Skip to main content
leadership lab

Chris Catliff is president and chief executive of BlueShore Financial credit union in Vancouver.

Business as usual is unacceptable for industries facing digital disruption. There were 35 major bankruptcies this year, and more than two-thirds were in retail. The "retail apocalypse” reverberates across industries, thanks to the rise of e-commerce, real estate costs and changing consumer habits. As traditional business models implode, leaders are looking for idea-intensive employees with an entrepreneurial mindset to innovate by zig-zagging through their organization’s minefields.

The rise of the intrapreneur is upon us. An intrapreneur is an employee that applies entrepreneurial skills within an organization. The major difference between an entrepreneur and an intrapreneur is the more rigid corporate structure they face, which comes with its own unique set of advantages and disadvantages. But an intrapreneur has access to resources that an entrepreneur rarely does, if they can sell their story. However, while an intrapreneur has less personal risk at stake, the entrepreneur certainly enjoys a level of freedom and speed that comes from not having to overcome bureaucracy.

Today, chief executives need transformation but their corporate antibodies against risk-taking stifle creativity. CEOs need intrapreneurial zealots that overcome objections and inject organizations with fresh ways of thinking for new revenues. Here are a few tips to keep in mind for developing your inner intrapreneur.

Feed your relationships, but embrace healthy conflict

It’s not what you know. It’s who you know. Reach out to sell your idea to other divisional leaders. Corporate groupthink can be the antithesis to generating original ideas because when we exchange our perspectives and knowledge with people that have similar backgrounds and values to us, we may as well be in an echo chamber. You don’t need to be a non-conformist rabble-rouser for the sake of it. You have to pick what matters. Let your desire for innovation be fuelled by a genuine excitement to learn the business drivers regardless of the confines of your formal “job description."

Intrapreneurs with new ideas require determination. At first your ideas will promptly be ignored, then your keen persistence will surely be questioned, but if you manage to wangle resources be prepared for opposition, often fiercely, before your idea finally takes root. You know your idea has won when everyone says they thought it was a great idea from the get-go. Do not sweat this paradoxical corporate reaction. Intrapreneurs who make a difference share the glory.

Question conventions

It takes conviction to share unorthodox ways to advance the business. BlueShore was a friendly community credit union, yet the gentrification in our neighbourhoods was highly evident. The banking and financial planning needs of those in our community had become complex. Since our inception in 1941, our regional market transformed from being an outpost for fishing and shipbuilding into one of Canada’s wealthiest regions. We needed to provide deeper financial expertise and premium client service. We were advised by numerous marketing experts that we would not be successful in transforming from a community credit union into a high-net-worth, premium financial boutique, yet we knew this is what we had to do to thrive. We created a strong vision of what we needed to be and let the intrapreneurs at all levels flourish. Being fearless in our 180 degree strategic pivot, we rebranded, changed our name and rebuilt BlueShore’s branches as Financial Spas, and deepened our advisers’ expertise.

You can’t predict the future, but building a strong instinct is critical. Developing good judgment without having all the necessary facts is essential for intrapreneurial employees faced with the prospect of failure. Embrace failure and analyze it. To minimize the next failure, take a macro view. Ask critical questions about your recommendations:

  • Where is the consumer headed?
  • What do we need to do, as an organization, to create new value?
  • What is the multidepartmental plan needed to effectuate my ideas?
  • Can we add something in new ways and jettison other less valuable products and services?

Remind yourself that Einstein said he wasn’t smarter than others – he just stayed with problems longer.

The best ideas win … but you must execute

Aside from developing good judgment, an intrapreneur must have influence. An employee may not have the authority that comes from their rank, so they must learn how to create legitimacy for themselves through their personal brand. The best ideas win, but the ability to execute and deliver the results is crucial for affecting true change. An employee must be able to persuasively paint a picture of change that is infectious and convinces leaders and colleagues of the righteousness of their plans.

To succeed as a business leader, develop courage, a thick skin and your inner intrapreneur.

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at

Stay ahead in your career. We have a weekly Careers newsletter to give you guidance and tips on career management, leadership, business education and more. Sign up today.