How intrapreneurs find executive sponsors

Finding a sponsor can be frustrating!

Have you ever had a great idea and went to your manager for support but found they were just not interested in it?  Did nothing come out of it in the end, and you were disappointed?  Perhaps, you just turned to the wrong sponsor for your project, a common mistake of intrapreneurs. Here are some thoughts on whom to turn for with ideas to make them happen within an organization.

Looking for a sponsor?
Looking for a sponsor?

Intrapreneurs are ‘executive champions’ that connect people with specific ideas (‘technical champions’) to ‘business champions’ who can provide the resources to make this idea happen; typically an executive sponsor providing funding and political support.  More on intrapreneurship at The Rise of the Intrapreneur and the intrapreneurial role of the executive champion at How to become the strategic innovation leader? (part 2 of 3).

Managers and leaders innovate differently

Let’s look at the ‘business champion’ or executive sponsor.  It is crucial to understand the motivation of executive sponsors for a simple reason: only if your idea or proposition fits their agenda are they be willing to listen to you and getting actively involved.   Consider that they take on risk too in supporting as poor results also reflect on them.  You need to know whom to turn to for what kind of idea to find adequate support.

For an intrapreneur, it is critical to understand the nature of the executive position.  More specifically if you approach a manager or leader to find support for an innovative idea.

Managers and leaders look at innovation differently, hence both groups innovate very differently and for different reasons.  It translates directly into their understanding of what ‘innovation’ is, its risks and rewards, and consequently their willingness to listen to you.  Turing to the wrong executive easily gets your idea rejected and you may not even know why.

Let’s take a look how the views of managers and leaders differ and how this molds their understanding of innovation and what kind of change.  On a side note organizations need both, managers and leaders.  Each role serves a different yet necessary purpose in the organization; see “Leadership vs. Management? What is wrong with middle management?

Managers focus on predictability

Managers are charged with running the daily business smoothly.  They manage a well-oiled ‘machine’ of people, tools and processes to deliver a certain output, a product or service, reliably and at a fixed cost ceiling.

The paramount goal for managers is business continuity – it is the daily bread and butter of the organization and what pays your employee salary today.  Running a fast-food restaurant is a good example, the expectation here is predictability: to deliver food to the customer at a specific quality level with as little variability as possible at a defined cost and within a certain time.  A competent manager delivers this predictability reliably over and over again.

With operational targets clearly defined, the appetite for improvements focuses on speeding up the process or cut cost here and there without compromising quality.  Favorable changes to the status quo are small, gradual tweaks.  This is the world of optimization and continuous improvement.

Little risk, little gain

Managers need to keep the risk small to fail or to jeopardize the production process with its predictable output.  The low risk of disruption comes at a price though as it limits also returns.

Here innovations are primarily of non-disruptive nature, they are incremental or evolutionary.  This approach is process driven.  It lends itself to automation as it aims to make the process repeatable, reliable, predictable.  No senior executive needs to be closely involved in operations to keep this ‘machine’ running; it comes down to the floor manager executing.

This is also the environment of a conventional development project, the ‘next version’ of something and ‘getting it right the first time.’

With an incremental change in focus, managers tend to look for ideas in their own organization, think ‘suggestion box’.  It means following a clearly defined and detailed process with development stage-gates or other review mechanisms that filter ideas typically the criteria of cost, time, quality and, more recently, variations thereof such as customer satisfaction and being ‘green’ and sustainable.

Managers are interested in learning about ‘best practices’ from outside the organization but are often enough reluctant to adopt and implement them if they appear to be risky and disruptive.

Leading in uncertainty

Leaders face a different challenge. They ask: what needs to be done to prepare the organization for success several years down the road with much uncertainty ahead? – Well knowing that the answer may disrupt the established organization.

It is this uncertainty that opens up the so-called ‘fuzzy front-end’ (FFE) to develop entirely new products or services: It is too early to know exact specifications of a solution at this time, the future markets and technologies are yet unknown.  Leaders focus is on getting a deep understanding of the problems that customers face to develop the technology and capability to address and monetize them.

Disruptive transformation

What we talk about here is, for example, a completely new product line, a major (adjacent) product line extension or a new (transformative) business model entirely.  Think how Apple’s iTunes Store started selling digital media and apps has changed the way we use technology and whose devices we use (hint, hint) – this gamble worked out for Apple and was based on a deep understanding what customers are willing to pay for.

With nebulous solutions in far sight, a tightly governed development process with stage-gates makes little sense because this development model is designed for incremental change and tuned for refinement.  It stifles the creative and broad view necessary to create something completely new in an unpredictable and yet undefined scenario of the FFE where much imagination, creativity, and flexibility is needed.

Creative with discipline

However, flexibility and creativity do not thrive only in the absence of discipline or some sense of order.  The early-stage research or design process does not need to be chaotic – it’s quite the opposite.  A company like IDEO, for example, operates successfully in this space and is famous for their disciplined process and methodology in producing creative and tangible prototypes over and over again.

Note, we are not talking about final products ready to go on the self in your neighborhood store tomorrow.  Check out this case study on how IDEO works in more detail: What does it take to keep innovating? (part 1 of 3)

This transitional step narrows down the broad funnel of uncertainty to develop a range of concepts towards increasingly detailed specifications of the final product.  The development of the final product itself is better left to the established development organization – back to the managers to cross the t’s and dot the i’s, if you will.

Active sponsorship needed

With disruption and revolutionary change comes high risk.  The outcome is unpredictable and the reward uncertain, failure is likely.  Yet, if the gamble works out the rewards can be enormous and the key players ‘rainmaker’.

When exploring which direction to go, the serial intrapreneur’s approach is trying many things.  Expect to fail most of the time.  See what ‘sticks’ and explore this option more.

Rather than rigid procedural guardrails, intrapreneurs need to secure top executive sponsorship for their continued active support, political weight and funding.  Thus, for a unique and exploratory venture what you look for is a leader, not a manager.  There is no staged process to follow really, only success determines what was right or wrong.

Maxwell Wessel’s blog for HBR on “How to Innovate with an Executive Sponsor” has some good practical tips for especially if your project takes the company down the disruptive, transformative route.

What kind of sponsor to you need?

Distinguishing the professional motives of managers and leaders comes down to the question of ‘Innovation Strategy: Do you innovate or renovate?

In general, leaders act more as strategic innovators and game-changers assuming the role of a Sponsor or an Architect while managers take more renovation-associate roles such as a Coach or an Orchestrator.  Follow the above link for a more detailed description of these roles and when to chose which role.

Which direction to take?
Which direction to take?

What is my idea again?

Start by taking a hard look at your idea first to find out which category it falls into.  Then decide what kind of sponsor, a manager or a leader, is best suited to approach and is, therefore, most likely to listen and catch interest.

Even better if you can already identify the role associated with the nature of your project (Coach, Orchestrator, etc.) which helps you framing and pitching the idea or a specific project to the appropriate executive sponsor in your organization.

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Innovate to Implement!

Innovate to Implement!
Creating value through new products is not enough. Capturing the value requires equal attention on the innovation process. Focusing on creativity and neglecting execution along the value chain is a costly mistake.

It’s all about creating and capturing value

Innovation is about new products (or services) that create value for an organization as much as it is about capturing this value. While there seems to be no shortage of ideas and even products, what differentiates successful companies from others is that they are able to capture the value of what they created.

Capturing value is a process that complements the product by looking at all aspects of the value chain seeking ways to maximize influence and revenue streams. Thus, capturing the value has to be well thought out and built it into the solution – rather than addressing it in an after-thought.

A new product may bring competitive advantage but this is temporary and will last only as long as the competition needs to catch up. To sustain, an organization needs to develop agility and differentiating capabilities to sharpen the competitive edge continuously and reliably in a fast-paced, competitive, and ever-changing environment (see also “‘Complexity’ is the 2015 challenge! – Are leaders prepared for ‘glocal’?”), while reaping the fruit of their work.

Capturing value –or- Who owns the customer?

The aim of capturing value is to ‘own the customer’, i.e. a customer who is willing to pay a premium or accept shortcomings in some areas in order to buy or use the product (or service). Only then does a company own the customer and the competition remains locked out.

Apple, for example, has perfected this customer ownership: Its loyal customer base values the customer experience with Apple products and identifies with the Apple branding. They purchase every new gadget at a premium with little regard to the actual technical specifications or product offerings from other manufacturers. (See section “Fuzzy values? – Here are some how-to examples” in my previous blog “How to become the strategic innovation leader? (part 2 of 3)”)

Apple effectively controls all aspects of the value chain and generates revenues from different streams from hardware, apps, software, and content, for example. Just to give you an idea, here is an overview on some of the revenue streams Apple has created along the value chain (from Bertrand Issard’s Blog):

Apple Value Chain
Apple Value Chain (found on Bertrand Issard's Blog)

As a bottom-line, products create the value that needs to be captured just as much. Hence, it is important to focus also on the process that ensures value is captured throughout the value chain.
– So how does this relate to innovation?

Innovating the value chain

Innovating the value chain to capture value requires thinking far and wide beyond the product considering all aspects relating to the:

  • Business model – what is the revenue model? What partnerships add value without sacrificing too much control?
  • Processes – what are the core processes of the organization? What are value-adding enabling processes?
  • Offering – what do you offer the customer? – For example, a product concept (think: iTunes, App store), quality/cost/performance optimization (Intel or AMD chips), a product system (Google), or a supply chain (Fedex or UPS)
  • Delivery – how do you deliver your product or service? – For example, are you forming alliances with partners to complement the in value chain in areas outside your own organization’s competency or field of business? If so, make sure you have a well thought-out marketing strategy with win/win profit sharing that creates incentives for stable and lasting partnerships.
    Examples here are the coffee distribution approaches of Nespresso or Keurig’s (single cup coffee brewing), the focus on customer experience of Harley-Davidson (motorcycles), or the brand communication of Red Bull (energy drink).

Two parts of one whole

The innovation process consists of two parts, the invention and the implementation part. Typically, the invention revolves around creativity and ideation that tends to get more publicity and attention than the implementation, which requires focus, discipline, and persistence to execute.

Invent and Implement are two parts of one whole!
To Invent and to Implement are two parts of one whole!

The creativity has the ‘Wow!’ factor – no question about it. Brain-storming of sorts and creativity techniques can be quite fun, social, and engaging. Nonetheless, new ideas are cheap and come by the dozen. That is, perhaps, why innovation literature and models seem to focus (and sell better) on the creative front-end; not so much on the back-end (execution). Yet, it is flawless execution where the rubber hits the road and the value is captured.

Even worse when the innovation process starts out with generating ideas around a specific solution for a new product or service without exploring alternative approaches and then trying to find an application and market for the product. The more mature way to start is with a focus on the problem and then develop and narrow down solutions to find the one(s) that best meet(s) the underlying needs of that problem.

Focusing on the problem first and understanding it thoroughly leads to better results, i.e. develop a product (invent) to sell it (implement).

Focus on the problem before building a solution
Focus on the problem before building a solution


The point here is that both parts are equally important and require to same amount of attention for an innovation project to succeed. Invention without implementation does not help; neither does implementing something immature that and doesn’t work.

Innovation process

This is what an innovation process looks like if you break it up (left to right) into the two parts, invention and implementation, and the process steps:

Eleven “i” for Innovation
Eleven “i” for Innovation (process spectrum)


A new product alone is not enough

New product development (NPD), for example, draws from both parts, typically in a series of steps with cycles between them: Ideation, Initiation, Incubation, and finally preparing the Industrialization ‑ but this is not where the implementation process ends.

It requires a few more process steps to make the solution work in the real-life production environment and deliver results reliable and consistently. A clean hand-over introduces and integrates the change into routine operations, i.e. the production environment and processes of the organization, for example. Failing here means failing the innovation project.

Unfortunately, innovation leaders on the front-end tend to be crushed or steamrolled in a rigid and back-end-heavy organization in a clash of creativity (front-end) and execution (back-end).

It requires discipline, persuasiveness, and persistence to push forward and overcome the obstacles that emerge from a production environment optimized for efficiency when innovative change knocks at their door and disrupts the rhythm of a fine-tuned process flow. It also requires courageous leadership and an intrapreneurial spirit to do what is right for the company overall and necessary for future success.

In a nutshell

What innovation comes down to is the creative part of collaboration to come up with a new product as well as the implementation that captures the value throughout the value chain with the goal to ‘own the customer’ through differentiation. Focusing on the creativity and neglecting the implementation and execution is a costly mistake that lets even the best idea fall short of its market potential.

The Rise of the Intrapreneur

The Rise of the Intrapreneur
How to become an ‘Intrapreneur’?  Why are Intrapreneurs needed?  What is the difference to Entrepreneurship?  – The future of innovation within large organizations lies within, if you know how to tap into it with intrapreneurship!

What is Intrapreneurship?

Did you know that ‘Intrapreneur’ and ‘Intrapreneurship’ are not new terms but were coined nearly 35 years ago by Elizabeth and Gifford Pinchot in 1978?

As a definition for our purposes, an intrapreneur takes responsibility in large organizations for turning an idea into a profitable finished product through assertive risk-taking and innovation.  In contrast to an entrepreneur, the Intrapreneur operates within an existing organization with an internal focus.  Intrapreneurship requires an organization of considerable size for an intrapreneurial role to become applicable in the first place.

What is the difference to Entrepreneurship?

‘Intrapreneur’ is not as well known as the more established term ‘Entrepreneur’ which it derives from.  It even takes a deliberate effort to pronounce the word Intrapreneur so doesn’t sound like and get confused with Entrepreneur.

The word ‘Entrepreneur’ has been around since the 19th century with its functional roots reaching even farther back into the 16th century.  According to the original definition, an Entrepreneur is “one who undertakes an enterprise […] acting as intermediatory between capital and labour” or in other words, to “shift economic resources out of lower and into higher productivity and greater yield.”  (source: Wikipedia)

The role of an Entrepreneur is not so different from the Intrapreneur but many differences exist relating to the environment they operate in and the approach they take.  An Entrepreneur founds a new venture, a business, or company, as an independent economic entity.  This new entity then typically competes for profit in a market with other companies.  Today, Entrepreneurship has fanned out to include specializations such as lifestyle, serial, or social Entrepreneurship that also expanded in markets (in lieu of a better word) previously dominated by non-for-profit, clerical or government institutions.

As a bottom-line, Entrepreneurship roots in competition between companies or organizations by introducing and building a new entity that grows as a company to stand alone in an economic marketplace – while the Intrapreneur connects “capital and labour” using somewhat entrepreneurial methods within an existing organization.  You can even see Intrapreneurship as a downstream evolution for a successful and matured entrepreneurial venture.

Why do we need Intrapreneurs?

With increasing size, an organization slows.  Inertia and paralysis set in to replace agility and effectiveness.  This is often caused by the organization’s own success: The focus shifts towards delivering with increasing efficiency (cost, time) and consistency (quality).  You can easily observe the results in many organizations – it looks somewhat like this:

  • Business functions specialize and sub-optimization to become more efficient and productive; they thereby form ‘silos’ with communication and interactions thinning between them to the detriment of the organization as a whole.
  • Hierarchical structures become steeper to manage more employees; they effectively disconnect the executives on the top from the workers at the bottom of the hierarchy.
  • Promising innovation ideas from the grassroots don’t get through to the executive level for backing or funding to be developed and implemented; the ideas starve and innovation suffers overall.
  • More rules and procedures regulate the growing workforce and detailed aspects of work processes; governance, red tape, and bureaucracy pour over the organization like concrete and become obstacles to change.
  • Career paths become linear, job profiles and responsibilities narrow, entailing an equally narrow view and mindset of the staff that eats away motivation and creativity over time.
  • Talented and creative employees are the first to leave or become hard to retain, as they are always in demand and easily find interesting work elsewhere.
  • Innovation suffers while competitive pressure increases when nimble competitors and start-ups outpace the organization.
  • Management used to command-and-control eagerly seeks fresh talent and ideas externally, i.e. ‘hiring the best and brightest’, to reanimate the organization – yet the leaky pipeline continues bleeding talent, as also the new ‘super stars’ find themselves trapped and escape to new adventures elsewhere.

It takes a jolt to overcome this inertia, revive it, and get an organization moving nimble again ‑ this is the hour of the Intrapreneur!

Time for Action - Clock
Time for Action – Clock

How to become an Intrapreneur?

It takes a new role in the organization to jump-start it, so we “Innovate to Implement“.  Sometimes, a new CEO is hired to turn the corporate ship around from the top; sometimes it works.  The Intrapreneur, however, also considers working bottom-up by pulling the loose ends together and connecting people again across all functions and levels of hierarchy.  The Intrapreneur bridges the various gaps within the organization vertically and horizontally.

It takes a different approach to include, and engage all employees in ways outside their immediate job description that makes best use of all dimensions each individual brings to the (work) table.  The Intrapreneur inspires and spreads a new sense of enablement throughout the workforce.

The Intrapreneur looks differently at how we conduct our business and unlocks innovative value chains, new business models, or propositions.  It takes a strategic lead to become a facilitator for the organization, to adapt continuously and make best use of the changing environment.  The Intrapreneur builds networks and alliances to help actively moving the organization towards its business goals.

The Intrapreneur is a much-in-need and critical role within the matured organization.  It can come in different flavors too!  Being the ‘Executive Champion’, for example, is an intrapreneurial role (see “How to become the strategic innovation leader? (part 2 of 3).”

As an Intrapreneur it is important to be aware what hat to wear and when.  Sometimes an ‘architect’ is needed and an ‘orchestrator’ at other times, for example.  ‑ For more details see: “Innovation Strategy: Do you innovate or renovate?

Risks becoming an Intrapreneur

Now, as a word of warning, being an Intrapreneur is not always easy:  You tent to step on many people’s toes if you want to make a difference.  It can be so risky, that Gifford Pinchot even formulated The Intrapreneur’s Ten Commandments starting with: “Come to work each day willing to be fired.”

So brace yourself because there are many obstacles to innovation and change out there that the Intrapreneur will face.  Intrapreneurship is most and foremost a leadership role, which has a natural tendency to conflict with managers (see “Leadership vs Management?  What is wrong with middle management?”).

Prepare to hit the obstacles to an innovation environment that Irving Wladawsky-Berger in Business Week calls “indifference, hostility, and isolation” – I couldn’t agree more!

The bottom-line

It is not always easy to become an Intrapreneur.  It takes skill and persistence as well as courageous leadership and risk taking.  Truly making a difference and reviving an organization though is rewarding in itself – at least you will learn a lot and make new friends.  ‑ Most of all make sure you have fun!

Starting an ERG as a strategic innovation engine! (part 3 of 3)

While many companies demand creativity and innovation from their staff few companies seem to know how to make it work. – Is your organization among those hiring new staff all the time to innovate? The hire-to-innovate practice alone is not a sustainable strategy and backfires easily.

An alternative and sustainable way to tap deep into your employees’ creative potential and turning it into solid business value is by forming an employee resource group (ERG). A well-crafted ERG serves as a powerful and strategic innovation engine for your organization!

Losing the innovative edge?
It is the large companies that seem to struggle with innovation most. When companies grow they tend to become less innovative. When this happens we see great talent turning into under-performing employees. – Why is that and is there a way out?

Stuck in mental models of the past?
Remember the heavy dinosaurs that finally got stuck in the pre-history tar pits and starved, too heavy to move themselves out of the calamity? Mental models are the tar pits that companies grow to get stuck in – unless they find a way to shed (mental) weight and think nimble again to survive.

The mental models often originate from days past when the business started and flourished with initial success. The models worked when the company grew back then but models out-date easily over time. At some point the company began to work harder to standardize its processes to ensure the output is delivered reliably and predictably and costs are driven down: the focus shifted from innovation to efficiency. Specialized and refined business functions create increasingly complex and bureaucratic processes, ‘standard operating procedures’ rule the course of action. Things don’t move fast here anymore. Improvement ideas from employee on the floor hardly make it to the top executives and starve somewhere in between, probably in the famous ‘idea box’…

> For more general insight on complexity as a leadership challenge, read this: ‘Complexity’ is the 2015 challenge! – Are leaders prepared for ‘glocal’?

This focus on incremental efficiency also traps R&D departments to a point where true creativity and innovation get stifled, the innovative output drops. In short, the larger a company the less it innovates. Sounds familiar?

Many companies chose the dangerous and seemingly easy way out in buying new ideas from the outside through acquisitions and hiring ‘new talent’. The danger lays in applying this practice too broadly and becoming reliant on this practice, i.e. getting trapped in a vicious and reinforcing cycle. This practice also alienates and frustrates the more seasoned employees who feel underutilized and –quite rightly so see their career opportunities dwindling. Soon enough the sour side of the hire-for-innovation practice for employees becomes transparent also to the newer employees and drives them away in frustration. This organization just found the perfect recipe to turn top talent into poor performers!

Don’t waste your human capital
Bringing in fresh brains to an organization may justify mergers, acquisitions or hiring at times – but not as a strategy for continuous innovation and without also at least trying to tap into the innovative capacity that lays dormant within the organization.

Don’t write your staff off easily by following blindly the common yet wrong assumption that an employee loses the creative spirit after a few years and that new hires would be more innovative than whom we already have working for us. Haven’t we hired the best and brightest consistently in the past? Well, then this logic doesn’t add up, right?

Ask yourself: have you lost your innovative edge? Will you personally be more innovative once you change to another employer? – I don’t think so either. The good news is that even if you don’t believe it, changes are that managers and human resource experts of your new employer do, at least the ones who follow the outdated mental model! – But then, how long can you expect to last there before you get written off? It’s like getting on a train to nowhere.

Derailing the train to nowhere
But seriously, the seasoned employees’ intimate knowledge of the organization and its people can hold enormous potential for innovation not only under financial considerations but also as a morale booster for staff. Getting personally involved more and engaging them in driving change again actively leads the way to measurable and favorable results for the organization. These employees are the people who know your business, your markets, your customers and where to find resources and short-cuts if needed to get things done! Remember the “Radar” character in M*A*S*H who creatively procured whatever his unit needed by knowing how to play ‘the system’ and navigate the cliffs of bureaucracy on unconventional routes?

So, how can you motivate and (re-)activate your employees to come forward with brilliant ideas and getting them implemented to boost the organization’s profitability? How can you spread new hope and direct the enthusiasm to practical and meaningful outcomes for the company and the individual employee alike?

Facing organizational barriers
There is no shortage of good ideas in the heads of employees. Too few of them, however, actually get picked up and implemented since organizational barriers have many dimensions the need to be overcome first. Here are some examples:

  • A vertical barrier effectively disconnects employees from the executive level which hold the (financial and other) resources to make things happen. Penetrating this barrier means to connect the people within the organization closely and effectively again. > Readers of my previous post What does take to keep innovating? (part 1) will recognize that an executive champion is needed who brings together the technical and business champions. If you feel intrapreneurial and consider becoming an executive champion, check this out: How to become the strategic innovation leader? (part 2)
  • The horizontal barrier separates business functions and operating units that evolved to become silos or manager’s ‘fiefdoms’ of sub-optimized local productivity often with lesser concern to the overall performance of the organization. What you are up against here is often enough beyond specialized deep expertise but also defensive egos and managerial status thinking that led to a comfortable and change-adverse local equilibrium. As an intrapreneur you bring a much needed yet disruptive element to the organization. Since you are rocking the boat you can get caught up in ‘politics’ easily. Functional managers and their staff may perceive you as throwing a wrench into their well-oiled and fine-tuned machine that could jeopardize not only their unit’s efficiency but also their personal incentives for keeping operations running smoothly. > For more insight on the tension field of management vs. leadership check out Leadership vs Management? What is wrong with middle management?
  • Another barrier relates to the perceived value that your work creates for the organization, so let’s call it the value barrier: When you start acting intrapreneurial, you may be seen as someone wasting resources, incurring additional cost or generating questionable value (if any value at all) in the eyes of executives and other managers.

Therefore it is of critical importance to clearly demonstrate the business value your work adds to the organization. Based on an unambiguous success metrics the value proposition needs to be communicated clearly and frequently especially to executive management to gain their buy-in and active support.

These and possibly more barriers are a tough challenge. Now, I assume you are not the almighty ‘Vice President of Really Cool Stuff’ (that would be my favorite future job title!) but hold a somewhat lower rank. Perhaps you got stuck in the wrong department (the one without the Really Cool Stuff).

So, where do you start to innovate and ‘rescue’ your organization from a looming train-wreck scenario?

Breaking down barriers by innovating from within using ERGs

A vehicle I tried out quite successfully over the past years was forming an employee resource group (ERG). This grassroots approach has the power to crash right through the vertical, horizontal and value barriers while driving change effectively and sustainably through the organization as a strategic innovation engine.

> A previous post discusses the business model behind the ERG approach in more detail: Build ERGs as an innovative business resource!

Here are the first steps on the way to founding an ERG:

  • Identify a business need and build a business case, i.e. a clear value proposition aimed at executive management convincing them of the need and benefits of forming an ERG within the limits of company policies. Attracting an influential executive sponsor to gain buy-in is a key requirement for instituting an ERG successfully. The sponsor serves as a political and resourceful ally, an experienced advisor and advocate but also ensures strategic alignment of the ERG’s activities with the broader goals of the company.Since executives value their time more than yours, keep it short and to the point. Think executive summary style and offer details separately for those who chose to dig deeper and to demonstrate that you thought this whole thing through. If your organization already has a distinguished officer or departments with a vested interest in employee engagement for example then connect, collaborate and leverage your joint forces. > More on how to build a case study for an ERG at: Q&A – Case study for founding a business-focused ERG
  • Get organized! Seek voluntary members and reach out to future constituency of the ERG. Active members are needed as the driving force and source of ideas that the ERG turns into business projects aimed to innovate and energize the organization.
    The first ERG I founded was “NxGen”, which stands for the “Next Generation at the Workplace”. The NxGen ERG has a generational orientation but is open to all employees regardless of their age or workplace generation. Nonetheless, from the start mostly the youngest employees (Generation Y) drove NxGen. In many cases they did not know of each other as the GenY-ers were spread thin across the various business functions of the company.The GenY-ers, in particular, found a forum in the NxGen ERG to get to know each other in the first place. We then focused on goals based on shared values or needs to build a strong support network within the company. At all times we kept the ERG open and inclusive to interested employees join from other workplace generations.

    The ERG offers its members a safe environment to discuss issues and ideas. It also serves as an informal forum to find coaches and mentors for personal development or specific projects and initiatives. Active ERG membership allows less experienced employees to quickly acquire new skills and test them in real-life by running a project hands-on even in areas outside of their job description or business function to address needs close to their heart with tangible business value. Here, the ERG serves as a very practical leadership development pipeline and safe ground for experimentation within the organization.

    > More on the virtues of Generation Y as I experience it in NxGen under: Generation Y for managers – better than their reputation?

  • Get active by launching business-focused projects. Again, you are targeting management and executives in particular to build credibility and thereby become more effective over time.Start with feasible projects of high visibility and short duration that address a significant business need with a clear and quantifiable success metrics. For each project seek executive sponsorship at the highest level you can attain from the business area that the project affects. Make sure to communicate your successes broadly and frequently to kick-start the ERG. Stick to a clear, specific and unambiguous metrics for your success; if you can tie it to a monetary ROI the better, as this is the language of business. > More on establishing a success metric under: Driving the ROI – where to start your projects metrics?

    Showcasing and celebrating your successes as an ERG motivates the already active members, keeps attracting new members and builds credibility among executives to keep the ERG wheels turning as a strategic innovation engine for your organization.

On a personal note
The example of the NxGen ERG is very real. NxGen was nationally recognized as best-practices ERG within 5 months (!) of its founding and became a valued and frequent sounding board for C-level executives within one year. The ERG has no funds of its own yet runs projects and initiatives nationally and internationally that already shifted the company culture and opened it more for change.

References and additional reading