Nigerian school girls, courtesy of the UN Foundation

“Uh-oh. There she is. I know you’re here to take me out of my comfort zone. Give me a minute,” my boss at Chrysler’s Global Electric Motorcars would say when he would see me at his office door. Then, he would grab the arms of his chair, close his eyes and say, “Ok, I’m ready,” and sit back and hear my latest “brilliant” idea for our next campaign. Usually, he thought it was completely nuts.

Sometimes he supported me, like our campaign for a methane-free Christmas that went viral. Sometimes he pushed back, like when I suggested a strategic alliance with AARP, which he said I could pursue on my own time and dime.  He came around on that one, and it ultimately led to a multi-pronged partnership that helped boost us to record-breaking growth.  Sometimes he just said “no.”  Always, he heard me out.

This is how innovators drive exponential growth – most (if not all) senior executives have. It’s possible even in legacy companies and organizations with deeply entrenched interests or even in crisis mode (as Chrysler was at the time).

Being an intrapreneur is initiating change. 

Most leaders say they want innovation. But, when you pitch them new ideas, their default answer is “no,” claiming that resources and staff are stretched (aren’t they always?).  In effect this means, “I love change, but don’t change anything I decided”; “don’t change anything I invested in”.  Zip.

So, how can us innovative types drive change that’s successful for the company and our careers?

Here are tips from top leaders who have done it with a focus on corporate responsibility.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These build upon each other, that is, you can have one, or even two of them, but you need all of them to drive change successfully:

1. Expertise: Fundamentally, you need to be very good at your core job. You have to have expertise in something, whether it’s finance or IT, marketing or HR, sales or whatever.

  • You also need to understand the business and culture overall. Keep abreast of your industry trends, notice what your company funds (initiatives, campaigns, events they sponsor, staff additions, acquisitions). These speak volumes about what the company values.
  • Create a string of undeniable successes, including small wins that build trust, as Kathy Calvin, President/CEO of the UN Foundation and a former SVP at AOL, told me. They earn you “permission” to try bolder strategies.

2. Credibility: Your expertise and your “wins” – and the metrics that reflect them – will give you foundational credibility. You need more. Taking on assignments outside your job description, including studies, is one strategy a Disney executive told me she employed, accidentally.  She started taking online courses in sustainability out of her own curiosity and her boss found out and added that area to her portfolio.

3. Relationships: You need internal support. “You’ve got to walk the halls and really understand how they run the business, where their pressure points are and what they think their challenges are….walk in their shoes….It’s not what you’re selling, it’s what they’re buying,” Beth Colleton told me, based on her experience driving change as SVP of Corporate Social Responsibility and Social Innovation at NBCUniversal and as Director of Community Ventures and Growth Markets at the NFL.

  • By listening carefully to their answers, beneath the words, you hear what motivates and inspires your colleagues, so you can meet them where they are.
  • A great strategy Colleton used was to spend a lot of time with the finance people, since everything leads back to funding and revenue. This enabled her to build relationships with them, develop more effective and marketable strategies, and importantly, to pitch ideas at the right time – when budgets were being drawn – which greatly increased their success.

Somali girls studying, UN Foundation Empowerment program

 

 

 

Pitching and executing your idea:

Once you have established your expertise, credibility and relationships, and understand their language, you can pitch your idea. “What if we looked at it this way?” is a good place to start. And tell a story about how your solution can solve a problem, like how the UN Foundation program helped educate girls in Somali. Stories connect people.

If they say they “tried that once,” ask when, what they did and why they think it was unsuccessful).  They will feel heard and you will learn from their experience, tweaking your idea accordingly. Flexibility is key. Here’s what you’ll need:

4. Metrics You need to walk into your pitch meeting with solid metrics to justify it, make the business case. Use (their) metrics to show why it’s needed, what you plan to accomplish, and how will you measure the outcomes.

5. Language:  Colleton said, “use their language…such as, “efficiencies,” “cost savings,” “resiliency” and how they measure their bottom line.  She never used the word “carbon,” for example, even though her strategies were certainly reducing their facilities’ carbon emissions.  Translate your message and goals into their language.

6. Costs:  To get to “yes” quicker, find a way to do your initiative with as few expenses as possible and start small.  Leverage existing assets and create partnerships.  My “crazy” ideas at Chrysler usually only required my time, because I engaged our dealers, since they have direct contact with consumers, or other partners.  Or, I found existing department expenditures we could cut based on our data.

Expect the unexpected. It will likely take longer and end up looking differently than your initial idea, tweaked (improved!) by your colleagues, and with lots of twists and turns along the way.

You can drive new initiatives successfully to support your business and career goals.   It’s one story, one conversation, one question, one answer, one data point, one negotiation at a time – no matter what level you’re at.

That’s the journey of an intrapreneur. It’s complicated, risky, rewarding – and fun.

Read the full post in Forbes.