This post appeared in GreenBiz on February 7, 2012

Editor’s Note: This is the fifth article in a seven-week series by Nathan Springer that will chronicle in-depth the lessons from a course at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business on how to become a social intrapreneur — someone who makes change for good from within the enterprise.

Social intrapreneurship is not a leisure activity. The one theme among the people who make positive change within companies is not about the importance of CEO support, sophisticated strategy, or fancy tools. The tie that binds social intrapreneurs is that building momentum is hard and requires persistence, patience, and creativity.

This fifth in a series following a class on Social Intrapreneurs in the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan taught by Professor Jerry Davis and former student Chris White highlights the persistence of two intrapreneurs enhancing sustainability and human potential at their companies. This week, DTE Energy‘s Joe Malcoun spoke to students about a leadership development program he is creating and Interface‘s Melissa Vernon spoke via email about a volunteer program for her company’s sales team.

DTE Senior Associate Joe Malcoun is forthright with the realities of social intrapreneurship. Speaking to students about a leadership development program he’s helping to create today, he describes the challenge of building momentum. “Social innovation aims to benefit the entire company, but change can be viewed as a threat by some. You have to be aware of that and be willing to take the risk,” he says.

He and several colleagues are designing a structured leadership development program for all of the nearly 30 recent MBA hires of this $8.6 billion publicly traded utility. Built around a vision of functional collaboration, community engagement, and professional development, the aim is to increase interaction across three functional areas where development is currently siloed.

“Employee engagement is the starting point from which DTE intends to achieve its aspirational goals,” he says of the program vision. “Highly engaged employees will drive solid customer service and operational excellence.” A small group of recent hires began working with Malcoun to outline the program and identify supporters last spring. Despite building a case for the program and garnering the buy-in of an influential ally, the company CFO, the design is still evolving as the team slowly builds support.

“It’s a difficult task breaking down silos,” he says. “It gets really complicated in a corporate structure because of the different functional priorities.” Drawing from strategies in the first few weeks of class, students offer Malcoun suggestions for the next stage in the program design. “It’s hard to maintain momentum so you should have a digital way for frequent, structured dialogue,” suggests one. “You need to frame this for two categories of people: MBA’s and Management,” offers another.

“One of the points I thought was really great is that we have not yet tailored the pitch to different groups,” he says in acknowledgement of student input. He goes on to say the program may need to start smaller with a self-selecting group of individuals, then explains that his next step is to build a stronger group of allies among potential participants. “In the future we’re going to focus on the benefits to the group and individuals,” says Malcoun, committed to persevere.

Persistence and creativity to continuing the mission is essential even at one of the companies most synonymous with sustainability: Interface. The first article in this series began with the historic commitment of the $1 billion carpet company’s founder and CEO Ray Anderson to climb Mt. Sustainability. While CEO support opens many doors, according to Director of Sustainability Strategy Melissa Vernon, even Interface needs intrapreneurs.

A momentum building moment for Interface’s sustainability journey occurred during the 1997 World Meeting where CEO Anderson aimed to coalesce disconnected business units into a unified whole on sustainability. Employees from around the world converged on a hotel in Maui and by the end of the week the environmental theme took over the process of unifying a worldwide company and galvanizing employee’s commitment to sustainability.

After nearly a decade and a few slow years weathering bad economic conditions, the Interface sales team needed a booster shot. The 2005 meeting intended to reignite the spirit of Ray Anderson’s legacy. Vernon’s team proposed everyone perform community service “Legacy Projects” similar to one in 1997 with Hawaiians that led to the creation of the Hoòkupu Trust. “The goal was to create and reaffirm individuals’ emotional commitment to Interface’s role in the world in terms of sustainability,” she says.

The team needed to persuade the President and Vice Presidents of Marketing and Sales to get the green light. “We can’t just propose a project and expect it to move forward on the grounds of ‘sustainability’ alone. Our projects are held to the same criteria as all business projects,” says Vernon. Once they received approval, they convinced Regional Vice Presidents and Segment Vice Presidents to lead the eight Legacy Projects near the sales meeting site.

When the 250 employees arrived at the sunny Florida resort, golf was more on their minds and some bemoaned the fact that they would be required to give up their free time. With agreements already in place to install carpet at a homeless shelter, clean up a National Estuarine Preserve from illegal dumping, and organize a food pantry, the team had to cross their fingers and hope that employees would see value in the experience.

It was a success. “These three hours have emerged into a powerful storytelling tool that has shaped our culture and further defined what social sustainability looks like at Interface,” says Vernon. The program is now in its seventh year and nearly 1,400 employees have donated approximately 3,600 hours to 55 different organizations in six different cities during company time.

“Enthusiasm oozes from the sales force,” says Vernon of the newest tradition that has become one of the most anticipated parts of building momentum towards the company’s sustainability and human potential goals.