Developing Leaders of Innovation – An Interview with Robert B. Tucker

Developing Leaders of Innovation


How do you know if you’re ready to lead an innovation team? What are the requisite skills to be successful? How do the world’s most innovative companies accomplish this and what can we learn from them? Robert B. Tucker covers all of these questions and more in this interview on developing leaders of innovation.

Why is it important for knowledge workers to develop their innovation leadership abilities?

Tucker: Because they are so incredibly needed today. IBM did a study and asked 1,500 CEOs what skillset or aptitudes are needed more than any other right now. The answer came back resoundingly: creativity. Whatever you do, whatever industry or organization you are with right now –your ability to innovate will set you apart. By that I mean your ability to problem solve, experiment, to come up with ideas, to drive growth, to motivate and inspire a team, to turn vision into a reality. If you develop these skills it gives you a personal competitive advantage that can never be taken away from you. People who gravitate to innovation love a challenge. They get bored easily. They don’t want to do the same thing over and over for forty years.

As you say in your book Innovation is Everybody’s Business, the place to start is by developing and honing our personal innovation skills. Could you elaborate on that further? How should individuals use those skills when serving on and leading teams? What should someone do if they’re invited to lead an organization wide transformation?

Tucker: When an organization finds itself disrupted, when the pipeline of new products is suddenly empty, when your business model is no longer viable, when a new technology has taken your customers to a new value proposition – that organization is going to wake up and say: “where are the innovation leaders in this firm? Where are the people we can count on to lead change?” and this could very well be you. You’re going to be asked to launch some major change initiative, some digital strategy, or some transformation. And the question is: are you going to be ready?

How does someone know if they’re ready? Can you give us an example of somebody who “got the call” and what they did?

Tucker: One person that comes to mind is a leader of innovation named Pam Moret. She’s Senior VP at an insurance company in Minneapolis called Thrivenet Financial. I interviewed Pam on one of my intelligent talk shows that I do for trade association conferences. Thrivenet noticed the average age of their customers was getting older and older. So, the CEO invited Pam to lead an internal startup in a different building, with a different team, a different business model and the goal being: win new customers among Gen X and the Millennials. I said “Pam, this was super high risk project, right? How’d you know if you were ready or not to take on the role?” She said, “I’ve always been eager to take on new challenges.” But she continued that going in, she knew this one was going to be more intense than anything she’d ever done. However, her broad base of experiences helped her to be prepared. In the past, she’d built new financial products when she was at American Express, and held a variety of positions at Thrivenet.

Here’s what Pam really helps us to think about: broad based experience is essential. I always recommend lateral moves in your career that give you broader perspectives. New roles in which the innovation experience is essential, and so is a certain type drive where you’re demanding, yet flexible. Pam’s reputation for getting new things done preceded her. You cannot be a pushover. Pam knew how important it was to do this startup across town from HQ and even to have their own IT department, rather than being tied into the main company’s department, just to be completely independent.

Are you saying we should develop our I-Skills first and lead some project teams, and this will prepare us to lead a big initiative in the future?

Tucker: Exactly. I mean number one: develop a reputation for competence in your functional area: IT or HR or sales, whatever. Number two – This is why I’m so convinced that it’s a smart career move to hone your innovation skills. And these project teams are perfect places to practice.

How did you identify your seven fundamental I-Skills and why do you consider them to be so vital?

Tucker: We interviewed people like Pam Moret and Nancy Snyder of Whirlpool and dozens of others. We identified what I call the “mindset, skillset and toolset” of a successful innovator. People who have developed a reputation and a track record for getting new things done, and we asked them to articulate how they learned to do what they do.

What are the seven skills?

Tucker: I always like to talk about the I-Skills by asking questions. For example: 1) Are you able to spot and to seize opportunities? Do you often see possibilities where others might see only problems? This comes naturally to some people, some of us have to work a little harder, and pay a little more attention.

2) Do you like to challenge assumptions? Innovators are assumption assaulters. We are surrounded by assumptions and most of them are accurate. But some of them are not. The other day in Ohio, I showed up at a company in the call center business. The first thing my host told me was, “the call center business is a commodity.” He stated this as a fact. Just look at how that stops thinking. And if you listen, you hear people make assumptions all the time, and here’s the problem: innovation starts where assumptions end.

And let me just helicopter through some of the other skills. 3) You cultivate a passion for the end customer – in other words, you develop empathy, you walk in the other’s shoes. 4) You are a forward thinker – you constantly look out into the future and gauge where things will evolve to, and how you might ride the waves of change. 5) You’re constantly coming up with ideas, little and big. 6) You’re a world-class collaborator and incredible communicator; someone who really knows how to galvanize teams and build trust. And 7) You’re able to sell your ideas up, down and laterally to peers. You know how to bring people along, build consensus, do whatever it takes accomplish your goal. These are the building blocks of innovation leadership.

Here’s a thought: what if you’re asked to lead and you don’t feel you’re quite ready, should you say yes anyway?

Tucker: I don’t think you ever feel completely ready, particularly when it comes to something as complex as leading an innovation initiative. What we see a lot of times are managers who got the call, and are struggling to get up to speed on innovation at the same time they’re trying to kick off the initiative. And that’s why you need a coach, somebody who’s been through these phases before because you don’t want to make mistakes. I often find myself saying to clients, “Ah, you could do that… but here’s what the available evidence suggests and here’s why that’s probably not the best way to go.” And: “Here are some things that you need to be thinking about coming up.”

If you want to become an accountant or a lawyer or engineer, you take a test and if you pass, you’re ready. But we don’t yet have something like that in the innovation field, so it’s hard to know if you’re ready.

Could you share some examples from your work?

Tucker: Earlier this year we worked with a five-billion-dollar consumer products company. They were being disrupted by online competitors. Their growth had stalled, and their investors were asking questions. They wanted to know what was in the pipeline of new products to get growth happening?

So, a manager I’ll call “Jim” got the call. He was a good guy, respected by his peers, smart and hardworking. However, it turned out that Jim had never done something of this magnitude before. He’d studied to be an engineer, not an innovation leader and when he contacted us he was overwhelmed trying to get up to speed. He had the good sense to recruit his own innovation design team. Now, what he didn’t get right was he formed a team with very few senior people on it. You need a mix. What he did get right was a three-day offsite to kick off the initiative. He realized that the existing approach to new product development was not capable of breakthrough innovation, and in fact had become quite risk adverse. He was able to accomplish all of this while continuing to perform his highly demanding day-job.

Any red flags innovation leaders should be aware of?

Tucker: Lots of them, but without coaching, there’s a tendency to ignore them. Pam Moret on the other hand did not ignore them. You have got to push back. It’s not a good sign when Jim is being denied access to the chief and it’s only a five-billion-dollar company and they’re being disrupted in the marketplace. When a CEO thinks they can delegate innovation and walk away, that’s not a good signal.

I try to explain to CEOs whenever I can that there are a lot of things you can delegate, but innovation is not one of them. Your leadership matters. I asked a young man the other day who’s a Nestle pricing strategist and had just received his MBA from USC. “How many courses in finance did you take at USC?” He said “Five.” I follow up with, “how many innovation courses?” He said “one” and it was taught by a finance person and wasn’t very good. The problem is we don’t teach the best practices of innovation in university, or we don’t teach them very well. It’s important that we establish standards and practices and teach tools.

What are some of the best practices? Should you turn down the invitation to lead if maybe the leadership, or the culture, or the odds are so stacked against your ability to be successful that it seems impossible?

Tucker: It’s got to be a friendly negotiation. Let’s say you know the culture, and you know how risk-adverse it is and how much work will be required to change it. And you know the leadership team, and the politics, and maybe the extent of the inertia. It is vital to take these things into account. Nancy Snyder at Whirlpool was very frank about this when we interviewed her. She said that, “When we first started it was amazing. We had no idea how motivating this would be.” But she also said: “Some of the senior leaders had a more difficult time getting excited about innovation. It was a big change, and people at the top felt they had a lot more to lose.” She went on to say: “It wasn’t until a third of your pay, if you’re a senior leader, is tied directly to what comes out of the innovation pipeline. That was a tipping point for us on innovation.”

It sounds like there are a lot of ways to approach an innovation process, and there’s not a one size fits all approach for every organization.

Tucker: That’s certainly true. Having studied the world’s most innovative companies, and based on my experience working with companies in so many industries, I would say this constant: Every company needs to address five areas if they’re going to design a sustainable process, and not just a flavor of the month.

These five areas are: 1) The company must make innovation a strategic imperative, directed from the top. In other words, you’ve got to construct an innovation strategy, and come up with a common definition of how you’re going to define it, and who’s going to manage it day to day. 2) You need a process. You need to have a system that includes inputs, through-puts, and outputs of fresh, compelling ideas in a systematic way. 3) You need to constantly focus on collaborating with your customers, seeking new customer insights, changing and adapting as your customers evolve. 4) You need to work on cultivating a risk-taking culture, because a risk adverse culture will bungle opportunities every time. 5) You need to involve everyone in the enterprise – because you never know where your next breakthrough idea will come from.

This interview included Brett Trusko, President and CEO of the International Association for Innovation Professionals (IAOIP), and you can learn more about them by visiting there website.

Take a look at additional interviews with Robert and other innovation thought leaders by clicking here.