3 CEOs who get innovation

philmckinney | January 25, 2012

Article

Innovation leadership

Over my career, I’ve had the opportunity to get to know a number of CEO’s.  The general perception in the market is that CEO’s of public companies are only focused on meeting the quarterly numbers.  The following are 3 CEO’s I’ve had the opportunity to spend meaningful 1:1 time with and who “get it” when it comes to innovation.

Jeffrey Katzenberg, CEO, DreamWorks Animation

One of the biggest challenges for any CEO is the balance of risk and reward when it comes to innovation.  In the case of Jeffrey, his perspective on risk is unique.  During a recent event at the Computer History Museum where I was interviewing him on stage, his response to a questions I posed on risk was refreshing compared to most CEO’s.

“In order for us to delight and surprise — and to exceed the expectations of our audience — the requirement is that we are original and unique.  Original and unique equals risky. Risky equals failure – sometimes.  We build into every aspect of our enterprise, including the movies,  that we can fail and it won’t destroy the enterprise. It’s built into what we do, what we ask our artists to do, what we ask our filmmakers to do, what we ask our technologists to do — we ask them to build into what we do enough opportunity for failure  that allows us to have enough opportunity to take risk that allows us to be unique and original.”

Jeffrey is one of those CEO’s who give’s his team the space to experiment and fail.  The result is that every one of DreamWorks Animation’s movies have been profitable in a highly competitive industry.  Not a small task when you consider that the average investment to make one of their CG movies is $120 million with an additional $170 million in marketing.  A ~$300 million bet before the first customer buys the first ticket.

Wendell Weeks, CEO & Chairman, Corning

When I come across people who are passionate about their products, I can’t help but get interested.  In the case of Wendell, we are talking about someone who is a “glass geek”.  My first meeting with Wendell involved him bringing in glass samples and then proceeding to abuse them, the whole time I was getting a lesson on the science of glass.  Needless to say, I was hooked.

Over the three years following that first encounter, Wendell and I have spent time together working on all kinds of crazy ideas.  I remember one discussion in his office in Corning, NY.  I went off describing  some  crazy device I wanted to build.  Everyone else told me I was nuts for even trying.  While I was waving my hands trying to convey what I was envisioning, Wendell proceeded to pull out a sheet of paper and worked out the calculations on the spot.  He immediately replied that he could build it and set his team off to work on it.

Wendell exudes passion for his products, his company and its ability to innovate.  Give me a CEO with passion for ideas and innovation and I will show you a company that will consistently win against their competition.

Paul Jacobs, CEO & Chairman, Qualcomm

I can’t imagine the challenge of taking over a company that was started by your father.  I had many encounters with Paul’s father in the early days of the wireless industry.  The first time I met Paul, I came into the meeting with the attitude of him being “the son”.  Was I wrong.  Paul and I immediately got into a deep discussion on some arcane issue of wireless spectrum utilization.  Everyone else in the room checked out and started reading their emails.  The discussion went on for more than an hour.

In each of our subsequent meetings, Paul was either bringing something to demonstrate or sharing some new insight he discovered in his travels.  His unbounded curiosity drove him to go anywhere and talk with anyone if he felt he could learn and discover something new.

For most other CEO’s, once they made to the corner office, the stop feeding their curiosity and they focus on protecting what they have been able to achieve.  Not the case with Paul.  His curiosity is what feeds him and the rest of Qualcomm.

 

 

When I stack up each of these organizations against the 7 Immutable Laws of Innovation, they clearly check the box when it comes to the Law of Leadership.   In my research, I found that highly innovative organizations feed off the innovation energy coming from their CEO’s.  Without executive leadership that truly gets innovation, an organization can only go so far.

How does your organization’s innovation leadership compare?

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