How to make friends and influence… the whole company

The real skill of social intrapreneurship is building support for your idea, collaborating across departments, and developing your network – not simply targeting the one or two people who might fund it, and otherwise keeping it to yourself.

I’m going to start with a confession: I’m not an intrapreneur. In fact, before I became a Mix-Fitter last year, I didn’t really know what the term meant.

Right now, I’m working in a freelance capacity on sustainable business – and before that, I was a corporate sustainability manager. (You may not have heard of a ‘sustainability manager’ before, although you may well have met your friendly neighbourhood CSR Manager. One of the things about us is that we like to change our names, just to confuse people.)

But, labels aside, from what i’ve seen sustainability managers and social intrapreneurs have a huge amount in common. In his recent article for Guardian Sustainable Business, David Grayson gives a great description: “Social intrapreneurs are typically going against the grain, challenging their organisation and questioning the status quo to develop and implement commercially attractive sustainability solutions.”

That’s not a million miles off the day-to-day role of a sustainability manager, which is about changing the culture of the organisation for the better from the inside. And if the two roles share a common goal, they also share a pitfall: narrowing your focus to pushing through a specific project at the expense of wider corporate culture change.

I believe it’s critical to make time during your day to consider how your work is affecting the culture of the rest of your business. There are two things that can help you do this effectively, and that won’t result in immediate burnout: build your network early, and embrace resistance. One by one:

Build your network early

It’s tempting to see network development as a job to be done once you’re 100% sure about your idea: what it is, how it will be delivered, and exactly what needs to happen to get you from here to there.

I’d recommend a different approach, and start building your network as your idea and business plan take shape. You’ll get the benefit of their experience while you’re developing your plans, including insight from countries, departments and brands you don’t know yourself.

It also means your champions will be bought into your goals from the outset – because they helped to shape them, they’ll feel a sense of ownership and pride that they wouldn’t get if you delivered a slick presentation to them at a later stage.

So, try to start talking to people about your idea one step before you’re truly comfortable doing so. That’s where they can start adding value… and you can start getting them on side.

Embrace resistance 

Most of us don’t enjoy it when other people don’t ‘get’ – or worse, actively oppose – our ideas. If you’re a social intrapreneur, chances are you’ve already discovered that this tends to happens a lot when you propose a change to ‘business as usual’.

The good news is that it’s a sign you’re doing your job well! All change creates resistance, and much of it is useful and necessary. Resistance to ideas is a sign that people are taking the idea seriously – after all, it’s easy to agree with something you intend to ignore.

The real challenge is to take it one step further and embrace resistance. It’s harder than it sounds, especially if it’s your idea on the line. Take a look at my blog post for Corporate Citizenship Briefing for the story of how I learned to love the people who didn’t like the changes I wanted to make.

You might even look to include a few naysayers in your network in order to test your ideas – the more you’re forced to respond to resistance, the better your strategy will be!

… and make the change happen

Creating and sustaining change is never easy, but it’s nearly always delivered at a local level by dedicated people who are empowered to make critical decisions. If your network members know how to deal with resistance and encourage others to help shape their plans, they’ll be well placed to make those decisions in favour of the goal you’re all trying to achieve.

The real skill of social intrapreneurship is building support for your idea, collaborating across departments, and developing your network – not simply targeting the one or two people who might fund it, and otherwise keeping it to yourself.

It’s easy to lose sight of developing your network because there are so many other things to do. But building support for your idea right now will be critical to the next stage – no matter where you are with the project.

This article was first published on the Mix-Fits website. Image: Captive Audience by J J is licensed under CC BY 2.0