How to Develop High-Potential Intrapreneurs in Your Company

Through an executive education model focused on identifying high-potential employees and developing their intrapreneurship skills, Latin American companies have the opportunity to unleash their innovation capabilities

How to Develop High-Potential Intrapreneurs in Your Company

At some point in their life, most Latin Americans have come up against an authoritarian, self-sufficient, paternalistic boss, who refuses to listen to employees’ proposals to improve the company’s processes, products or services. Moreover, this type of boss creates an atmosphere that deters questions or a critical spirit. This leadership style is so deeply rooted in our region that, apart from being anchored in the past, it hinders any efforts to generate innovation in organizations.

One of the most powerful ways to generate innovation in companies is intrapreneurship or corporate entrepreneurship, i.e., the ability to empower employees to innovate. In this regard, intrapreneurs are employees who, regardless of their rank, propose new ideas and capitalize on the available resources to turn them into profitable projects for the organization. Basically, any employee who acts in an entrepreneurial manner can become an intrapreneur. However, since innovation is not generated spontaneously, these employees need to develop certain competencies within the framework of a company education strategy to unleash their full potential.

In order to explore the characteristics of the high-potential intrapreneur and propose a culture and ecosystem that will generate innovation, we have published the chapter “The development of high-potential intrapreneurs: an executive education approach to drive innovation in Latin American companies,” included in the book Innovation in Global Entrepreneurship Education. Teaching Entrepreneurship in Practice (Edward Elgar, 2021). This study proposes an executive education model focused on identifying high-potential employees and developing their intrapreneurship skills. 

High-potential intrapreneurs

Over the past few years, understanding that people are their main asset for generating a competitive advantage towards the future, companies have put a lot of effort into talent acquisition, retention and training. They are therefore aware of the particular importance of detecting high-potential employees, individuals who, from the early stages of their careers, demonstrate higher levels of motivation, leadership, agility, creativity, commitment, and the capacity to connect with their colleagues.

In this sense, high-potential intrapreneurs are leaders with an entrepreneurial spirit who share certain traits and skills. Based on our observation of participants in EGADE Business School’s Executive Education programs and on the existing relevant bibliography, we propose the following competencies that define the high-potential intrapreneur:

  • Openness and creativity: Research shows that people with a higher degree of open-mindedness tend to be more creative, imaginative and unconventional, have new ideas, and display entrepreneurial behavior.
  • Humility: In environments characterized by ambiguity, uncertainty, and constant collaboration, leaders should not have all the answers, but must be open to experimentation to find the answers with the help of others.
  • Resilience/tolerance to uncertainty: Contrary to popular belief, innovation is not inspiration, but constant work, failure, experimentation, and rejection until success is finally achieved. Intrapreneurs have to be comfortable with uncertainty and resilient to failure.
  • Systemic thinking: Viewing the company as a system and understanding the role of intrapreneurs in the same, allows them, among other things, to discern operating patterns, anticipate the need for resources, and be able to act when necessary.
  • Agility: This is the ability to be proactive and adapt rapidly to circumstances, being able to identify opportunities, take the initiative, and have the flexibility to modify strategies in order to take advantage of these opportunities.
  • Capacity to inspire and empower: Intrapreneurs get results by building trust in and influencing other collaborators.

Companies that put their faith in intrapreneurs as vehicles of innovation should implement a different management approach, creating or improving various organizational aspects. Based on previous studies, we propose two elements to help corporate entrepreneurs identify opportunities and generate innovation: an innovation culture and a solid innovation ecosystem.

An innovation culture

The following three dimensions offer the greatest likelihood of assuring the successful innovation:

  • Tolerance to failure: “Failures” provide ideas about the next steps to take. Companies that accept failure as a learning opportunity are more innovative and allow intrapreneurs to take risks.
  • Willingness to experiment: Test hypotheses with real prototypes, in a disciplined manner. These experiments should be quick and inexpensive.
  • Psychological security: Intrapreneurs need to work in a secure environment with the freedom to develop their ideas, without being penalized when they fail, and where criticism is accepted. 
  • Collaboration: The best innovations originate from small teams. Collaboration should be assured by integrating the diverse perspectives of people from different functional areas.
  • Incentives: Intrinsic and extrinsic incentives should be combined, such as prizes and recognitions, with compensations or new responsibilities for the intrapreneur.

A solid innovation ecosystem

Companies must ensure a series of activities and elements to create a favorable environment for exploring new business opportunities, such as:

  • Innovation Strategy and the Board: Innovation must be aligned with the organization's corporate strategy. At the Board level, an innovation agenda should be defined to set the limits of this type of project.
  • Innovation portfolio management: Once the agenda has been defined, the company should create a portfolio that includes the different types of innovation.
  • Agile innovation processes and measurement: Innovation cannot be planned in advance since it is a highly uncertain process, and the majority of projects fail.  Companies need to implement agile risk-reduction methodologies, such as Lean Startup.

An executive education model

In order to implement learning functions at the organizational level, many companies turn to executive education or corporate universities to develop their collaborators’ leadership and innovation competencies.

Based on our experience with academic programs at EGADE Business School and Tecnológico de Monterrey, our chapter proposes a project-based learning approach in executive education, the development of competencies in high-potential intrapreneurs, and the identification of corporate elements to support them in the generation of innovations. This educational model is extremely relevant in a competitive environment that demands more and more innovation, generated in a more agile manner.

The authors are research professor at EGADE Business School, Tecnológico de Monterrey (Cristian Granados) and professor at the Gordon S. Lang School of Business and Economics of the University of Guelph (Cris Bravo).

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