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Intrapreneurs: Building belongers of the future

This often sets my mind wandering as I contemplate the business of entrepreneurship. Seeing guests exploring the beach reminded me that one of the first charming things visitors to the BVIs see:e signs in the airport arrivals area that designates the immigration channels. Unlike the rest of the English-speaking world, here the signs read “Belongers” and “Non-Belongers,” rather than “Residents” and “Nonresidents.”

logoSince I became a resident, I’ve come to find the term “belonger” amazingly powerful. When a nation embraces its own as “belonging here” as opposed to just living there, it breeds a wholly different form of loyalty. It reminds us that this is where we belong, and so our efforts are not just on our own behalf, but also to benefit the community. This made me think about how such little, seemingly semantic, details apply in the business world: what if companies had belongers rather than employees? Does what we call each other make a difference in other contexts? Over the years I’ve been called a lot of things, many of which are not fit to repeat here. The (polite) handle I seem to get most often these days is “entrepreneur.” I remember having to look the word up in the dictionary after a newspaper article about my first business venture, Student magazine, described me as “a budding entrepreneur.” This wasn’t entirely complimentary, since negative attitudes toward business were common at the time.

But, until that point, I had only thought of myself as a magazine founder and a businessman. My new title seemed pretty cool – “a person who initiates and organises new commercial enterprises, usually involving considerable risk,” according to my dictionary. These days, many millions of people proudly claim the title “entrepreneur.” On the other hand, a title that hasn’t gotten nearly the amount of attention it deserves is entrepreneur’s little brother, “intrapreneur”: “an employee who is given freedom and financial support to create new products, services and systems, who does not have to follow the company’s usual routines or protocols.” While it’s true that every company needs an entrepreneur to get it under way, healthy growth requires a smattering of intrapreneurs who drive new projects and explore new and unexpected directions for business development.

Virgin could never have grown from Student magazine to the group of more than 200 companies it is now, were it not for a steady stream of intrapreneurs who looked for and developed opportunities, often leading efforts that went against the grain. One example that springs to mind was at Virgin Atlantic, about 10 years ago. None of the big expensive seat design firms seemed able to solve the design problems posed by our specifications for our Upper Class cabin, but a young designer, Joe Ferry, volunteered (insistently) to give the project a go. We set him loose, and the herringbone-configured private sleeper suites that resulted from his “outside the box” creativity put us years ahead of the pack and made for millions of very happy horizontal fliers. How to unleash the power of intrapreneurs like Joe? The key is to enable them to pursue their vision.

But people don’t always think of leaders within a company—the managers, executives, and the chief executive officer—as people who enable others. As I learned back when I was starting up Student magazine, “The chief executive officer of a major corporation might only make a couple of decisions a year, but those decisions can affect the lives of millions.” What a terrible way to run a company. So, since this seems to be true throughout the business world, clearly it’s time for a major shake-up in the nomenclature of business.

What if CEO stood for chief enabling officer? What if that CEO’s primary role were to nurture a breed of intrapreneurs who would grow into tomorrow’s entrepreneurs?
We inadvertently developed this role at Virgin by virtue of the fact that when we’ve chosen to jump into a business about which we have little or no real knowledge, we’ve had to enable a few carefully selected people who do know which end is up. When Virgin moved into the mobile phone industry we had no experience, so we looked for our rivals’ best managers, hired them away, took off their ties and gave them the freedom to set up their own ventures within the Virgin Group. Tom Alexander in the UK, Dan Schulman in the US and Andrew Black in Canada have all done this with great success, aggressively taking Virgin companies in new and unexpected directions. Perhaps the greatest thing about this form of enabled intrapreneurship is that often everyone becomes so immersed in what they’re doing that they feel like they own their companies. They don’t feel like employees working for someone else, they feel much more like ...well, I think the only word to describe it is “belongers.”

Richard Branson is the founder of the Virgin Group and companies such as Virgin Atlantic, Virgin America, Virgin Mobile and Virgin Active. He maintains a blog at www.virgin.com /richard-branson/blog. You can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/richardbranson. Questions from readers will be answered in future columns. Please send them to [email protected]. Please include your name, country, e-mail address and the name of the Web site or publication where you read the column.

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