Business and Markets

Five Lessons for Corporate Social Intrapreneurs

October 1, 2019  • Nancy McGaw

Clean tech power washes for aircraft engines. In-home toilet service in Ghana.  A new code of conduct for 100,000 suppliers.  A circular economy strategy for a home goods company.

These initiatives illustrate the range of innovations created by corporate social intrapreneurs who are part of the Aspen First Movers Fellowship Program.

The inaugural class of Aspen First Mover Fellows in 2009

In 2009 the Aspen Business & Society Program launched this fellowship program as a pilot.

Honestly, as enthusiastic as we were about this new venture, we really didn’t know if the idea would fly. From the start, we had to answer both practical questions and ones that tested our very theory of change.

Could we find innovators year after year from all parts of the business who were creating new products, services and practices that would deliver value for their companies and for the world?  Once we selected the Fellows, would they be able to convince their companies to support their participation?  Could we achieve what we set out to do:  to build the capacity and courage of these innovators, so they could work even more effectively as change agents?  And could we achieve the big prize: building a community of business leaders who would, over time, change the way business is done and how success is measured?

Ten years later, the Fellowship has become a world-class development program and network for over 200 exceptional corporate social intrapreneurs. Fellows come from many of the most influential companies in the world, including tech powerhouses like Google, Facebook and Microsoft, and other Fortune 100 companies like IBM, Pepsi, Toyota and Walmart. Further, as the number of excellent candidates for the program increases each year, selection becomes more competitive.

I am often asked what we have learned over the decade.  People want to know how these social innovators achieve change in their companies. Also, many people, who want to work with more purpose in their own companies, ask how they too can become corporate social intrapreneurs.

As the Aspen First Movers team heads to California for the Aspen First Movers Fellows Summit where we will celebrate our 10th anniversary, I thought I would offer some insights and advice for those who are keen to take on the mantle of the corporate social intrapreneur.

Here are five lessons.

  1. Rigorously investigate the problem you are trying to solve. Corporate social intrapreneurs seek to use the platform of business to help solve a wicked problem – like water insecurity, greenhouse gas emissions, financial exclusion, human rights violations and many more. But we have found that moving into solution mode too quickly can lead you down the wrong path.  Studying the problem intensely and examining multiple reframes of the problem is the right place to start.
  2. Collaborate, don’t pitch. People are less likely to buy into your beautiful idea than they are to buy into a plan that they have helped create. Furthermore, the truth is that the best ideas come from multiple inputs. Embrace your role as a catalyst and be prepared to engage with others to make them part of the change process.
  3. Become an expert questioner. Questions may be the closest thing you are going to get to a magic wand. Questions, humbly asked, prompt reflection and insights that help you find a way forward. Therefore, you should strive to become better at crafting and asking insightful questions. We are often exhorted to become better listeners, and the benefits of developing that skill are real and often undervalued. However, rarely are we encouraged to become master questioners – even though better questions and better listening go hand and hand.
  4. Tell stories. And invite others to tell theirs. Many people think the case for change is best built on data and evidence, but intrapreneurs find that stories not only open people’s hearts, they open people’s minds. Make the vision for change personal. Share a story about a person who will be affected by the change and show what difference it will make in his/her life.  Then you can load up on the data.  The data may help to seal the deal, but the stories are what will be remembered.
  5. Develop a practice of reflection. Working as a corporate social intrapreneur can be difficult. To persist, you need to draw strength from within. Making reflection a habit will build your confidence and courage to persevere. Why? It allows you to pause and consider your actions within a broader context. It prompts you to take a longer-term view, to discover and revisit your own personal purpose. That discovery fuels your journey

Oh. And given recent business news, I have one additional piece of advice: Carpe diem.

Since its inception, the First Movers Fellowship Program has been predicated on the belief that businesses thrive over the long-term when they focus not only on creating value for shareholders but also for customers, employees, community members and the natural environment.

However, in 2009 when we launched this program, corporate leaders, journalists, academics and even much of the general public cited the need to maximize value for shareholders as the unshakeable justification for all kinds of decision making within companies that short-changed society and the planet.

That view is changing, and it’s time to seize the day.

Evidence of this change is mounting, including the August 19 announcement by the Business Roundtable (BRT) of their new statement on the purpose of the corporation.  This statement was signed by 181 prominent CEOs who pledged to lead their companies for the benefit of all stakeholders. Previously, since 1997, the BRT had endorsed the idea that corporations should put shareholders first.

These changes suggest that corporate social intrapreneurs may now find more receptive audiences within their companies, if they are able to make a compelling case for innovations that deliver lasting value for their enterprise.  In fact, companies may actually be looking for talented corporate social intrapreneurs who can put this pledge into action.

For one weekend, at the First Movers Summit, we are going to take a break to celebrate these changes in the zeitgeist as we celebrate the 10th anniversary of the First Movers Fellowship Program.  Then, we’ll roll up our sleeves and get back to work to help business meet the new challenges ahead.

Nancy McGaw founded the Aspen First Movers Fellowship Program,  an innovation lab for corporate social intrapreneurs, launched in 2009 by the Aspen Institute Business & Society Program. She also directs the Aspen Leaders Forum, an invitation-only, cross-industry community of senior CSR and sustainability strategists working at the leading edge of practice. Leaders in both of these communities are creating products, services, business models and management practices and policies that deliver financial value for their companies and make the world a better place.