Do you want a job that offers some sort of stability without the soul-sucking repetition you equate with a 9–5 job? Maybe you want the intellectual challenge, problem-solving rush, and “we beat the odds” euphoria of doing the impossible AND to stay in a certain city or just have a steady paycheck and benefits for a few years.

Then you, my friend, should be an Intrapreneur.

A career in innovation is not for the faint of heart. While start-ups and entrepreneurs get all the press, intrapreneurs ride a similar roller-coaster of uncertainty.

According to research conducted by Innovation Leader, the average tenure of executives in innovation specific roles is 4.4 years. Tenures get are a bit longer for VPs (5.4 year) and a bit shorter for Manager (3.3 years).

This data is consistent with my decades of experience working with corporate innovators, also known as intrapreneurs.

  • Year 1, senior executives jump on the innovation bandwagon and create lots of activities (shark tanks, ideation sessions), establish innovation and corporate venture capital (CVC) teams, and proclaim their commitment to innovation loudly and broadly.
  • Year 2, the fanfare dies down, the events have become memories, and the teams are hard at work generating opportunities and testing new businesses.
  • Year 3, the $500M silver bullet has yet to manifest, the company has yet to be described as the “Apple of [industry],” and the attention and investment once dedicated to innovation gets re-routed to the core business.
  • Year 4, it’s back to business as usual.

But for those brave souls who, like me and like my clients, decide to strap in and ride the ride…Welcome! Here are 4 tips to help you have the best and safest possible corporate innovation career

1. Build Your Internal Network

Yes, you need to keep your finger on the pulse of all that is new and happening in the market and the best way to do that is by building and maintain your external network of advisors, experts, and thought leaders.

But, as an intrapreneur, you also need to keep your finger on the pulse of all that is new and happening in your company. Invest time in building relationships outside of your immediate team. Reach out across functions and business units to meet people, build trust, and share ideas. Over time, these connections will become the advocates and sponsors you need to break through organizational barriers, sources of vital information about evolving corporate priorities, and even guides to new roles in the (highly likely) event that your innovation group gets “wound down.”

2. Show off transferrable skills

It’s easy to get pegged as the “Innovation Person” in the group. The person who gets called in when a team wants to “be creative” or faces a particularly difficult problem that requires “thinking differently.” There’s nothing wrong with being the Go To resource for these things but it makes you very expendable when the organization decides that it needs to “get back to its roots” and “return to what made us successful.”

Instead, identify and share the skills that are at the heart of what makes you great at innovation, the skills that create value. Perhaps you’re able to talk to a customer for 30 minutes and learn things never before conceived by R&D, offer to do that for another team or teach others your skills. Perhaps you’re able to simplify and communicate the most complex topics, offer to help someone with their presentation.

Sharing the skills that make you a great innovator and showing others how to apply them in their “not innovative” jobs not only helps establish a culture of innovation, it establishes you as an essential resource no matter where innovation falls on the priority list.

3. Don’t go Stealth

It’s tempting for intrapreneurs, like entrepreneurs, to work in Stealth Mode. I’ve heard lots of reasons for this:

  • We don’t have results yet
  • Management should stay focused on the core because we need the money made there to fund our work
  • If they don’t know what we’re doing, they can’t stop us.

This thinking is fundamentally flawed. Not only is “out of sight, out of mind” a very real thing in companies, it ignores the essential fact that start-ups in Stealth Mode are “hiding” from the market, not their investors.

Intrapreneurs need to stay on management’s radar screens. They need to generate and communicate results, even if it’s primarily learnings, on a regular basis. They need to consistently prove to management that they are as important to the short- and long-term prospects of the company as existing businesses.

The best evidence of a manager’s priorities are the appointments on her calendar. If you’re not on there, you’re not a priority.

4. Channel your inner Gambler

For an intrapreneur, there is no better advice than the following:

You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em

Know when to fold ‘em

Know when to walk away

And know when to run

Change is hard for everyone and it always takes longer than you think it should. It’s normal to feel frustrated. The key is to know when your frustration has evolved to cynicism and, even worse, burn-out.

Take breaks. Whether it’s a night off, a weekend away, a two weeks’ vacation, or a several month sabbatical. Step away from the table, unplug the devices, and rest. After all,

“Every gambler knows

That the secret to survivin’

Is knowin’ what to throw away

And knowin’ what to keep.”

In closing

Even though Innovation should be viewed as a discipline, on par with Marketing and Finance, in terms of corporate capabilities and operations, that’s unlikely to happen any time soon. Until that day comes, corporate innovation will remain a roller coaster that only the bravest dare to ride. Hopefully, these tips make that ride longer than just a few years.