For Askia Ahmad, doing right for others is the same as doing right for himself. It’s the essence of being an intrapreneur—aligning internal talents with external needs. As an IT director at Flint Hills Resources, he leads the company’s commercial technology organization with the vision to deliver transformative business outcomes with information technology.
At the recent Prospanica Conference & Career Expo in Milwaukee, Ahmad explained how mutually beneficial exchanges between employees, teams, and companies is key to building virtuous cycles that help even more people improve their lives. Prospanica is a leading catalyst for Hispanic professional achievement, with the goal of enabling Hispanic professionals to achieve their educational, economic, and social potential.
Ahmad sat down with Koch News to go deeper on the meaning of intrapreneurship:
What is the difference between an entrepreneur and an intrapreneur?
Good first question. As an entrepreneur, you’ve likely started up a business. All the potential for that business – the good and the bad – comes down to you offering products or services that people value. With that comes a host of different strategies and tactics to be successful. As an intrapreneur (a market equivalent to what we at Koch call a principled entrepreneur), you’re applying your entrepreneurial skills within a corporate setting. I’m an employee of Flint Hills Resources, but I also work for a company called Askia Ahmad, LLC. The state of Kansas doesn’t recognize it, as it is a fictitious company, but it’s how I approach my work and what drives me to create value. One of my main customers is Flint Hills Resources. I’m selling my services to them, and every two weeks they let me know how I’m doing with a paycheck. So as an intrapreneur, I am the business and must continually improve at a higher rate than my market competitors.
What advice do you have for aspiring intrapreneurs?
Be a T-shaped intrapreneur. If you were to draw the letter T – think of it as gaining breadth along the top while also drilling down and gaining depth. That’s important early in your career. That’s what companies will pay you for as you start out. I spoke with one young man right out of college who had a degree in general management. That’s great, but I had little guidance for him because I couldn’t think of what I would hire him for. Now if this person had a degree in computer science or information science, he’d be a lot more marketable. Once you apply your expertise for a few years, you’ll naturally gain breadth along the way.
There are four key elements you can apply right now:
1) Align yourself. You need to not only be tied into the vision of who you’re working for, but also that of their customer. If you’re going in different directions, it’ll be difficult to succeed.
2) Antennas up and be alert. Look, learn, and be outside the box. This is tough because we like to be comfortable, but you need to be continually pushing yourself. Ask yourself – where do you get your news, knowledge, and skills? Engage in the usual sources as well as the unusual.
3) Analyze and act. You can be aligned and alert, but it doesn’t matter if you don’t act. I like to think of it as thinking versus doing. If you’re only executing, you could be wasting time and resources by making a lot of unnecessary mistakes. I love this quote from Peter Drucker: “There’s nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.” But you can’t just sit, talk, and be philosophical. The goal is to maximize your efforts – don’t be afraid to fail. The important thing is to master the paradox, learn from your attempts and get better.
4) Accountability. This is difficult for a lot of people. To be accountable, you need to be objective—making use of all relevant data and optimally free from bias—and to understand whether your mental models are based on reality. Accountable intrapreneurs will claim and own the results of their work product—good and bad.
How can intrapreneurs drive virtuous cycles of mutual benefit?
I brought up Amazon during my presentation. By offering products people want to buy at a good price, shipped directly to them, Amazon was a game changer. Customers get what they want, and Amazon benefits, as well. Amazon reinvests the money from customers back into the company, where it’s able to innovate or expand its capabilities to create even greater value. That’s an example of how a company drives a virtuous cycle.
Here’s how that applies to intrapreneurship: When you take your passion and your unique capabilities (what you bring to the table) and you match it with an opportunity, then you earn positive results in the workplace. Those results are one source of your profit. If you want to be like Amazon and grow your output, what do you want to do with your results? You reinvest them. I’m passionate about technology, people, and the valuable spark at their nexus, but each person needs to find a passion of their own. If I can take my passion and match it with the right opportunities, then I can act, analyze my performance, and grow my capabilities. If you do this repeatedly, you will build a portfolio into which employers will want to invest and likely reinvest.
What was your biggest breakthrough?
Accountability was the toughest of the four key elements for me to tackle, as I think it is for a lot of people because it’s so easy to distort reality by framing it the way we want to see it. I was once a consultant for the Market-Based Management (MBM) team at Koch where I was teaching many of the concepts, and I would get critical feedback. At first, I didn’t think it was legit. I thought I was doing great and they were wrong. It wasn’t until I heard this feedback repeatedly from different individuals that I realized I needed to change my mental model. With humility, I looked within myself and acknowledged I wasn’t performing as well as I could. Only then was I able to take the steps necessary to improve and deliver a better product for my main customer – the MBM team.
Are there any resources that you’d recommend for further learning?
The Arbinger Institute’s Anatomy of Peace changed my life. I use the learnings from that book not only at work, but also at home and anywhere where I’m working alongside other people. During a challenging time in my career, it helped me for the first time to see people as people – not as objects that were either standing in my way or helping me advance in my career. It also forced me to be more objective – to understand that this person wasn’t being mean to me when he or she said that and not to take it personally. Give this book a read – it will change your life.