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Corporate Innovator Profile

Name: Mike Burgiss
Title: VP of Strategy – Retail Transformation
Company: Cox Automotive
Previous Experience: Autotrader.com, Accenture
Total Corporate Innovation Experience: 5 years
Twitter: @MikeBurgiss
LinkedIn: Mike Burgiss

Mike Burgiss is a Vice President of Strategy at Cox Automotive, where he led the efforts to develop MakeMyDeal, an online experience for consumers to arrange car purchases online from car dealers. Mike recently spoke with us about intrapreneurship; providing tips on how to build teams, what characteristics to prioritize when recruiting and the importance of leadership in corporate innovation. We know the role of a corporate innovator can be a difficult one, but Mike shares vital insight on the types of people who excel as change-makers within the enterprise.

Enterprise Innovation: As a seasoned corporate innovation professional, how would you define the role to those entertaining the idea of intrapreneurship?

Mike Burgiss: A misconception about corporate innovation and enterprise entrepreneurship is that the profession attracts startup entrepreneurs. But the administrative overhead and decision-making approach that corporations require can turn off more startup-minded entrepreneurs. Instead, corporate innovation roles are well suited for unique individuals who find excitement in the combination of divergent forces that come from the risk-taking aspects of entrepreneurship and the structure and stability of a big corporation. Personally, I find corporate innovation attractive because of the challenge and accountability of creating something new, without all the risk assumed with building something that might fail. In other words, there is a lot of motivation in the potential to ‘hit it big,’ without the fear of losing out on a paycheck next month.

As a corporate innovation leader, what characteristics do you believe make up the ideal intrapreneur?

There is a lot of similarity between intrapreneurship and entrepreneurship in that hunger, drive and the ability to demonstrate leadership are some of the most important qualities. For corporate entrepreneurs, however, spearheading innovation is not a means to get rich – there isn’t an IPO or M&A forthcoming. Rather, it’s an opportunity to place a bigger stake in the operations and future direction of the corporation. With that responsibility may come a bit of extra money and recognition, but ultimately successful corporate innovators recognize and embrace that they are still part of a large organization with many stakeholders to satisfy.

How do you find and hire people to your team?

There’s nothing proprietary about our methods here. We’re certainly not looking at spreadsheets to make assessments. Most often, in fact, the best candidates are people already within the organization; those who raise their hands and volunteer for the job because they desire to be a part of the challenge. Of course, each team will have its own requirements for hard skills candidates must possess. But as I mentioned earlier, it’s the hunger, drive and leadership that matters most. Technical and analytical skillsets can be taught; soft skills, including leadership, are often more dependent on talent than education.

I’ve learned that after all the usual interview questions are asked and answered, the ultimate decision to extend an offer to a new team member should come down to ‘doing’ not ‘interviewing.’ Giving candidates real examples of work they would be doing in the real job and asking them to complete the tasks in the interview has been, in my experience, the best predictor of someone’s actual job performance over any number of questions or canned tests. Giving someone a task directly from the job not only tests their aptitude in the required skills, but it also gives you a strong indication of how much they understand the business and how much they’ve absorbed in your conversations with them – a good sign they really want the job.

Of those that do volunteer, what are some of the specific leadership skills that you look for?

Leading in a fast-paced environment of constant change and unforeseen challenges requires some special leadership abilities. Here are a few we look for:

  1. Creating order out of chaos. Leadership books often list ‘the ability to remain calm under pressure’, or ‘the ability to stay focused despite ambiguity’ as top qualities. These are great skills for any leader, and especially for the intrapreneur, who must not only stay calm in the face of chaos, but must have the ability to create the systems and methods to get things done to operate the business. And they usually must do so without someone handing them a recipe book or installing a pre-configured process or with the assistance of computer program. Designing and creating how a new venture creates products, acquires clients and services existing customers are a few of the potentially chaotic aspects of starting a new business. Having both the ability to conceptualize these solutions and also maintaining the tactical focus to successfully implement them is the mark of a top-notch candidate.
  2. Leading from the front. We’ve all heard the maxim, “Don’t ask your team to do anything that you wouldn’t do yourself.” Effective intrapreneurs take this to the next level. Not only should enterprise innovators not ask teams to do something that they wouldn’t or couldn’t do themselves, when we ask a team to do something we do it too, with them. We call this ‘leading from the front’. For example, if we aim to enter a new market, then the leader needs to go to that market and talk with prospective clients. If we are going to develop a new product, then the leader needs to get hands on exposure to the marketing research that describes the target client’s problem or need.
  3. Making decisions with inadequate information. A common leadership skill is making decisions with limited information, and this applies to the intrapreneur even more so. Limited budgets and small sets of initial clients make the data sets on which you make decisions smaller and less conclusive. At times an innovation leader will make decisions almost entirely on instinct or as they say, a ‘gut decision.’ Managing risk while also making rapid progress as an innovator means very quickly making a lot of small decisions with limited impact that can add up to a tremendous progress rather than making one or two enormous ones that set the company or product on a long-term trajectory that is hard to change. Creating new solutions is more like steering down a curvy back road with both hands on the wheel, not launching a cannonball into the wind that you can’t steer along the way.

Enjoy this article? Read our latest interviews with corporate innovation executives from Visa and Equifax.

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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.