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How to Become a Social Intrapreneur

Editor's Note: This article kicks off a planned seven-week series by Nathan Springer that will chronicle in-depth the lessons from a course at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business on how to become a social intrapreneur -- someone who makes change for good from within the enterprise.

The fabled triple-bottom-line business is the epic quest of our profession. In the hallways of conferences, sustainability professionals gather around the coffee tables to tell legends of companies like Interface, Nike, and Walmart and the many others that have set out on this journey.

Many have heard the tale of Ray Anderson, who discovered Paul Hawkins' manuscript The Ecology of Commerce and carried his entire company toward the summit of Mt. Sustainability guided by sages Hunter Lovins, Amory Lovins, and Hawkins himself.

When the euphoria fades, most people return to the reality of Monday morning full of doubts and questions about whether they could take their company to the heroic heights of sustainable business.

Now, the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan has invited me to follow a class on Social Intrapreneurship that aims to arm MBA students with the tools to do just that.

Management and Organizations Professor Jerry Davis and former student Chris White conceived of the class when they heard a cry from students and alumni for lessons to create social benefit in traditional roles. "We wanted to give practical tools and skills to students who wanted to make that difference from within a mainstream corporate job," says Davis.

The class features visits by intrapreneurs from IBM, Ford, SC Johnson, Target and other companies and draws from research on social movements to build a map for budding social intrapreneurs.

"The network analysis tools allow students to understand network structures in a way that would constitute a PhD thesis 15 years ago," Davis says. Students learn to see opportunities, map power networks within companies, and design strategy while applying their lessons to the immediate challenges faced by social intrapreneurs who visit the class.

The class was so popular in its first year that it is spreading to other business schools around the world. Davis and White are now working on a book.

While we can't all have a personal sustainability prophet or take the helm of a company, there is a growing field of internal social change experts. In 2004, the Stanford Social Innovation Review published an article by Debra E. Meyerson called "The Tempered Radicals: How employees push their companies -- little by little -- to be more socially responsible".

After 10 years researching and writing a book on the subject, Meyerson identified lessons from tempered radicals who push a social agenda within an established organization. The social intrapreneurship class teaches elements of Meyerson's suite of strategies that begin with building relationships, seizing opportunity, and defining an agenda.

SustainAbility calls the social intrapreneur a new species. In 2008, the sustainable business consultancy published a manual with Skoll Foundation, IDEO, and Allianz called "Social Intrapreneur: A field guide for corporate changemakers."

The free 72-page study of 20 change agents from companies as diverse as Dow Chemical and Morgan Stanley notes their defining characteristics, habitats, and approaches. "Their adept opposable minds exist to juggle dilemmas and catalyze new visions, products, services and solutions," states the guide.

More recently, FastCoExist featured an article last week that highlights the work of three intrapreneurs from Walmart, Autodesk, and Swiss Re participating in a program by the Aspen Institute to bring together and train social intrapreneurs.

Change agents. Tempered radicals. Social intrapreneurs. They go by many names, but you may know it best as agitator or rabble-rouser, because the work of social intrapreneurs is often met with resistance.

"We're introducing students to software for analyzing company language to position themselves appropriately and identify new opportunities," says Davis. Intrapreneurs are often themselves the lonely prophets of change and the first to identify transformations necessary to adapt to changing social and environmental conditions, so students will also learn new software to build relationships and organize within an enterprise.

You are probably a social intrapreneur if you relate to any of these situations. Over the next few weeks, I will offer a rare glimpse of the best practices, experienced intrapreneurs, and tales from the University of Michigan class on social intrapreneurs to provide a map and compass for creating big sustainability wins at companies through change initiatives.

The lessons may not propel you to the summit of Mt. Sustainability today, but they may help you reach the next peak.

Next Week: Seizing the Opportunity and Building a Case

Green employee photo via Shutterstock.

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