The DNA of Innovation Leaders

The DNA of Innovation LeadersA Speech Summary and Preview

If you attend as many Innovation or Transformation conferences as I do, you must be equally frustrated by the constant regurgitation of the same companies and innovation celebrities in answer to the question “who are the innovation leaders?”

Apple. Google. P&G. Facebook. Walmart. HP. Not to mention the same 5-10 CEOs who are constantly enshrined as THE source of all innovation at their companies (or former companies): Bezos, Schultz, Whitman, Benioff and Kelleher.

It’s not that these companies lack innovation or leadership, nor that these leaders are unremarkable. Rather, isn’t it time for something new? Are there really only 50 innovative companies in the world, and only 10 innovation celebrities.

Where’s the innovation spirit or mindset? Who is ready to eat the dog food here?

My speech at the Back End of Innovation (October 17-19, 2011) unveils initial results of extensive research on the question “what do successful Innovation Leaders in enterprise have in common?” In short, what does their DNA look like, and what can all of us learn from these champions? You may be surprised by the answers.

Not surprisingly, many of the most accomplished Innovation Leaders — as in leaders with a day job making innovation results happen without notoriety — never appear on the cover of BusinessWeek, Forbes or in other dubious top lists. Sustainable innovation rarely is associated with press mongers.

Further, it was intriguing to find what successful innovation leaders in large enterprise do not look like, what they do not seem to have in common. For instance, one might think being a visionary is required, or having mastery of web2.0 plus LAMP-stack or being viewed as a maverick or disruptive force in the business. Not at all. These can be attributes of interesting project managers or even venture managers, but the enterprise leaders (men or women) who have staying power are cut from a different swath.

In retrospect the DNA elements are suggested by the very definition of Innovation: turning new ideas into real business value. What does it take to do this well at scale in an organization of 1,000 – 200,000 employees?

Lest I steal my own thunder, here I list and only briefly describe the six DNA strands of successful Innovation Leaders in global organizations. Case studies, data and further research findings will be shared in the coming months. Even more importantly, the important “how to” section which will help you guide your own career and personal development to achieve ever higher levels of Innovation Leadership will be shared with Innovation Excellence first, so stay tuned in the coming months. New Year’s resolutions are fast approaching.

The Six DNA Strands of Innovation Leaders

Innovation is about people; the leaders who champion, defend, drive and help to develop and organization’s innovation capability are special people indeed. However, their traits can be acquired; none were born exceptional innovation leaders, rather, many have adjusted their skills, communication styles, work disciplines and cognitive capacity to get to where they are today.

#1 Self-awareness: successful innovation leaders have an above-average awareness of their strengths or weaknesses, and thus how to build teams, processes and agendas to get the most done in complex large organizations

#2 Eclectic experience: it may sound hackneyed, but these are Renaissance women and men. MBAs are optional. Many have enjoyed numerous seemingly disparate career facets, only to learn that their point of view or perspective can embrace many situations or many types of people. This might be called extreme common sense or super context.

#3 Mission-driven: often confused with provocateurs who seek change for its own sake, successful Innovation Leaders share a deep understanding of the organization’s strategic thrust. They latch all initiatives or projects onto the strategic pulse of the business, to ensure relevancy, funding and valued outcomes.

#4 Synthesizing: on a cognitive level, successful innovation leaders have developed (not necessarily born with) the analytical capacity to extract trends and patterns from many requirements, trends, ideas and outcomes. This ability to see the Forest AND the Trees is extremely important for prioritization, setting directions, and often killing projects with speed when they no longer are capable of delivering on the organization’s strategy.

#5 Story telling: it may not always seem like a story is being told, but the communication style of successful innovation leaders helps associates, partners, management and colleagues to understand why innovation change is imperative, how it will or has been achieved, the risks and benefits, and the roles of all stakeholders in making progress. For many, this can be a difficult capability to develop without considerable practice.


#6 Business case ready: successful innovation leaders rarely assume funding will be assured, resources or staffing will be granted, or that the organization understand or values the outcomes generated. Instead, these women and men relentlessly make the case for projects and initiatives with a keen eye towards jobs to be done, risks to be managed, results to be achieved, all in an easy to understand style that aligns with the organization’s strategy and value metrics.

Companies ARE NOT innovative. People are. Do not be fooled: NO CEO is the sole or top reason for innovation at a large organization. For large groups of people to mobilize to deliver large scale innovation in global organizations, the right innovation leaders “inside” are indispensable. You are one, Or you may be sitting next to one at the Back End of Innovation. Or you may aspire to be one. Whoever you are, step up and be the next innovation leader in your organization.

Back End of Innovation Conference

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Luis SolisA 25-year veteran of enterprise transformation, Luis F. Solis is President-North America of Imaginatik plc. His DNA blends private equity, M&A, strategy consulting and software entrepreneurship with emphasis in collaboration, innovation and supply chain.

Luis Solis




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No Comments

  1. Maureen Metcalf on October 11, 2011 at 9:48 pm

    I recently published a book on developing innovative leadership so this is a passion of mine. Your research is quite interesting and I appreciate the importance of many good thinkers moving this cause forward in a time where innovative leadership is critical. Thanks for sharing your findings. Have fun at BEI!

  2. Karina on October 13, 2011 at 9:34 am

    Leadership Traits

  3. Ian Percy on October 13, 2011 at 10:45 am

    The one word that’s missing here is “Energy.” Leadership in this 21st century is ‘aligning the energy of an organization toward its highest possibilities’. Innovation is a form of energy. Not only that but it is a natural state if we’d stop contaminating the human experience with fear-driven structures. We are ‘naturally’ and energetically innovative. However we learned by the end of the first grade that that’s not how you get ahead.

    Look at most vision/mission statements and tell me if you feel all tingly. Typically they exhaust your energy not add to it. Same with org structures, job descriptions, policies and pretty well everything else we do in business.

    If you want to restore your organization to a natural state of sustainable innovation come to understand the role of energy. After all, it holds the entire universe together and enable it to function. It does the same thing to your business.

  4. Muluadam on October 13, 2011 at 12:58 pm

    I am second degree student in ” Good Governance and Leadership”. I found the material very helpful for me/ who lives in underdeveloped country/ . Thank you

  5. Teddy on October 13, 2011 at 2:09 pm

    I like dna #1 about knowing your strengths and weaknesses. A successful leader understands themselves and does not let their ego get in the way of a companies progress. A true leader is comfortable listening to others ideas and not taking all the credit

  6. Scott Asai on October 13, 2011 at 3:31 pm

    Love #1 because if you don’t know yourself it’s extremely difficult to lead others.

  7. Fernando Monpil Monsanto Clodualdo Peter Maria Rose Montemayor Pantino, M.A. on October 13, 2011 at 11:05 pm

    I like DNA # 5 Storing Telling..

    pol pantino

  8. Judy White SPHR GPHR HCS on October 17, 2011 at 11:47 am

    Thank you for the powerful list of six. I especially appreciate how you distinguish #3 – Leaders not only share a deep understanding of the organization’s thrust, they latch all initiatives/projects into the strategic pulse to secure valuable and/or integrated outcomes.

  9. Anand Rego on October 19, 2011 at 5:38 pm

    Thank You! Great article, especialy relevant to large global organisations working on embedding a culture around innovation. Look forward to further insights from your research.

  10. sue on November 9, 2011 at 8:57 am

    This research and traits list is very good. From one that has led significant change within a company and industry I would say one additional trait that I learned over time and was extremely valuable was change management (most importantly listening skills).

  11. Alastair Darling on June 3, 2012 at 10:59 pm

    After reading, it’s abundantly clear that V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai is the inventor of email.

    It’s also clear that industry insiders, who have perpetuated false claims about email as well as about innovation for decades, unleashed hell on Dr. Ayyadurai to discredit a simple fact: a 14-year-old, working in Neward, NJ, in 1978, invented email, the electronic interoffice mail system.

    That truth blows away the lies of Raytheon/BBN and its mascot Tomlinson, who clearly DID NOT “invent email”. It’s time for real journalism and the truth to come out.


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