Corporate Innovator Profile

Name: Chad Scales
Title: Chief Marketing, Innovation & Design Officer
Company: Interface
Experience: Focus Brands, Coca-Cola, Unilever
Total Corporate Innovation Experience: 17 years
LinkedIn: Chad Scales

It’s not often that you learn about a startup entrepreneur turned corporate innovator who strongly prefers the latter over the former. Such is the case for Chad Scales, currently the chief marketing, innovation and design officer for Interface. After scaling three companies through successful exits early in his career, Chad found a home driving impactful innovation at some of the world’s largest brands.

Following service as the global vice president of innovation at Coca-Cola, General Mills, and stints at Focus Brands and Unilever, Chad has taken on perhaps his biggest challenge yet; leading a global team of 300 people in the effort to transform a billion-dollar public company at the forefront of an environmentally responsible textiles and building materials company. We talked with Chad about his preference for corporate innovation over startups and to get his take on how intrapreneurs can set themselves up for success.

You began your career as a successful startup entrepreneur, yet following several exits, you decided to stay and build a career in corporate innovation. What was the impetus for doing so?

I consider myself an “architect of change;” someone who has always had multiple exciting ideas passing through my head at any given time and someone who enjoys bringing those ideas and business models to life. But like any great architect will tell you, building magnificent things takes money and resources that most startups do not have. In a sense, I had my heart set on building game changing “Eiffel Tower-type” innovations, but I found myself with only a “Townhouse Budget.”

As a startup founder, I saw first-hand how much time it takes for great ideas to reach scale. For me, the wait was agonizing because I had so many more ideas that I wanted to build out even as I was continuing to grow my current companies. So, after a couple of successful startups that were built and eventually sold to larger companies, I decided that I could achieve more transformational innovation with the backing of corporate resources than I could if I continued down the road as a serial entrepreneur.

That’s an interesting perspective considering corporate innovation’s reputation for being slow and burdensome, especially for those who come from a startup background. Has your experience been different?

Some people become entrepreneurs to make lots of money, and that’s OK. I, too, have benefited somewhat from my startup to divestiture journey. But in my experience, if you can find a company that truly embraces innovation, then you can access all of the resources (“Steel beams and rivets” if you will) necessary to build your version of the innovation “Eiffel Tower.” I’ve really enjoyed working on large projects with diverse groups of people inside organizations.

In fact, I was hired by Unilever to essentially teach the company how to be entrepreneurial and scrappy while they would teach me the discipline necessary to survive in a very competitive global consumer products industry and in a rigid corporate environment. It turned out to be a tremendously successful endeavor for both of us. During my tenure at Unilever, I helped create two business units from scratch that leveraged their well-known but tired brand equities and helped them tap the brand’s potential.

One of my favorite accomplishments with a great team of people was leveraging brands like Bertolli Oil into Bertolli Frozen Products and brands like Country Crock into Country Crock fresh foods. It was a bit alarming to senior leaders at Unilever to propose the creation of two entirely new business categories with a company and brands that are over 50 years old.

Was going from the likes of Unilever and Coca-Cola to Interface Inc. a culture shock in terms of the organization’s commitment to innovation? How did you adjust?

What’s interesting about my current role is that my biggest innovation priority is to help build awareness of a company that is a pioneer of sustainability, yet nobody knows it. Historically, Interface has employed many industry-leading polymer chemists and engineers that know a lot about sustainable products, but they know less about how to do marketing regarding the brand or company.

So currently, we’re doing very innovative things here. We have carpet tiles made from recycled ocean trash and reused nylon. We use recycled materials for all of our other products too. This stuff is cutting edge. One current initiative we recently launched seeks to engage 600,000 architects and designers around the world, to design truly “positive spaces” with us. By positive I mean, positive for the environment, positive for the people that work in these spaces because of their beautiful designs, and positive for their ability to move people through a space, in a sort of soft guiding way. Floors, especially those made of sustainable materials, are proven to create emotional connections if done correctly; and we want to be the brand known for sparking such positivity.

Based on your successful experiences as a corporate innovator, what advice can you share with intrapreneurs who are struggling to drive true transformation in their organizations?

A lot of my success I can attribute to having worked with many very smart and dedicated people. Additionally, though, I would advise “Intrapreneurs” to do four things:

  1. Take baby steps  With innovation, swinging for the fences is a fool’s errand. It takes a long time to drive change and doing so is full of risk that most corporations do not want to take. As an example, instead of launching something new nationwide, test it regionally or locally to see how it performs. Use the Lean Startup Methodology and work to get the product into the field so as to learn from and make improvements based on consumer experiences and feedback.
  1. Build air cover – Utilizing an approach such as Lean Startup can give corporate innovators the air cover needed to test innovation without the pressure of so much risk. Stakeholders don’t argue about research and focus group results. They worry about speculation. But building air cover requires internal alignment. In other words, the organization needs to know that something new is needed. At the same time, it’s important that the intrapreneur not take too much on at once that there is simply too much to provide air cover for.
  1. Work on ideas with “movement” already behind it  Corporate innovators must prioritize initiatives that have some wind in their sails. Even if the idea is not fully fleshed out, but the wind is behind you, then the idea can be more likely to survive missteps and is more likely to be successful long-term. In other words, harness the brand power and your team to recreate an industry through transformational innovations. Once you have initial success, the money will flow to you.
  1. Have a sense of urgency – Too many people consider ideas more than research, and they drag on the consideration phase for years. Commit to getting something to market as soon as possible, even if it’s a test. Doing so will create urgency among the team, and in turn create believers internally that you can use to your advantage.

Like what Chad had to say? Check out more intrapreneur and innovator profiles, including with Visa, SunTrust Bank, Dell and more!

Know an intrapreneur with a great story to tell? Let us know.


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