Guillermo Cisneros, Serial Intrapreneur, Shares How He Did It – and How HR Can Help
Guillermo Cisneros, Serial Intrapreneur, Shares How He Did It – and How HR Can Help

Guillermo Cisneros Garrido, professor of Strategy and General Management at ESADE Business School (Spain), will teach a masterclass on intrapreneurship at the MERIT Regional Summit in Manchester.

A serial intrapreneur himself, Guillermo has launched new international campuses for both ESADE and the Berklee School of Music (US). He is also a former CLO for Santander and FIAT Group (now FCA).

In an interview with MERIT, Guillermo outlined the success factors for intrapreneurs, the different kinds of ventures companies can start, how corporate learning drives intrapreneurship, how to manage failure, and much more.


MERIT: Please tell me about your background.

Guillermo Cisneros: My background is a little eclectic. I’ve been working in the academic field as a professor for many years. But I also work in organisational development running corporate universities, and in HR, which has helped me to gain an insider perspective.

I’ve been an intrapreneur four times. So, in my masterclass in Manchester, I’ll be speaking from personal experience. I’ve been on the side of both intrapreneurship and of HR. This is why I say that these are the two sides of the same coin.

Additionally, I’ve been an entrepreneur, and I’m a business angel for some projects. I’ve worked for many years in entrepreneurship and innovation ecosystems, like Boston, and I’ve helped promote such ecosystems in other places in the world. I’ve been a C-level manager in corporations, too. So, I have a combination of experiences.


What are some lessons you’ve learned as an intrapreneur?

There are the two sides: what I learned as an intrapreneur and what I learned about it from HR. In the case of being an intrapreneur, I’ve lived through many different situations, and it’s never the same.

I was an intrapreneur in ESADE [Business School], actually, launching a new campus. But it was in my country; it was my organisation; I knew everyone; I had strong support. I was an internal champion of the project, and I had all the expertise needed. It’s not the same thing when you move to a new field. You don’t know anything about the industry in that case. And you don’t know about the organisational culture. You’re an outsider.

When I launched the Berklee [School of Music] international campus, it was a different country and a different industry. I didn’t know anything about music education. I’ve lived through many different situations and I’ve learned some lessons as an intrapreneur that I wanted to share.

What are the three success factors for an intrapreneur? Of course, the first is yourself, having a clear vision about the strategy and the purpose – what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. And having the skills to do it.

The second factor is your team. You need to get a team that is better than you. A team that wants to support you, to engage in the same way as you with the project and to take ownership of it. And that can make the project sustainable.

And the third factor is the boss. Normally, this is someone that is promoting the project heavily and is trusting you to develop it. There’s also HR, of course, and other stakeholders, but now I’m simplifying. In any case, the boss is critical – they are going to empower you, give you advice, and provide support in the bad moments.

Because, when you’re a new venture, there’s chaos, there are challenges, and there’s always a moment of panic when everyone is freaking out. This is bound to happen.

The boss is critical. They’re also helping you to navigate the culture of the organisation and to deal with the corporate immune system. Because you are going to find a lot of resistance inside the organisation.


Can you suggest ways of dealing with this internal resistance?

GC: It’s a matter of being empowered. HR can help a lot. Of course, when you start delivering results, things change. It takes a lot of diplomacy, and also showing the benefits for the corporation.

A critical aspect when you’re an internal entrepreneur is that you should also be loyal to the corporation. Because you’re not building your castle. This is not your venture, or an ego trip. You need to understand that you serve a greater purpose, that of the organisation – not only the purpose you are creating for your venture.

At the same time, you should protect your autonomy and say that you need to run this new venture with different rules from the corporation. Otherwise, they are going to kill the project.


So, as an intrapreneur, you need a good communications strategy.  

GC: It takes a lot of communication. A lot. And patience.


Can you tell me a bit about your academic research?

GC: Corporate entrepreneurship has two sides: first, ventures run by individuals inside the organisation. And, second, what is called corporate venturing when you look for external entrepreneurs.

Corporate entrepreneurship is becoming more important because it’s easier. You find an external entrepreneur, or a venture you want to fund as an investor. Entrepreneurs have an idea, and they just need the funds.

Intrapreneurship is much more complex because it’s not only about new ventures. It’s also about creating a culture of innovation within the organisation. That’s where HR has much more to do.

So, these are the two things that coexist today: intrapreneurship and corporate ventures. My research is about these two things. The question is which is more effective.


Which do you think is more effective?

GC: It depends very much on the organisation.

Intrapreneurship is about talent. I work in the Boston entrepreneurship ecosystem, and I know Silicon Valley. You don’t really develop an intrapreneurship and innovation ecosystem just because you build coworking spaces, accelerators, etc. It’s because of talent. Silicon Valley came from Stanford. When you have talent, you have ideas and initiatives; then you attract investors, and you create a virtuous circle. In Boston, it’s the same – you have Harvard, MIT, and this concentration of talent.

The issue is how do you want to manage talent and what kind of talent you have inside the organisation. Or maybe you need to look outside the organisation.

In organisations that are very risk-averse, it’s difficult to develop intrapreneurship. Then, you have to take a look at external entrepreneurs that are not yet inside this culture. If you have a culture of intrapreneurship and innovation, you don’t have to look only on the outside. Google is a typical example. It’s part of their culture to be innovative.

I think the best combination is working from both sides. Find the intrapreneurs, and also look at the outside, at external ideas. That’s going to be the best of both worlds.

Intrapreneurship is always about individuals. Anyone can have ideas. But it’s about the individual who is able to put them into practice, to build a team, to take risk and to face uncertainty. In reality, whether it’s internal or external ventures, intrapreneurship is about finding the right individuals and helping them to succeed.


What would you advise an HR department that has decided to promote a learning and innovation culture? Where should they begin? 

GC: There is no single solution for everyone. Every HR knows their particular culture, challenges, and goals.

There are many tools an organisation can put in place: contests of ideas, hackathons, etc. But there’s a risk that is called innovation theatre. You start doing hackathons, everybody is very happy… and nothing happens, or nothing is sustainable, no matter how many external consultants or innovation experts you employ.

HR can help avoid the innovation theatre, because they really know the organisation and the people. From the HR perspective, you have to start hiring people that are intrapreneurs. Or you need to have the systems to identify the people with intrapreneurial skills. This is why training and development are so important.

The corporate university is like a fishbowl. You place people outside of their regular environment. Many people say that they would like to be an intrapreneur – but they don’t behave as intrapreneurs, because they’ve adapted to the culture. Organisational learning not only provides the skills, but also helps identify the people that have those skills.

HR has a crucial role, because intrapreneurs need a lot of support. You can’t be following the same HR rules as with everyone else. When you are building a new venture, you need great people to come to it. You should not evaluate and compensate these people based on the typical organisational rules, but rather based on the risks they are taking and the importance of what they are doing.

In my case, HR helped me a lot as an intrapreneur.


How did HR help you, for example? And how can it help intrapreneurs?

GC: By understanding my specific challenges that were different from the regular organisation. By helping me, also, to understand the culture and to identify issues in the organisation I didn’t know about.

In many organisations, when they find high potentials, they put them in a bigger place. But a predictable place: you are promoted. The other way is that, if you’re high potential, you are going to run a new venture. Because, as an intrapreneur, you understand what it means to manage uncertainty, to build a team, to have the whole picture. Intrapreneurship is the best way of proving yourself as a leader.

Then, you can come back to the organisation to be promoted, or run a large department, or do other things – but with different experience and a different mindset.

The other important thing is managing failure. Because, of course, you may fail. It is important how an organisation supports you in failure and helps you overcome it.

So, HR is a critical component of intrapreneurship.


What is a good way to manage failure? You said that successful ventures build credibility and create a virtuous cycle, but what if a new venture isn’t successful?

GC: Well, the best thing is to avoid failure as much as you can [laughs].

That comes with a very, very, very good strategic vision, and a very good understanding of the risk you can take as an organisation.

Secondly, if you want to develop intrapreneurship, whether with external or internal entrepreneurs, you have to create a culture in the organisation where failure is accepted as part of your story.

This is what makes intrapreneurship different in many cultures. For instance, in Spain, when you fail, you are a failure. In other, more intrapreneurial cultures, if you fail, you tried. You are more experienced. Maybe you are even better and more ready to take the next challenge.

Failure needs to be part of what you do and part of your development. Otherwise, it’s impossible – people avoid the risk.


What can participants expect at your masterclass at the Regional Summit in Manchester?

In my masterclass, I will first give a framework for intrapreneurship. Because intrapreneurship can take many forms.

For instance, you can have intrapreneurship initiatives because you are in an organisation that is becoming obsolete or needs to change, and you want to challenge the status quo. Then, the focus is the organisation as a whole.

In companies that are looking for new products and new ideas, intrapreneurship is run by the business units, and the focus is the product.

In the third kind of organisation, intrapreneurship is part of the culture and the process. People have time to develop projects, and being an intrapreneur is part of your career. There, the focus is on people.

I will explain what the different approaches are to intrapreneurship. One side is creating an intrapreneurial culture, and the other is helping intrapreneurs be successful. Then, I am going to share my experience as an intrapreneur – what were my takeaways, and what are the success factors.

The third part of the masterclass is going to be about the role of HR and organisational learning. How can we promote intrapreneurship and support intrapreneurs more effectively?


What will masterclass participants come out with?

GC: I want to enable them to see things from both sides. I want to explain my experience as an intrapreneur – what were my worries, my challenges. As an HR, you should understand intrapreneurs, if you want to support them.

I’d also like to share experiences with participants, because most of them are going to be very experienced and are probably engaged in similar programmes and ideas. I want to start a conversation about that.


A limited number of complimentary passes for C-level decision-makers are still available for the MERIT Regional Summit in Manchester. Apply for yours here.


By Ani Kodjabasheva