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Episode 432: The Inside Innovator with Louis Gump

Episode Summary

In this episode, the brilliant Louis Gump invites us to look at intrapreneurship’s way of generating growth and transforming companies from the inside out. Louis talks about fostering innovation within large organizations, why intrapreneurship is ideal for this, and every successful intrapreneur’s main traits. Louis also shares valuable insights he gained throughout his career. We discuss how adaptability is crucial for every business, and how intrapreneurship creates new value and opportunities for companies and those working in them.

Steve Shallenberger: Welcome to all of our Becoming Your Best podcast listeners, wherever you may be in the world today. This is Steve Shallenberger, your host, and I have been so excited for the guest we have today. We are always so privileged that you will join us. So, thank you to our listeners. This is going to be a refreshing insight and a whole different perspective on leadership from a different point of view. I’d like to just tell you about the guest we have today. He is the author of the best-selling new book, “The Inside Innovator: Practical Guide to Intrapreneurship.” He has worked with some of the most recognized companies in the world, developing talented teams and achieving remarkable success for growth businesses. He has done this from multiple perspectives: as an intrapreneur within large corporations, as the CEO and entrepreneur within smaller companies, and in strategic industry leadership roles. So, welcome, Louis K. Gump. 

Louis Gump: Thank you, Steve. It’s great to be here. 

Steve Shallenberger: Louis and I have been working on this for about a month to get together, so I’m glad we can finally do it. Before we get started, I’d like to tell you just a little bit more about Louis, and this is going to come out in our discussion today. He is president of Cambian Solutions, which focuses on excellence and innovation, business growth, and team performance. Earlier in his career, he presided over award-winning mobile businesses at The Weather Channel and CNN. More recently, he has served as CEO of two digital media firms and led Cox Media, the advertising division of Cox Communications, the third-largest cable provider in the US. Louis has also helped build leadership and held leadership roles in a wide range of industry and community organizations. So, we’re going to hear all about this. He earned an MBA from the University of Virginia Darden School of Business and a BA from Duke. So, let’s jump into it, Louis. I’d like to invite you to tell us about your background, including any turning points in your life that have had a significant impact on you. 

Louis Gump: I’ll be happy to do that. As I was preparing for this, I realized that often, when answering a question like this one, I jump right into the career. And then I learned some about the things you’ve written about and the ways that your life outside of work, at least officially, is connected to your career. So, I wanted to start in a little bit different place and go way back, although I’ll fast forward quickly. I grew up in a small town in eastern Tennessee in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, and that shaped my worldview a lot. I ended up going to college in North Carolina. I spent some time in Taiwan teaching English. I came back to the US and moved to Atlanta. There’s some kind of ancient history with a shipping company in Atlanta, New Jersey, and Boston. Then, I got a graduate degree, and I ended up in Atlanta with this desire to make a difference and work with talented teams. After a little bit of time, I ended up at The Weather Channel. That was a huge turning point for me because I had learned a little bit in the classroom, learned some in the workplace, and this was a chance to contribute to a well-recognized brand. I ended up leading the mobile business for The Weather Channel, and we built it from something that had insignificant revenue and a very small footprint to one of the core platforms of The Weather Channel. That was really interesting.  

Louis Gump: At the same time, I got married while I was there to my now-wife, and we have three kids. So, I was trying to do the juggling act the way so many people do in one form or another. We had two kids, and then I had the opportunity to go to CNN to do something very similar. I ended up leading CNN Mobile worldwide as we built their strategy and hired a team. I want to emphasize that we were supported by so many around us. I realized even more clearly what can happen when you have an amazing brand, resources, and a commitment to move forward. As you mentioned, I was privileged to lead a couple of small digital media companies. One of the ways that’s important for this conversation is that I learned the contrast even more clearly between being an intrapreneur and what you could or couldn’t do, and how you do it, and being an entrepreneur. I learned it up close and personally. Then, I had a chance to join Cox Media as their leader, with offices from San Diego in the southwest to Providence in the northeast, and really gained new perspectives with another amazing company. So, with that as background, and a commitment to giving back to the community, there was this big mix of a personal journey, career, and community involvement that has been very fulfilling. I just had a desire to give back and share a little bit. 

Steve Shallenberger: Well, I so love being involved with podcasts, Louis, because it’s the opportunity to work with people who have devoted their lives to becoming extraordinary in different areas. Louis and I were talking about our respective books and the work that we’re doing on Becoming Your Best, innovation, having ideas, and being able to make them a reality. I mean, we are right down the same avenue here. It was so fun. I’ve got to tell you, folks, to our listeners, in this case, I have completely gone through Louis’s book in advance. I highly recommend it. There are so many solid, good ideas, whether you are an entrepreneur, an intrapreneur, or just somebody relating with others in relationships, like a family, for example. So, these principles apply across the board; they’re excellent. Louis, what is an intrapreneur, and why should this type of work be encouraged?

Louis Gump: First of all, thank you so much for those kind comments. They mean a lot, especially now that I’ve had a chance to become more acquainted with what you’ve done and the principles you teach and the way you go about it. So, just thanks so much. With intrapreneurship, specifically, it’s a very simple definition from my perspective, and that is the practice of creating value through innovation and growth within a larger organization. Again, it’s the practice of creating value through innovation and growth within a larger organization. This can be in a for-profit environment in a company. What I’ve also found, especially after doing some research on the topic, is that these principles apply in nonprofits, charitable nonprofits, education in schools, government, and beyond. So, you can find a lot of different places where this is relevant to one’s life, career, and relationships. Well, there are actually four takeaways in the book, and I can go through them in a second. But it really is part of creating new value and realizing the potential of organizations. When you boil it down, the four ways that I found after writing the book and then drafting the conclusion, I found—wow, there are these four themes.

Louis Gump: One of them is that it helps organizations to adapt. I think we all recognize there’s a lot of change around us. When organizations adapt, they become relevant not only for new customers and stakeholders but also for people they’ve been serving for years. Another one is that intrapreneurship provides amazing opportunities for the next generation of leaders. Companies that do it well essentially are bringing along some of the best, brightest, most motivated, and most naturally aligned with an organization. Another one—and I didn’t see this one coming as much, although, in hindsight, it’s pretty obvious—is that intrapreneurship results in some really life-changing and organization-changing opportunities for entrepreneurs. What happens is, typically, intrapreneurs are creating something new; they’re doing it in a new way, and they need help. They need support; they need to work with others. That turns into partnerships with smaller companies that have done something innovative that no one else has done before. Also, sometimes, these companies have created a platform that’s better across different companies. A company like The Weather Channel or CNN, as a customer, really helps not only with revenue but also with reputation. Closing where I started, it creates new value. Essentially, the thing that looks like less than 1% of the value of a company today might be the biggest value of tomorrow. 

Steve Shallenberger: That’s great. There are some significant impacts here of intrapreneurship. Can we talk about some of the insights you have on the things that make a successful intrapreneur? By the way, the whole book is on this, so I don’t know how Louis is going to answer this question. But what are the top three or four things that you could do? Let’s dive into those. 

Louis Gump: So, as we’re doing this, are you thinking more of the characteristics of intrapreneurs? Or what? 

Steve Shallenberger: Yeah. 

Louis Gump: So, with the characteristics, as you’ve already seen, I found 16 of them. I will say at the beginning that I’ve been around the block once or twice on prioritization, and I was willing to squeeze them down. However, it turned out that the best intrapreneurs have all of those, but there were a top five. Here are the top five: The first one, and by far the most common, is curiosity. As I did my interviews—and I did 33 interviews with various people who’ve been successful in a range of types of organizations—curiosity, either as a word or as a description that amounted to this, came up in every single interview without exception. If you have somebody who’s not inquisitive, not eager to explore, they might be very successful in a bunch of roles, but it’s going to be hard to be a great intrapreneur. The next one is action orientation. If you have someone who likes to tinker, explore, and discover, that’s fine, but you also need to be able to turn that into something that results in value. Otherwise, it’s going to be difficult to be a successful intrapreneur in many different types of organizations. The next one, and this is one that sometimes contrasts with entrepreneurs, is an elevated ability to build bridges. An intrapreneur typically has to work with people within an organization in lots of different ways—your peers, your superiors, people who report to you, partners, and people in far-flung parts of the organization. You have to have different communication styles, skills, interests, and knowledge bases to do that. 

Louis Gump: The next one: an intrapreneur must be risk-tolerant. They can be calculated risks they must evaluate, but at a certain point, you have to try things that may or may not work. A lot of the things that happen, especially the biggest ones, involve trying things for the first time. Even if they eventually result in success, you might end up with Plan A, Plan B, Plan C, and Plan D, and then finally succeed with Plan E. The last one that I would point to in the top five is optimism, and a specific type of optimism—grounded optimism. Someone who sees the positive, lifts people up, has a vision and moves toward it, and also can blend that with a sense of what is realistic and what can happen, then convey that through communication. 

Steve Shallenberger: From your experience, can anyone be an intrapreneur? 

Louis Gump: I’ve thought about this question a lot, and I’ve never been one to really discourage others from trying things. However, what I would say is that it helps to have self-knowledge. I suppose that just about anyone can become an intrapreneur someplace, somehow, especially if it’s an area where they have a lot of interest and passion. However, my experience is that it’s very difficult for some folks. Here are a couple of ways that it would be difficult. One of them is if you don’t have that curiosity and desire to learn. I want to be careful here—I don’t have a value judgment on it particularly. There are some people, for example, who are perfectly happy to optimize for efficiency, to do things really, really well. They might be less interested in pushing the boundaries of new things. But my goodness, you get them producing widgets, you get them serving customers the same way over and over again, they might be amazing, but it would be difficult for them to be an intrapreneur. There are several other ways that it’s difficult; one is if you don’t have risk tolerance. If you’re the type of person who insists on making straight A’s always, and if you don’t, it’s going to throw you for a massive loop, that might be tough for you. Because here you are, trying things, and you’ll probably have a pretty good batting average over time, but every now and again, something’s not going to work. So, you’ve got to have the ability and willingness to fail and turn that into success. 

Steve Shallenberger: I’m just thinking about you talking about this person who’s making the widgets, but really, top intrapreneurs are going to be thinking, “How can we make this widget better?” They’re curious, they’re always thinking, and that’s how they create value for their organizations. That’s different. 

Louis Gump: I’ll add one more, and I know we might chat a little bit more about this one. For people who have a really hard time having bosses, or have a really hard time playing in the sandbox with a lot of other people, this might be a bit higher mountain to climb. The reason is these organizations could be of a few dozen people, a few hundred, or tens of thousands, but there are a lot of stakeholders. If you’re the person who says, “I don’t like to be told what to do,” or you’re the person who says, “Hey, I want to create something valuable, but I want to do it my way, always,” this is a tough road. So, you want to find somebody who is either willing to be or is naturally inclined to be collaborative, or both. 

Steve Shallenberger: This really is a great time to talk about the difference between an intrapreneur and an entrepreneur because sometimes you’re describing qualities that exist with an entrepreneur or a lone wolf—they have to do it their way. I think we ought to talk about the differences because they’re both important. Just like you said, you need to know yourself so that you can be in the right place. What have you seen? What are the differences? 

Louis Gump: There are quite a few differences. One of them is the scope of the organization and the span of control. The definition of an entrepreneur typically is someone who owns or has founded a business, other organization, or both. An intrapreneur, as we discussed before, if you’re coming into an organization that already exists, has a brand, and has product or service offerings, then you have to recognize that part of your mission is your specific mandate, but also part of it is to be a steward of that larger brand and organization. Another difference is processes. Typically, larger organizations have processes for evaluating what’s going to be greenlit to move ahead and what’s not. If you’re an entrepreneur and you just want to make the decision and go, maybe you have a board of directors, but if you don’t have some tolerance and understanding of how to navigate through an organization that has priorities far beyond your initiative, no matter how important it is, that’s also a pretty tough slog. In addition to that, these larger organizations tend to have resources that very few entrepreneurs are lucky enough to have. They have teams of people, many of whom have years or decades of experience and can help teach.  

Louis Gump: One of the best ways we were successful, for example, in launching a new generation of apps at The Weather Channel was because we had access to legal specialists, HR specialists, technology specialists, product specialists, and partnerships. We didn’t have to create many of those; we just had to build on the platform that was already there. Lastly, one that comes up often in my conversations today and came up often in the interviews, is the level of risk. If you’re an intrapreneur, you have a larger organization, which typically has the cash flow and other assets that come with that organization. You can try things and experiment. I’ve been there, and I know what it’s like when you don’t know if you’re going to make payroll in a month. That’s tough. In most intrapreneurial situations, that’s not your top priority or concern. You can be confident about the paycheck that is coming and rewarding good work. So, you get to choose the amount of risk you’re going to take on. For some people, intrapreneurship is really the ideal balance of creation and innovation, serving customers while managing your own personal and professional risk. 

Steve Shallenberger: I must admit, when I was probably about 42, I was involved in an international organization, and I had been running my own companies for 20 years. They are different worlds, I mean, different skill sets. So, you do have to adapt, but I must admit, I really enjoyed the intrapreneurship. For me, it was motivating and exciting to be around other people and to make a contribution. It was a lot less stressful for me than being an entrepreneur—I mean, everything’s on the line. So, they are different worlds. You talk about a number of things. First of all, I just want to say that was a happy time for me. That was a happy time for my family, being in the intrapreneur world and being a principal in a nice-sized company. Right now, in one of our companies, we have worked careers with people—whole careers—and it’s so satisfying to do it together with other people. So, that’s, I think, why I loved your book. But it is a different setup; it’s a different world. My next question has to be, and we need both; they’re both important in our world. How can you be a really great intrapreneur? What can you do? If you’re starting right now, what would you recommend to somebody to learn the skills and make contributions? What are the best things that somebody could do, whether they’re 25, 35, or 45, in that whole range of their career to really move it forward? 

Louis Gump: I speak to this some in the book. I would pick up with the theme that you mentioned and have the awareness that there isn’t a value judgment about good or bad here; this is about fit. It’s also about fit at a certain time in life. You mentioned, for example, that in your 40s, you went into a larger organization, and that might have felt like getting a warm bath after being exposed to the elements for a while with various worthy endeavors as an entrepreneur. Both the nature of the practices and timing are relevant, and that comes down to self-understanding. That’s what I suggest and why I started the book with the inner game: understanding yourself, what’s important to you, what motivates you, and what you’re good at, and then take it from there. For people who are in a situation where they want to do this and are already in an organization, it’s about scanning for opportunities. It’s one thing to have a lot of ideas; it’s another to narrow them down to a few that could be transformative, if that’s what you’re looking for, and are aligned with the strategy of the organization. I want to do a quick callout here: not all intrapreneurship needs to be transformative. Some of it is iterative; you can find ways to improve an organization over time. There’s a great example in the book that Quint Studer gave about his dad. His dad was a mechanic for diesel locomotives.  In hindsight, Quint was a very accomplished healthcare executive, said, his dad was an intrapreneur. He didn’t want to go out on his own and repair diesel engines, although he could have, but he was called from all over the country to fix things that no one else could. That’s an example of intrapreneurship. Another point I would make is to think about how you interact with people. You may or may not be in a position to build a team at this point, but look at the ways you build relationships and develop the skills. For example, if you’re with somebody who’s no-nonsense and just wants the facts, develop the ability to say that quickly. If you’re with someone who is more relationship-oriented—every organization I’ve been a part of has had people like that—take the time to get to know them and do it before you need something, if and when you ever do, largely because you want to get to know them. 

Louis Gump: Then there’s a rubber-hitting-the-road aspect to this, where you build a strategy and make a plan. I speak in the book about something I suspect you and I are both aligned on related to principles, values, and goals. I won’t go too deeply into that other than to acknowledge it’s very important. At a certain point, you have to get going. You have a certain vision and set of goals, you put together the team, and you say, “Okay, within this period of time, we’re going to build and deploy this product or service.” And, oh, by the way, my experience is that’s best done if you already have in mind the next two or three steps. I’ll share an example: In 2001, 2002, and 2003 at The Weather Channel, our team built a series of mobile apps that most people have forgotten about now using Java Brewed, Windows, and Symbian. We established credibility within the organization and demand within the marketplace. Then we built some video, and that worked, and then we built mobile web and that worked. Then, we built advertising on top of the mobile web, and the revenue started coming in. Then, we came back around seven or eight years later, and we launched game-changing iPhone and Android apps, which are some of the most downloaded phone apps of all time. They’re built and sustained by talented teams today, although that’s now in my rearview mirror. What you’re doing is essentially building a platform for yourself and others to create value for customers. 

Steve Shallenberger: That’s a really good answer. I was just thinking while you were talking, Louis, that in addition to helping somebody in their career as a successful intrapreneur, your book would be amazing: The Inside Innovator. I might say, without wanting to be too biased, also “Becoming Your Best: The 12 Principles of Highly Successful Leaders” creates a foundational basis based on principles to be successful. The research shows the impact is 100% predictable if you do certain things that create excellence. So, I love what you’re talking about. These are good principles. We’re getting to the end of our interview, but I wanted to squeeze in another question because you talked about your interviews with people who have been quite successful in this area. What are some of the things that really impressed you most from your interviews that would help somebody be successful?

Louis Gump: So, I entered the interviews with a hypothesis, and the hypothesis is that intrapreneurship is its own thing. I often heard it referred to as corporate entrepreneurship or something like that, which is not, in my estimation, wrong. On the other hand, I find it limiting and risky to use that term alone. What I found over and over again was proof of the hypothesis that intrapreneurship is distinct from entrepreneurship. There is a set of skills that, if you use them—to your point earlier—you dramatically increase the probability of success. I’ve actually started reading your book as well, and I would agree with you. If you combine a broad principle base with some skills—because this book is designed to be practical—you can build something super special. Another thing I found is how common it is. I referred to this earlier—I entered this process thinking, “Hey, I think there are at least some people who do this around; I’ve worked with a lot of them.” And I found more and more. For example, I was talking with John Hancock, who is CEO of Junior Achievement of Georgia, and he said, “Louis, this sounds a lot like me.” He is leading a group that makes a tremendous impact on lots of people around the state of Georgia. He’s also part of a national organization, so he is simultaneously building the brand and serving customers and audiences here. It was just fascinating to talk with people. One last thing. I heard this over and over again. For people who find themselves gravitating to this, there is the concept of serial intrapreneurship. We hear of serial entrepreneurship, but people do it over and over again. They are some of the biggest people assets, some of the biggest cheerleaders of companies, and some of the biggest mentors and best that I’ve ever seen. 

Steve Shallenberger: That’s so good. Well, this has been a great interview today. I’m always kind of really in shock at how fast it goes. And here we are at the end. Any final tips you’d like to leave with our listeners today, Louis?

Louis Gump: I was thinking about this one also, and I have something that’s not in the book. It’s broadly a pic applicable. I’ve been thinking about it with family and at work lately: If you can’t find your keys, look first in your pockets. I’ve been talking with a lot of people who are trying to decide what they’re going to do with their careers. Often, they already have the answers. It’s right within. They understand it. With a little bit of conversation, and especially with a little bit of writing that unfolds. But I also mean it literally because around our house, at least once or twice in the last month, we’ve been looking for something, and then one or the other of us stuck our hand in the pocket, and it was right there. So, literally and figuratively, I think that’s good guidance.

Steve Shallenberger: A great analogy. How can people find out about what you’re doing?

Louis Gump: Thanks for asking. They can go to LouisGump.com. There is information in the book. We’ve just posted some resources, including a book club guide because we were hearing from folks who wanted to use this book for their book club. They can also go to their favorite online retailer, or in many cases bookstore, and find the book. It’s an exciting time. If they have ideas or comments, I always love to hear from readers and others who are interested in the topic. One last one, I suppose, is LinkedIn as well. I’m available there.

Steve Shallenberger: Well, it’s been a thrill to have you with us. Louis, what a treat. So, this has been Lewis K. Gump, everybody. We wish you all the best and all of the good that you’re doing. I love your message.

Louis Gump: Thank you, Steve. It’s been a real pleasure. 

Steve Shallenberger: Thanks. To our listeners, thank you for joining in today. We’re grateful for you. We wish you the best you’re here because you’re working on becoming your best and gaining new ideas. Well, today we’ve got some really fun ideas. So, thank you, and we wish you the best. This is Steve Shallenberger, your host, signing off.

Steve Shallenberger

Founder, Becoming Your Best

CEO, Executive, Corporate Trainer, Entrepreneur, and Community Leader

Louis Gump

President of Cambian Solutions

President of Cambian Solutions, Best-selling Author, Innovation, and Digital Media Executive

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