The myth of the 'entrepreneurial employee'

August 13, 2012: 1:07 PM ET

Isn't it a contradiction in terms to be an entrepreneur within a large corporation?

Gensler's Jordan Goldstein

Gensler's Jordan Goldstein (right)

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis

FORTUNE -- For over a decade, the promise of bringing the revenue-driving ability of disruptive innovators into a large corporation has tempted many a business leader. But in recent years, the cult of the entrepreneur has reached new heights.

Plenty of business books purport to teach top management how to create a culture that nurtures visionaries like Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg, and Steve Jobs. A "Big Idea" article set to be published in September's Harvard Business Review heralds the dawning of a new age of innovation marked by individual "catalysts" that leverage the resources and reach of a large enterprise without losing the nimble agility of a startup.

It's no surprise that Fortune 100 leaders are looking for a game-changing concept to offer hope in the face of ever-escalating competition from overseas rivals and the pace of technological change. With wave after wave of entrepreneurial ventures successfully challenging corporate titans for market dominance, the establishment is right to be afraid. Any of the number of failed acquisitions of scrappy competitors demonstrates that buying the creative engine brings its own challenges. Moreover, to attract the most talented young people entering the workforce, big business needs to compete with the dream of becoming the next Jobs or Zuckerberg.

"Just about every leader recognizes that the pace of change in markets means that business as usual isn't enough. It's not enough to be a great operator, you have to be innovative, you have to think differently, you have to give birth to new businesses," says Scott Anthony, managing director for innovation boutique Innosight, and author of the forthcoming Harvard Business Review article, "The New Corporate Garage."

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But isn't it a contradiction in terms to be an entrepreneur within a large corporation? Are those who claim to be instilling entrepreneurialism merely encouraging garden-variety creative thinking or even just a killer sales mentality? (Not that there's anything wrong with that.) Even the president of Babson College, home of the Arthur M. Blank Center for Entrepreneurship, acknowledges that much of the rhetoric around so-called intrapreneurs promises more than it delivers. More

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