'Entrepreneurial' is a term rarely used to describe the very largest corporations. Mention entrepreneurship and most of us think of small, start-up enterprises or celebrity businessmen like Richard Branson and Alan Sugar. Peter Sayburn, co-founder of Market Gravity introduces a new breed of business manager – the corporate entrepreneur.
In every large business, there are a host of talented young managers who apply enterprising and entrepreneurial talent to overcome the many obstacles inherent in big companies. By entering new markets, launching new services, or finding new solutions to age-old problems, corporate entrepreneurs are the key to sustainable business growth.
At Market Gravity, we talk about five major benefits that corporate entrepreneurs bring to an organisation.
They help to create the future business - finding effective ways to enter new markets without exposing the company to excessive risk.
Corporate entrepreneurs have the intuition to see threats to existing businesses and the conviction to change direction and explore brand new markets and sectors. For example Lee Clarke, who led the creation of npower hometeam, the energy company's new home service business.
This capability enables npower to compete with other utility companies through service, not just price. Lee is now General Manager of Forewind, a joint venture that is building the world's largest offshore wind farm in the North Sea.
They speed up the core business - delivering results faster than would otherwise be possible and making better use of existing resources.
This benefit is sometimes overlooked as it is easy to mistake entrepreneurship as solely about entering new markets or buying other companies. Large established companies have amazing resources and the managers who can marshal these assets in new and creative ways are very successful. Take Douglas Johnson-Poensgen at BT, who created 'Tiger Teams' to address major business challenges and explore new problem solving approaches.
They inspire talent and change cultures - drawing in exceptional people with similar mindsets.
Who doesn't want to work for an innovative and entrepreneurial company? Success breeds success and entrepreneurial managers inspire their teams and create powerful cultures that spawn further innovation.
A great example of this is Veera Johnson who led a self-selecting group of hard workers and risk-takers to build ProcServ, a spin-off from PA Consulting. 'No rules, no rank, no status' became the mantra, and still is. When something needed to be done, they would all just "get stuck in."
They have an unrelenting focus on customers – they are intuitive about what matters in the market and what customers really care about.
This is reflected in the role that corporate entrepreneurs take; their companies often act as the customer champion. This was illustrated by Rachel Sheridan who established new ways of serving customers at invitation-only fashion retailer Cocosa, a Bauer Media brand.
"Think like a competitor" advises Sheridan. "Once you've dealt with the internal politics and got the board onside, think like a start-up because that's who you're going to be competing with."
They take full accountability for delivering results – they are acutely aware of the commercial dynamics of their business and the impact that they make.
Corporate entrepreneurs, unlike their independent counterparts are rarely driven by financial reward. They are unlikely to become rich, even if successful, so their prize is legacy and the satisfaction of creating something significant.
So why do large companies find it so hard to foster entrepreneurship when the benefits are so compelling? A common reason is a culture that is unable to accommodate the development of new growth initiatives alongside day to day management of existing functions. You need a Jekyll and Hyde personality to make it work and this is hard to cultivate and maintain.
The solution is to recognise the virtues of both camps and to create a dedicated environment where new businesses can develop and grow, at arms length from the core. The ventures that are successful can be integrated into the main business, or scaled up to become business units in their own right.
To achieve this level of internal enterprise, companies need to ring-fence investment budgets, recruit new talent and support their corporate entrepreneurs to identify new growth areas.
Then they need the step back and let them get on with it! The reward is a business that is ready for the future and capable of navigating any challenge that the market can muster.
The exciting role of the 'corporate entrepreneur' inspired Market Gravity to join forces with author Polly Courtney, and write Defying Gravity – Adventures of a Corporate Entrepreneur. The book is a 'business novel' that charts the journey of a new venture inside a multinational company and celebrates the role of the corporate entrepreneur.
Unusually for a business book, Defying Gravity is fictional, combined with real-life insights and advice, making it entertaining but brutally honest and relevant to anyone who has battled to deliver a new project in a big company.
Defying Gravity – Adventures of a Corporate Entrepreneur is out now, published by Troubador (£8.99).
Peter Sayburn is a co-founder of Market Gravity; a specialist growth and innovation consultancy that brings entrepreneurial approaches to large companies.