Comment: Nurturing the next generation of ‘intrapreneurs’

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Here’s a question for the bosses of any large Scottish company: Would you hire Tesla’s Elon Musk or Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson if their CVs happened to find their way onto your desk?

On the face of it, the question seems rhetorical – you would be mad to turn down such entrepreneurial talent. Both men have not only delivered huge commercial value for the companies they created, but they have also brought value to society and, in Musk’s case, to the environment through his efforts to mainstream electric vehicles. They are part of a breed of so-called “social entrepreneurs” who seek business solutions to societal challenges.

Scotland has a rich entrepreneurial history that dates back to John Logie-Baird and Alexander Graham Bell whose inventions revolutionised global communications in the 20th century – they were probably the social entrepreneurs of their time. Sir Tom Hunter is a more recent example of an entrepreneur turned “venture philanthropist”.

New so-called “social intrapreneurs” are emerging from deep within some of the world’s largest corporations. They believe that the best way to achieve impact at scale is to start with scale and seek to influence the direction of the parent organisation. But, the social intrapreneur is an endangered species. Large companies are haemorrhaging their internal Musks, Bransons and Hunters due to what I refer to as “the corporate immune system” – the antibodies of cultural inertia, risk aversion and bureaucratic internal policies that stifle innovation and change, especially if short-term profit is absent.

There are two reasons why this should matter to corporations. First, there is a major shift toward embedding purpose within business strategies. What used to be social – the domain of the corporate social responsibility department, is now highly strategic to business. Harnessing new technologies and innovation to solve global challenges represents a rich, new seam of value for today’s forward-thinking corporations and the best source of inspiration and creativity can often come from the intrapreneurial talent that lies within the organisation itself.

Which leads to my second point – the war for talent. Millennials will soon make up 75 per cent of the global workforce. When I was this age leaving Strathclyde University Business School with my prized MBA, money was my main goal. Today’s new currency is meaning. Increasingly, any corporation that aspires to attract and retain the best talent must provide a credible story around its embedded social purpose – one that goes beyond profit alone.

As the Entrepreneurial Scotland annual conference starts this week in Gleneagles, I’m looking forward to returning to my native Scotland to talk about some of these themes and my own intrapreneurial journey. I spent 15 years creating a “corporate social enterprise” within one of the world’s largest consulting organisations, Accenture – it eventually cost me my health, my job and even made me question my own sanity. The experience left me wondering: “Is it me or is it the system that’s crazy?” It’s something I wrote about in my new book.

The theme for this year’s conference, Global Mindset, is a relevant one given that Scotland has a long history of punching above its weight on the global stage – in politics, culture and, indeed, business. We have educated a cadre of young talent with a “global head and a Scottish heart,” many of whom are working within large, multinational corporations worldwide. They are dormant intrapreneurs, who care as much about their country as they do about the state of the wider world. And it is time to unleash the power of such talent – as entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs who are together a powerful force for social innovation. Who knows, it could prove to be our most valuable export yet.

- Gib Bulloch is the founder of Accenture Development Partnerships and author of new book, The Intrapreneur: Confessions of a Corporate Insurgent and features at this week’s FutureX-run Virtuous Economy Leaders Forum in Ayrshire