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Faculty Perspective

The Four Personality Types of Successful Corporate Entrepreneurs

Innovation is the fuel that drives the modern enterprise. Companies, especially those that are strong incumbents in the marketplace, can never rest on the laurels of their existing product or service portfolios, they must constantly be seeking to avoid disruption from external threats. These threats are often in the form of a scrappy start-up, who may present an entirely new business model that renders an incumbent obsolete. Start-ups have some distinct advantages over corporations -- they are flexible and adaptive, while most organizations have fully fledged systems, operations and processes which can make them less nimble. Building a new business venture within the confines of a longstanding business model can present enormous challenges and requires a particular type of leadership. 
John Danner, professor of  Innovation at UC Berkeley-Haas, refers to this as “the corprepreneur,” the leader or leaders within an organization with the unique skills and personality type it takes to launch ventures inside the corporation. Danner researches innovation and entrepreneurship within Bay Area companies, and says that companies should pay particular attention when hiring for leaders and building teams within their R&D and innovation functions. But are there particular personality traits to look for?
Danner highlighted four distinctive personality models of effective corprepreneus:
  1. Drivers.  “These are people that just had to be entrepreneurs, there was just no other question about who they were going to be,” says Danner. “Steve Jobs would be a great example of a driver -- it’s a type that tends to be very focused on the details of a product idea.” They can be difficult to work with at times, because they are so compelled by the vision of the final product or solution to bring to the marketplace. They often are impatient with the internal political processes of launching ventures, and often assume “that the rest of the world will catch up with their wisdom.”
  2. Explorers. This is the problem solver, someone who becomes fascinated with a particular problem and tinkers with it to become an entirely new product. Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx, is an example of an explorer. “She asked a very simple question: ‘why are pantyhose made the way they are made?’ That led her to a discovery process that ultimately created a multi-billion dollar company.”
  3. Crusaders. This is the entrepreneur with a cause. Jessica Alba, actress and founder of the Honest Company for eco-friendly baby products, is an example of a crusader. “Crusaders are driven by a sense of mission, they strive to make the world and the market a better place.” They embrace the Haas Defining Principle: “Beyond Yourself.” A company’s CSR division is a good place to plant crusader types because of their intrinsic focus on the “triple-bottom-line.”  
  4. Captains. As the name suggests, this person is about the team. They are uniquely less individualistic than other corprepreneurs, more interested in leveraging the unique attributes within their teams. “They want to find ways to tap the reciprocal talents and skills of their of their colleagues in order to accomplish the mission at hand,” says Danner.

Keeping diversity a priority

Each type of corprenpreneur has its strengths and weaknesses, and each can be a successful leader. The challenge is for corporations to identify how to engage and ultimately find the particular types that align with their organizational culture.  “Some organizations pride themselves on an almost tenacious, single-mindedness around product execution,” Danner says. “In that kind of an environment, somebody like the Crusader might have a difficult time adapting to and aligning with the internal culture they are going to need support from when building the new venture.” 
But that doesn’t mean companies should hire for the same types; rather, they should to seek what Danner calls, “polar complements.” “It’s important to align the and fit the type to the context,” he says. “But it’s also important to hire for diversity in these types. A lot of recent research documents that the more diverse your team, the better decisions you make because you get the benefit of different perspectives to common problems.”
John Danner consults for executives at some of the most successful Bay Area companies on how to be more entrepreneurial.