Seeking a Chief Innovation Officer or an Alchemist?

Seeking a Chief Innovation Officer or an Alchemist?

“As they say, you can’t fit a square peg in a round hole. I was hired to bring new products and services to life, only to find that my CEO’s idea of innovation is more of the same stuff we do now, except faster and bigger.” – A Chief Innovation Officer

Alchemy and Anatomy of a Chief Innovation Officer

CEOs oversee two main decisions: the firm’s strategy, and the firm’s top team of leaders. Of these, selecting the firm’s top leaders may be the most important because organizational culture is heavily shaped or impacted by the senior management team. Culture is a company’s stealth growth engine; it’s what sets winners apart from laggards. An ineffective culture explains many organizational failures.

Given the importance of making the right hiring decisions, how does a CEO go about hiring the right Chief Innovation Officer (CINO) ?  It’s far from a trivial question. Most of the CEOs I know have hired all of the other functional leaders many times over but the CINO hire is a first time event for many of them.  For various reasons I will shortly discuss, recruiting and employing the right Chief Innovation Officer seems to challenge CEOs more than most of us expect.  And yet the organization’s growth trajectory counts on it!

On at least a few levels, Leonardo DaVinci struggled with this riddle in his epic “Vitruvian Man” diagram in which the seemingly right man is both inside a square and inside a circle to achieve such duality and fit in the contemporary world.

Today, the decision is more likely to be one of these:  do I try to fit the CINO as a round peg into the square, or do I somehow count on him or her to change shape to lead the firm’s innovation activities such that we have a decent shot at achieving our objectives ?

The chief innovation officer is among the fastest growing new senior titles in the US corporate marketplace. Though relatively new, its importance continues to increase, especially as CEOs and executive management teams struggle to sustain growth from current products, services and markets in an unusually dynamic, competitive global setting. The relative newness of the CINO means at least two things: it’s difficult to know what a great one looks like and behaves like, and there are few CINOs in the marketplace to recruit to your organization.  Since the pool of existing CINOs is tiny,  you simply must seek the right traits for your organization’s CINO.

Which brings us to why it is essential to have useful frameworks by which to make decisions. One useful framework for CINO selection is based on personal observation across more than 100 organizations, including the circumstances of our 20 Innovation Alchemist essay contributors. To be sure, there is a great deal of variation in the career pattern of CINOs. Some possess deep product or service development heritage. Others have strong consulting roots, with operating experience. A few join the ranks from R&D because they possess the requisite communications and influence skills. Many other patterns are evident.

But what stands out for me are two dimensions with which to define CINOs. The first dimension is the level of innovation maturity for the enterprise. The CINO for level 1 Initiate is a very different person than the CINO for level 4 Optimized. The jobs to be done are different. The relative budgets, organization size, executive relationships and expected outcomes are also different.

The second dimension is how the CINO relates to the innovation process. Some CINOs are catalysts for change, seeking to get traction for the innovation agenda. Other CINOs are focused on managing a portfolio of innovation projects across the enterprise. These CINOs now manage an established function, parallel in some ways to marketing, finance or human resources. They look more like a professional manager with terrific influence skills. In short, the pattern seems to me to be one of building or managing a strategy with respect to the innovation function or processes.

Below is a set options that match the required CINO traits to the level of the organization’s innovation maturity. Here are the four patterns or archetypes we’ve discovered in our work:

1. Advisor

CINOs of this type are appointed by the CEO to focus on the innovation strategy, working either alone or with a strategy team. As such, they almost behave like a management consultant in terms of establishing the voice of the organization, scanning current innovation activities for clues about current competencies, and helping the CEO to shape an innovation business case. Strategy execution – the distinct ownership and responsibility for making innovation happen – resides with the operating business units. It’s sometime the case that the Advisor works with distinct business units to shape their innovation strategy, to initiate the Innovation Maturity Journey, and at the same time, to weave a corporate innovation journey. Advisors recommend rather than dictate. Like a management consultant the particular capabilities they bring to the Initiate level are objectivity, a neutral perspective, analytics, and helpful frameworks to assist the CEO or business unit heads to jump-start the innovation competency building cycle.

The majority of Advisors that I’ve met had a background in consulting, or, have held various Innovation leadership positions throughout their career and now hold themselves out as management consultant. They are often from outside the organization, or new to it (within 1-2 years). Because of their analytical bent, Advisors may not make the leap to Catalyst unless they also possess communication and influence skills required for future jobs. If they stay with the organization, they are likely to join a business unit innovation team (perhaps one of the larger units) in a strategic capacity.

2.   Catalyst

The second style is the Catalyst, a CINO chosen for her ability to develop initial practices and processes into an enterprise-wide emergent capability. The Catalyst has the difficult task of helping to stage, manage and measure the value of numerous proofs of concept  to support the systematization of innovation. Catalysts have extensive evangelism skills, with road program management interests to keep numerous programs running in parallel. Because innovation is a new process or capability to many organizations (i.e., here I refer to product, service and model innovations exceeding customary R&D functions), the work of “spread” is tireless.  By “spread” I mean the enterprise work of creatively influencing leaders, managers and influential front-line mavericks to embrace new ways of working. The Catalyst CINO is closely aligned with Everett Roger’s Diffusion of Innovation model. This CINO is the who makes diffusion occur within the enterprise.

The effectiveness of the Catalyst is dependent upon both their personal communication and influence skills and their alignment with key influential enterprise leaders. Those leaders permit the Catalyst to impact their organizations. They endorse this CINO as someone to be respected, as someone who is bringing needed positive change.  Whereas the Advisor CINO may or may not have a long-term role in the organization, the Catalyst is more likely to move within the enterprise to another organization in a similar role. Given their desirable skill sets, Catalysts are often offered opportunities to leverage their capabilities and organizational connections.

3. Coach

Over time, the organization builds pockets and teams of innovation competency. The challenge shifts from evangelism of the innovation model with the goal of systematization, to < innovation competence within business units. The Coach CINO is very much a facilitator of advanced innovation programs. They often possess a trusted, close relationship with the CEO or other very senior executives. They specifically help business units develop strategies that the business units are likely to have approved by the board of directors or CEO.

In contrast to the Advisors, Coaches do not develop the strategy themselves. Instead, they view their role as working to provide innovation teams with the information, insights and models to create advanced strategies, and to stoke collaboration between groups. The business unit teams now own execution, thus, they must secure the budgetary and other support from the CEO and board. Unlike the Catalysts, this CINO spends relatively little time championing innovation, or recruiting sponsors. At the Embedded level of Innovation Maturity, the need for evangelism is much reduced. And in contrast to both Advisors and Catalysts, Coaches are almost always recruited from a senior role in a business unit. They already understand the organization’s culture, and they have extensive internal networks to secure the information and undocumented know-how that is mission critical to advanced strategies.

The Coach also has longevity.  Armed with deep executive relationships and intimate familiarity with the embedded innovation process, this CINO enjoys a strategic role in coaching business units and helping them secure program approval.

4. Steward

The final CINO style is the Steward.  While few organizations attain the Optimized stage of Innovation Maturity, or rarely remain there for long, from a conceptual standpoint it makes sense that some organizations are evolved enough to benefit from a stewardship approach to the innovation process. This entails close work with the CEO and Board of Directors to address three distinct opportunities:  platforms, portfolio and resources. The need for strategy development, catalyst work, or coaching has given way to strategic orchestration of the organization’s innovation mission.

Platforms are growth opportunities that assist many or all business units. They are the very essence of  synergistic management in innovation. Platforms often imply business model innovations. In contrast, at the Optimized level, most organizations have mastered an enterprise approach to portfolio management, such that the innovation steering committee with the CEO can take decisive action on when to invest, when to exit, when to rationalize or where the opportunity gaps may lie. This is far from easy work. Annual calibration will impact the incremental, semi-radical, and radical mix of projects.

The Steward’s role is to make the case for platform recommendations supported by business units and to persuade or influence business leaders to align around a desired portfolio composition. Another key enterprise job of this CINO is talent management. Successful innovators address the human resource question often and well. Strategies like resource rotation, skills development, recruitment of specialist skills, partnerships to tap unique IP, and scouting are but a few of the important tasks to address. In this sense, the Steward is the innovation human capital leader; it falls to her to ensure that there is a proper 2-3 year roadmap for required talent to deliver on the innovation mission.


Needless to say, business judgment, communication and influence skills, EQ, external relationships and deep trust relationships with the CEO and senior executives are some of the success keys for this CINO. It’s a true renaissance role. A broad career experience, blended with diverse management skills, is essential.

The one trait that all four types share in common is alchemy – the ability to transmute the common, the known, and the unknown, into real value. If you’re looking to hire a Chief Innovation Officer, or to become one, you’ll need that capability.

BETA - Global Innovation Management Institute certification

Wait! Before you go…

Choose how you want the latest innovation content delivered to you:

Luis Solis is an Innovation Alchemist and author of the book Innovation Alchemists: What every CEO needs to know to hire the right Chief Innovation Officer, and President – NA of Imaginatik. Luis blogs at and can be followed on twitter @innoalchemist

Luis Solis




Five CV skills of a business-minded individual

By Hubert Day | September 21, 2023

Photo by Scott Graham on Unsplash The skills listed on a CV help employers quickly understand your suitability for a…

Read More

Four ways you can ensure employees take accountability for their work

By Hubert Day | April 5, 2023

One of the most important driving factors for any successful business is a high-performing team. Having people working for you…

Read More

No Comments

  1. Edward Boze on January 28, 2014 at 1:26 pm

    A spot on article. Innovation at an enterprise is a road to maturity.

Leave a Comment