Saturday, August 05, 2017

It's time to give up the romanticism of the 'entrepreneur' and embrace the 'intrapreneur'

This machine causes intrapreneurship

I have always admired entrepreneurs.

They create. They take risks. They make loads of money. At least that's the stereotype. I'm not saying they don't work hard and live and breathe their idea - they do that as well. There is something attractive about the entrepreneurial spirit. It's as if it embodies all that is good about our society and economy: freedom of opportunity, the space to create, equality for everyone.

As a secondary school business studies teacher, there is a significant part of the syllabus devoted to entrepreneurship. The pupils I teach choose the subject because they associate it with programmes like The Dragons' Den or The Apprentice. They dream (and speak) of being millionaires. They all agree with the idea that low taxes are important to encourage entrepreneurship.

Whilst I disagree with that notion (which is the subject for another post) I'm intrigued by the romanticism and mystique of the entrepreneur. I do wonder if the entrepreneurs we all know and love are feeding unrealistic futures to the younger generation. My pupils have told me they think I'd be great on the apprentice; I get asked to judge their business ideas.

For a long time, I felt inadequate as a business studies teacher - here I was talking about risk taking and creativity, but not doing anything. I was all talk. Pupils ask what I would do if I wasn't a teacher, and if I had any ideas. Some would also say that I went to university and I know about business, but all I did was become a teacher.
"My pupils have told me they think I'd be great on the apprentice; I get asked to judge their business ideas."
It was only realised relatively recently, that I started calling myself an intrapreneur. That is - an entrepreneur within an organisation. And no that's not a made up word. As an idea, it's been around since the early 80s (this article on the Huffington Post gives a good summary) that I stumbled across just after I changed careers to become a teacher in 2003.

Part of the reason it took so long to recognise my intrapreneurial qualities is because I was so enamoured with chasing the idea of an entrepreneur. To coin another phrase from the internet, I was a wanna-preneur. The pupils pointedly asking why I didn't do more that just be a teacher heightened my discomfort. I constantly read articles about people building successful online businesses; my social media feeds started to fill up with adverts to 'become an ideas machine' or 'create a business lead magnet on your webpage' and such like. I could feel the hollow well of not-good-enough growing in inside the pit of my stomach.

I suggest that lots of us feel this way. We feel that we could be so much more; that our potential is more than we achieved at school. Anything is possible if you work hard enough. Keep going with your idea. Fail lots and eventually you will succeed.

All of that might be true, but I suggest that a lot of us are blind to the chance to effect change as an intrapreneur within our current jobs. It's actually a much easier way to express our entrepreneurial ability. I think the root of this huge missed opportunity is the romantic notion of the entrepreneur and its media misrepresentation. I suggest that the entrepreneurial spirit is not about making millions. It's actually about being an agent of change. It's the idea generation and creativity that really make entrepreneurship.
"a lot of us are blind to the chance to effect change as an intrapreneur within our current jobs. "
Through my career in several industries, I have worked (and currently work) with some amazing people. Not only have they given me space to try out wild and crazy ideas, on reflection, I see that I have learned to push for it. Looking back, the key event that set me on this path was writing a document during my placement year as part of my degree in 1998. I was a wild-eyed,  idealistic, immature 21-year old. And my second truly great mentor encouraged me (mostly by taking red pen to pretty much all the stuff I'd been writing...which pushed me pretty hard). In my spare time, I worked on my project. On completion, my manager read it.  He then gave it to the company CEO. Who called me into a one-to-one meeting a few days later.

I remember sitting in the CEO's office. Partly feeling I had done something wrong, and partly in disbelief. I remember he turned and said to me that I could have written the long-range plan for the company. In the next few days, my student placement project was photocopied and distributed to all the middle managers in the company.

Since then, in every job I've had, I've constantly felt the need to push the boundaries; to question; to try out new things - and make suggestions. Years on, now in my school: if there's a mad, crazy teaching idea; if volunteers are needed to have their lesson videoed or observed; if anyone's writing a proposing a new idea to move things forward...I'm there.

If there's something that has gone some way to legitimising the intrapreneur (and my approach to my career) it came last year when the A-Level business studies syllabus changed (again). There, under the part about 'ways of becoming  an innovative organisation' was a section about (you guessed it) intrapreneurship. I actually felt gratified.

So now what? I do think the entrepreneurial spirit is valuable. But it's time to leave all the romanticised idealistic nonsense that we'll all be millionaires if we keep failing fast - by ourselves. I see that organisations need to adapt as the pace of technological change continues to grow. But it's within our organisations (including - and perhaps especially - our schools) that employees need space to take the risks. I hear my contemporaries (including teachers) talk about career direction, or ineffective systems, or dysfunctional working relationships. I feel business leaders could be empowering and identifying intrapreneurs as a strategy for dealing with our challenging world. This of course requires a high level of trust from leadership, but employees need to take ownership of organisation's goals. Waiting around changes nothing.

To end, I have two questions for you:
- What action are you going to take?
- When are you going to make it happen?