Creating a School Culture That Fosters Intrapreneurs

By: Stephen Carter

Few things are more important than crafting a culture. The culture established in a school (or business or church) is a key indicator of the organization’s overall health and is directly connected to student learning. It is wildly important and, unfortunately, widely overlooked.

Given the choice, most school leaders would rather focus on the newest and flashiest “innovative” programming rather than take the time (and energy) to invest in culture. If, however, school administrators took a closer look at immensely successful businesses, they would see these business leaders intentionally pivoting to craft a fertile environment for the growth of intrapreneurs.

The term “intrapreneur” was first introduced by Gifford Pinochet III and Elizabeth Pinochet in 1985 and designated the corporate employee who, unlike his career-climbing peers, applied key aspects of the entrepreneurial mindset to his work. The intrapreneur became synonymous with the problem solver, the idea generator, and the outside-the-box thinker. And businesses began to realize the inherent value this sort of employee has to the entire organization.

This individual also has immense value in the school (and in my case the faith-based school) where, guided by a sense of redemptive entrepreneurship, she seeks to bring wholeness to a broken world through an entrepreneurial lens. Schools whose culture retains, encourages, and grows intrapreneurs are schools that will achieve maximum success.

These intrapreneurs have been called by many names: Seth Godin refers to them as “Linchpins” and Liz Wiseman calls them “Impact Players.” All agree, however, that the organizations who wish to attract these key individuals must focus on having the right culture. For our intents and purposes, this culture can be created through a proper mindset and appropriate empowerment.

The Mindset of Intrapreneurship

If we are going to attract intrapreneurial-minded individuals to our schools, we need schools that are led by intrapreneurial-minded leaders. Let’s face it—one cannot create a culture of growth mindset if one leads with a fixed mindset.

When considering what it means to have an “intrapreneurial mindset,” there are four primary attributes that build on each other in meaningful ways. First is growth mindset, a concept championed by Stanford University professor Carol Dweck whose work, Mindset, has revolutionized many aspects of traditional education. An easy way to differentiate those with a fixed mindset from those with a growth mindset is with the word “yet.” Those who are quick to say “can’t” or “won’t” tend to have a fixed sense of reality full of limitations and binding rules while those who add the word “yet” tend to envision a future of possibility and potential.

Next, the intrapreneur who has embraced a growth mindset needs to develop a healthy dose of grit (defined by psychologist Angela Duckworth as “passion and perseverance for long-term goals”). With a growth mindset, one understands that grit can be developed and is not a fixed, all-or-nothing trait. With the right amount of grit, any goal becomes attainable.

This notion of the attainable goal requires an inherent redefinition of failure. True failure, in the intrapreneurial sense, is not trying in the first place. The intrapreneur does not take “no” as a final answer but instead, armed with growth mindset and grit, works to solve the problem again and again until a solution presents itself. Failure is to be embraced, not avoided.

It is the fourth attribute, that of opportunity seeking, that truly differentiates the intrapreneur. An inherent problem solver, the intrapreneur sees obstacles and difficulties not as impossible brick walls to kick at in frustration but as minor hurdles to be embraced with a positive attitude and a spring in the step.

Imagine the traditional water cooler talk as it shifts from complaining (something intrapreneurs detest) to ideating (something intrapreneurs seek out). Now problems (ever present in our schools) are sought out with joy because they present opportunities for solutions. The intrapreneur lives out the admonition in James 1:2-3 where we are told to “count it all joy . . . when [we] meet trials of various kinds, for [we] know that the testing of [our] faith produces steadfastness.”

The school leader who embraces the intrapreneurial mindset in his/her own life is the school leader whose organizational culture will attract (and develop and retain) intrapreneurs. Imagine a culture where it is okay to fail, where seeking opportunity is encouraged, and where solving problems is rewarded. Now imagine it at your school.

The Empowerment of Intrapreneurship

Once we, as leaders, have firmly established the intrapreneurial mindset, it is time to empower others to think and act as intrapreneurs. This means developing a culture where intrapreneurs are given freedom, autonomy, and resources.

Freedom is essential for intrapreneurship to thrive. In a culture where ideas are regularly squashed and where bureaucratic red tape makes it too difficult for changes or innovation, there can be no healthy intrapreneurship. As leaders, we will be uncomfortable with giving more freedom than usual as it inherently increases risk, but the benefits will dramatically outweigh the costs.

Freedom goes hand-in-hand with autonomy. The intrapreneur who constantly has to seek approval for each, and every decision is the intrapreneur who will grow disenchanted and either leave or give up. Instead, give them the freedom to ideate and create alongside the autonomy to act.

This will involve resources. It is important that we provide our intrapreneurs with necessary resources, but it is equally important that we do not give them an abundance of resources. The best intrapreneurs are scrappy intrapreneurs—the ones who must, at times, fight to get things done. We cannot starve them of what they need, but we do not have to provide all their needs.

At Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy, we have a “Teacher Innovation Fund” that exists solely for this reason—teachers with innovative ideas to create student engagement can apply to get funding for their projects. They must fill out an extensive grant request and go through committee approval (a process that tends to weed out those with low commitment) before getting the funding, but often, they get the funding.

This brings up a key point—not every person in your organization needs to be given freedom, autonomy, and resources. Only those who demonstrate an intrapreneurial mindset—those who face down problems with a growth mindset, who are willing to apply grit, when necessary, who are not afraid to fail, and who seek opportunity on a regular basis.

And this culture trickles down. If our goal is to help students think and act like intrapreneurs, then we need intrapreneurs in the classroom. If we want intrapreneurs in the classroom, then we need intrapreneurs in the administrative offices. And if we want intrapreneurs in the administrative offices, then we need intrapreneurs in the board room.

And at that point, armed with this mindset, we will be able to look out at a broken world and see not an insurmountable problem but a massive opportunity.

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