to potential opportunity.
Sharfi Farhana is director of talent at IAC.