What would Machiavelli say about the politics of a 21st-century corporation? Surely, the recent financial crisis, media phone tapping, and other corruption scandals would come as no surprise. In Machiavelli’s world, the means justifies the end.
But, what would he make of the political acumen of social intrapreneurs—individuals inside large companies developing products and services with positive societal impact? How would he explain the growing numbers of corporate change agents working to re-introduce a moral lens to business? That’s what we’ve attempted to uncover in conversations with intrapreneurs from around the world.
One woman we spoke with who works with senior pharmaceutical executives to encourage them to invest in more affordable and accessible medicines told us that she spends about 60% of her time thinking about the psychology and motivations of the people she’s influencing.
This may sound all very conspiratorial, but for social intrapreneurs navigating the corporate ecosystem of decision makers, naysayers, budget holders, influencers, partners, and so on is a big part of the job. Why is this? And is navigating for social intrapreneurs more tricky than typical office politics?
Sustainability is inherently a systems problem. This means that no one team, division, or even company can solve most sustainability challenges on its own. So, intrapreneurs have to become expert politicians, reaching out across the aisle to enroll, cajole, inspire and initiate new, and often unlikely, supporters for their ideas.
How do they do this?
In the recently launched Cubicle Warriors Toolkit, we feature stories and tips from seasoned intrapreneurs. Here are a few to help you navigate your company—from the back-office to the boardroom.
People are not job descriptions. They are complex individuals motivated by deeper emotional drivers, such as recognition, reward, belonging, understanding, love, etc. An intrapreneur working at a major energy company recently was seeking approval from his boss for an innovative climate change strategy. His colleagues said it was impossible—the numbers weren’t strong enough. But he saw an opportunity: his boss was about to retire, so he focused on appealing to the potential for a positive legacy. It worked. His boss approved the strategy to leave a lasting mark that he could share with his grandchildren. The lesson? Dig beneath the surface to truly understand what will get someone excited about (or at least aligned with) your idea.
How will your audience perceive you and your message? What emotions and assumptions are you bringing to your meeting and how might this translate into your body language? What labels are you applying to your colleagues and where do these stem from? How can you create a deeper sense of empathy and connection with others? We don’t pretend you can turn every blocker into a champion, but understanding your own biases will improve your odds of success.
Many rules are unwritten, such as "we’re not in that business" or "we don’t do things that way." What is the universe of people who go into making a decision and how can you influence them? How can you align your initiative with the primary priorities of key decision makers? It helps to work with the grain of your organization, finding positive cultural attributes that you can leverage to drive change. Working with the grain means showing people that you know where they’re coming from. Showing people you get it builds trust and makes it easier to get buy-in around something more left field later on.
Identify key influencers within your organization and get them on your side. Find a champion or leader who can offer you protection. But be careful not to be anyone’s pet project. Try to integrate into the DNA of the company by enrolling people from diverse areas and giving them a stake. External influence from a trusted source can help to advance your work. Think about whom you might get to endorse you from the outside. Humans are tribal. The bigger and deeper your network, the more likely you will be part of a tribe who can help your idea happen.
Remember to always lead with compassion and understanding for the demands on others. Take time to listen to what people have to say, play back what you’re hearing, and allow others to be fully heard. Acknowledge where you agree with people and mention how their input has made you think differently. Once you’ve properly acknowledged that you heard them, it will be much easier to introduce a new point of view. If you experience pushback from management, remember that management isn’t evil. They are guardians of norms that are often key to your organization’s survival. So respect their logic and decision-making—while continuously trying to influence it.
By practicing these tips, we hope that you will find negotiating your own corporate politics just a little bit easier. And, if none of this seems to work, try phoning a friend or fellow intrapreneur. This may be the simplest and most effective tool around, connecting with others out there who are experiencing similar challenges.
Maggie De Pree is an entrepreneur and a mother. She co-founded the League of Intrapreneurs, a global movement for corporate change agents as well as The Human Agency, a community of strategic thinkers and do-ers working to incubate game changing ideas for humanity.
Alexa Clay is an economic historian and culture hacker. She is the co-author of the Misfit Economy, a book exploring innovation from the underground and informal economy. And alongside Maggie, she is the co-founder of the League of Intrapreneurs and The Human Agency.