2014 Careers: The Invisible Executive

2014 Careers: The Invisible ExecutiveI’ve been looking back at some of my mentoring engagements from 2013 and writing a few posts to summarize key insights.

In my last post I encouraged readers to learn a new skill and take a risk from a career perspective. I cited a personal example where the particular skill was social media, and I found myself as a peer to executives in a new era where corporate strategy could be proposed by anyone in the company.

This was a first step in reducing the chances of being a “chess piece” that gets moved during an implementation of a new strategy.

If we carry the analogy further, however, proposing strategy does not equate to getting people to work on the strategy with you (or in the case of chess pieces – for you).

How could I, playing the “role” of an executive, begin to move chess pieces in an implementation of a proposed corporate strategy? I discovered that I needed to add an additional skill to my personal arsenal: the invisible executive. An invisible executive carries out unapproved corporate strategy using somebody else’s resources. The theory here is that if the vision or strategy is compelling enough, people will sign up to work on the project in stealth (e.g. skunkworks). And if stealth mode doesn’t work, a more open strategy can be deployed called “commando mentoring”.

Getting Started Invisibly

One of the first things I did to tackle the problem I faced was to drive into MIT and meet with Professor Peter Gloor. I made a trip into Cambridge, MA and asked him a simple question:

“How do I get employees to execute a strategy when they don’t work for me?”

His answer was simple: “Cede ownership of the solution”. Implement the strategy by giving the stealth recruits a healthy dose of freedom, autonomy, and ownership. We spent the next several hours putting together a step-by-step plan for how to pull this off. Peter calls these type of teams a COIN: a Collaborative Innovation Network.

2014 Careers: The Invisible ExecutiveCOINs are very easy to begin in stealth. If you want to move into the role of an invisible executive, however, there is a key learning that I’d like to pass on to you: build an international COIN team. The reason for going international is two-fold:

  1. International employees, in many cases, are just plain hungrier to innovate. Many of their existing tasks restrict them into well-defined areas of work that discourage autonomy. The chance to work on something strategic and new can be rare.
  2. If the work of the invisible executive is uncovered, being thousands of miles away from the employee’s manager is advantageous.

In future posts I will share a bit more detail about:

  • my own personal experience forming such a team
  • how to get yourself onto such a team
  • resorting to the commando mentoring strategy if all else fails

image credit: 3.b..com

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Steve ToddSteve Todd is an EMC Fellow, the Director of EMC’s Innovation Network, and a high-tech inventor and book author Innovate With Global Influence. An EMC Intrapreneur with over 200 patent applications and billions in product revenue, he writes about innovation on his personal blog, the Information Playground. Twitter: @SteveTodd

Steve Todd




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  1. Greg Zobel on January 15, 2014 at 1:32 pm

    One of the beauties of COINs is their organic nature. Almost by definition, they bubble up from levels within the company that are closer to the customer than typical strategic level executives.
    Another is, by their volunteer nature, they early-on begin to vet that the concept is compelling.

    I’d be interested in your thoughts regarding a COIN could work effectively with members outside the company, and if so, how you would recruit such members and frame the opportunity.

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