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Corporate Innovator Profile

Name: Alex Gonzalez
Title: Managing Director
Company: Creative Growth Ventures
Previous Experience: Equifax, General Electric
Total Corporate Innovation Experience: 15+ years
Twitter: @AlexGonz_CGV
LinkedIn: Alex Gonzalez

Arguably one of the most knowledgeable intrapreneurs around, Alex Gonzalez has helped lead transformative innovation and build growth processes for the likes of GE and Equifax, among many others. Today he’s the founder and managing director at Creative Growth Ventures, where he splits his time advising, training and consulting with executives, corporate innovation teams and high-growth startups. We chatted with Alex to get his thoughts on the ambiguity surrounding corporate innovation roles, what it takes to change corporate culture and the importance of leadership in enterprise entrepreneurial environments.

Enterprise Innovation: The emergence of corporate innovation into the mainstream hasn’t come without some ambiguity surrounding what it actually means to be an intrapreneur or part of an enterprise innovation team. Based on your experience, what should people think of when they hear “corporate innovation”?

Alex: When people think of corporate innovation, they typically immediately think of products. What product should we build? What problems exist that a new product(s) can solve? Often times this pigeonholing of corporate innovators as product people proliferates company wide.

However, corporate innovation defined by product innovation alone is limiting and not truly reflective of the vast roles and responsibilities that comprise enterprise entrepreneurship. That’s because corporate innovation is much more than product development: it’s more appropriately defined by any transformative innovation instituted with the intent to shape or enable a company to grow profitably.

So then, how can corporate innovators determine the type of “transformative” innovation their enterprise needs?

The first step for any corporate innovation team should be to collectively understand its company’s long-term and short-term strategy and direction. That’s because sometimes the realities the company faces can call for drastic changes, while in other situations, the direction might demand a more deliberate and paced path. By first understanding the environment, vision and political realities of the enterprise, intrapreneurs can make strategic decisions that company leadership may be more likely to support. For example, while at Equifax, one of the most successful innovation efforts I led was the formation of a Growth Council. This council consisted of a cross-section of leaders spanning HR, legal, finance, marketing and other business units. It sought to discover new revenue streams. By empowering folks outside of the corporate innovation team to think like intrapreneurs, we laid the groundwork for a growth process that enabled disruptive thinking coupled with practical execution.

Interestingly, the most powerful part of the Growth Council was not finding new revenue streams, but how it enabled culture change as it empowered leaders to think like innovators and growth leaders regardless of their functional role.

Is there one thing that makes some companies better at innovation than others?

Yes – That’s an easy one; it’s culture. Culture is perhaps the most important precursor to enterprise innovation success. However, strong leadership is required to drive cultural changes, and the bigger the organization, the more difficult it is to change culture and find the leaders to take on the task.

What are some tips that corporate innovation leads can use to transform their entire teams into leaders capable of changing culture?

For corporate innovation leaders, an important first step is to understand the transfer function of what you do to and how it translates to the results of the company short and long term. At the end of the day, corporations exist to create shareholder wealth; creating that wealth requires profitable, sustainable growth.

While the C-Suite understands the transfer function all too well, as it is at the center of almost every business decision, I’ve seen many times when corporate innovators lose perspective of the economics of the business. In other words, enterprise innovators may think too much about the innovation itself, and too little about how such innovation can positively impact bottom line and the value of the company. As an unintended consequence, this often prevents innovators from having credibility and can limit their ability to change culture. Don’t get me wrong, innovation leaders must be able to push boundaries and be provocative about the business model. That said, it is those who can learn to understand and embrace the economics of their business without sacrificing their entrepreneurial ideals that most often emerge as organizational leaders capable of inspiring change that drives value.

Any other tips that can help build leaders and subsequently drive culture changes throughout the organization?

I learned quickly in my career that leaders have the best intentions to innovate and drive change, but when the realities of financial commitments come to fruition, it is easy to regress to prior behavior and not take risk that will fuel innovation. Nonetheless, the success or failure of most corporate innovation teams depends upon innovators to connect with and be fully engaged with their peers on the front lines. To be a corporate innovator your need to have these attributes:

  • Big Picture Thinkers – You need to understand the macro landscape and be able to connect it to your business and your strategy. You should have the ability to look around corners and connect dots others can’t in the day-to-day operation of the business. You need to be the creative and strategic thinkers of the organization.
  • Communicate in C-Suite Terms – Understand the economics of your business and how you make money. You need to be able to translate the most out of context concept into how it may help enable the strategy of the company in simplest terms. Innovation leaders are the bridge between creative thinking and pragmatic execution.
  • Scream Accountability – Every corporate employee is accountable to someone and for some things; the corporate innovation team should not be excluded. Establish and publicly share team and individual metrics for projects and initiatives so the organization sees you’re playing on the same team and under the same rules. Ultimately, you must connect what you do to delivering profitable growth and shareholder value.

For enterprise innovators reading this article, what’s the single most important piece of advice for them to take away?

An effective change management plan is the key to innovation leader. By definition, you should be pushing boundaries that push the company to “think” outside of its comfort zone, which will lead to resistance and pushback. That is OK! If you don’t feel resistance, if it is easy you are not being provocative enough to fuel innovation. That being said, you must understand the economic and political realities of your company and have a strong change management plan to help your leaders and your company to be able to “consume” change and embrace innovation.

Like what you read here? Check out these other recent interviews with corporate innovators from SunTrust Bank, Cox Automotive and Visa.

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Robert Berris is 352's SVP of Innovation. He's a writer, improv comedian and master of nunchucks. He has an unhealthy addiction to Converse shoes, and he's absolutely terrible at Excel.