5 Characteristics of Good Intrapreneurs

by George Watt

My last post shared an intrapreneur’s (an entrepreneur who creates a new businesses within an existing company) perspective regarding the top 5 things that motivate them. I also asked the people who invest in, govern, and mentor intrapreneurs (we called ours the “Angel Team” or “Angels") about the qualities they believed were most important in an intrapreneur. Here are five of the most important ones.


  1. They are passionate about the problem they are solving.
    Angels and intrapreneurs agree on this one. Great intrapreneurs are passionate about solving the problem they set forth to resolve and for improving the lives of people who suffer from it. They want to make a difference. In many cases their passion arises from having experienced the problem personally. Such an experience can drive a great deal of empathy with their customers and help them focus on the problem versus their preconceptions of a solution.
  2. They are curious, adaptable and want to grow.
    Early in the life of a new business an intrapreneur will have to wear many hats (e.g.: product management, marketing, engineering…). Nobody knows everything, nor do Angels expect them to. Thus, Angels look for people who are curious, adaptable, and who can respond to coaching and learn. During a business review one of our intrapreneurs reported excitedly, “At conferences I used to sit in a corner by myself at lunch. Now I sit with other people and start conversations…”. He was thrilled at how energizing it was, and how much he learned by doing so. He had gone way outside his comfort zone and it paid off, and the Angel Team’s confidence in him increased greatly.
  3. They listen to the data and can challenge their own world view.
    In my experience the quickest way to lose the confidence of your sponsors/investors is to ignore what experiments are telling you. Confirmation bias is unbelievably strong and often insidious - at least to its victims. That is where unbiased sponsors and mentors can help. We saw cases where intrapreneurs ignored their data and their mentors. They ran out of funding as a result of repeatedly invalidating the same hypothesis. We also learned, from good intrapreneurs, that counter-intuitive results can often lead to discoveries and solutions that are far better than an early hypothesis.
  4. They are transparent.
    The quickest way to gain the confidence of your sponsors may be through transparency, especially when the news is bad. I recall one meeting where a founder told us that, in spite of early successes, their traction had fallen and their initial idea was not likely viable. She outlined experiments she planned to execute to confirm that and test a few other solutions/hypotheses. She was very forthcoming, and the Angel Team’s confidence in her skyrocketed following the meeting. She eventually recommended her business be shut down even though she had plenty of additional funding and time. She and her team were rewarded for their outstanding performance, and she was very quickly poached by another team and given two-level promotion to Vice President.
  5. They are resilient.
    When asked what he felt was his most important lesson learned, one of our successful intrapreneurs cautioned others contemplating the journey that, “My best day and my worst day are often the same day.” As with entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs starting a business with only an idea work very hard and will likely be confronted with what may feel like an unending stream of obstacles throughout their journey. Just when they feel they have slain all their dragons a new one may appear. Intrapreneurs, especially founders, need to be able to temper their low points - and their high points - and keep their team, and themselves, balanced and focused on what matters.


Beyond Selection

Selecting great intrapreneurs is critical. A great team may be able to pivot away from a bad idea and succeed, but bad teams can fail even with a great idea. Though it does not end there. To give your intrapreneurs the best chance to succeed consider adding things like these to your incubation program: 

  • A “Founder Fitness” program to help intrapreneurs assess their strengths and needs
  • Access to advisors, mentors, and subject matter experts to fill gaps in the early stages
  • Access to training to fill both hard and soft skill gaps
  • Help identifying when to hire to fill a skills gap and when to train, or when to do both
  • Guidance to help intrapreneurs build minimum viable teams

About the Author

A transformative leader, George has spearheaded initiatives that have enabled businesses and global enterprises to address complex technology problems, deliver new business benefits, and drive millions of dollars in savings and productivity gains. Throughout his career, George has delivered innovations of his own such as a knowledge base for a neural network-based predictive performance management solution, one of the earliest private clouds (2005), and a lightweight event management agent. George led the design workshops that drove the creation of an innovative accelerator program for a multi-billion dollar technology company, and created and deployed its foundation artifacts and ceremonies. George began his technical career as a systems programmer/sysadmin and systems engineer. He has held many national and global leadership positions, and has led global teams spanning North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. As VP of Strategy for a multi-billion dollar technology company he was responsible for global scientific research, worldwide innovation initiatives, and the ongoing evolution of the accelerator program. George is co-author of The Innovative CIO and Lean Entrepreneurship, and tweets as @GeorgeDWatt.

This article was contributed by George Watt, author of Lean Entrepreneurship.