It”s amazing how often I’m reminded that everyone wants better, nobody wants change.
A few years ago, I was approached by the COO of a public company. A new executive team was recently installed in an effort by the board to shake things up. All were outsiders, with the exception of the CEO, who’d risen up the ranks. The COO told me they were looking to explore sweeping innovations to the brand and the core products and wondered if I’d be interested in joining the team to spearhead that.
The thought of becoming an employee again at this point in my entrepreneurial journey was a bit terrifying. But I’d be coming in at a level that would give me both extraordinary resources and the ability to innovate and create on the level that allows for high-level impact, meaning and personal gratification.
Or, so I thought…
I went through a battery of interviews. All went great. Though, everyone kept asking why I’d ever consider leaving the working lifestyle I’ve built over the years. Then it was time to sit down for a “real” conversation with the CEO. We’d already done the “yes, you’re not a total freak” conversation a few times over. And, it was during this final conversation that my Something’s Wrong meter went ballistic.
The CEO asked me to share some ideas about where to take the brand moving forward. A few minutes in, he stopped me. No, he said, followed by the equivalent of…
“I want to know how you’d take existing product X and tweak it so that it feels new and maybe even looks new so that we can have the appearance of new, but not have to undertake the risk, anxiety and uncertainty of it actually being new.”
The first time this happened, I thought maybe we were just warming into the juicy stuff. Or maybe he was just testing me, to see if I really had the will to drive change. But, then every time I explored shifting the conversation from superficial tweaks to genuine innovation, he directed me back to talk only about very modest, incremental change.
On the surface, this was an extraordinary opportunity for me. A killer paycheck, equity, C-level position, resources and control. But, after sparring with the CEO, it became crystal clear that, while he yearned for the revitalized revenue and reputation that comes from being a true innovator, he had no interest in investing in and embracing the disruption it would take to get there.
Innovation comes with risk, with a concerted shaking of the status quo.
One that requires you to make decisions, invest resources and take actions to create what’s never been created before. That terrifies most people. And, though this CEO and his team were working to inculcate a new focus on the language of innovation, in truth, that’s all it was. Language. Lip service.
Which is a bit tragic. Because organizational innovation requires unwavering support from the top down. It requires not just permission to think differently, but rather a specific, resource-backed mandate to experiment, risk and innovate. One that’s backed not just by words, but by process, resources, intention and deeds.
One of the worst things you can do as a leader is pay lip-service to a quest, then eviscerate every initiative that threatens to breath life into it.
It will destroy your peoples’ faith in you, your word, your mission, your organization and your culture.
So, when this CEO’s line of questioning to me signalled he was doing that just, I called him on it. Then I circled back to the COO and the SVP of Talent to let them know what I’d experienced. I told them that, while I’d had great conversations about innovation with them, the CEO was telegraphing a serious lack of genuine commitment to innovation beyond tweaks. And, that would be an impossible environment in which to create. In the end, we parted paths.
Life’s too short to spend your days banging your head against someone else’s wall.
And, much to the chagrin of many…
Innovation doesn’t come with a woobie.
Curious, what do YOU think?
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