Should You Blame Your CEO for Blocking Innovation? Or Is It You?

The CEO is the chief visionary, curating the culture and ensuring a balance of short-term execution with long-term strategy. Corporate culture creates an environment where the organization will commonly react to the tone and direction of the CEO. When it comes to growth and innovation, this can lead to generalizations such as: “My CEO is too conservative”, “Our CEO does not care about innovation or culture”, “We don’t have a very risk-tolerant CEO”, and “All our CEO cares about is short-term results in the business case.” These are common comments I hear when I speak to leaders and professionals in different companies. The question I then ask: Is your CEO really the obstacle to innovation or are you using them as an excuse?

Don’t get me wrong; there are CEO’s that just have innovation at the fabric of their DNA and some that don’t. At minimum, you need to believe that your CEO believes in the company vision and has a relentless focus on shareholder value. The disconnect organizations sometimes feel regarding the CEO’s attitude towards innovation is the natural tension CEO’s face in needing to focus on both long-term strategic vision and short-term executional results.

One common concern for innovators is that the CEO is only interested in short-term business results, which often leads to incremental and sub-optimal innovation. The relentless quarterly clock and the microscope under which companies reside does force an environment of low tolerance for missing short-term results. While this is a major gravitational pull of most organizations, both public and private, this does not mean that the CEO won’t have a longer-term focus as well.

A second concern is that business metrics do not always align with the time horizons and long-term view of truly disruptive innovation. The pursuit of financial metrics that appear to be short-term or the rigorous questions asked through business case development appear to not allow for any risk or belief in transformative ideas can be frustrating. The reality is that your leadership is looking for you to translate long-term innovation in a way that makes it compelling for the CEO to champion it with conviction to the rest of the company and its investors.

You need to push the frustration aside and ask yourself, is your CEO the inhibitor to innovation, or are you just using them as an excuse to not take on risk as an innovator, and drive meaningful discussions about long-term growth.

The role of a CEO for any company is grounded in the reality of the circumstances they are leading. Perhaps they send signals that they are inhibiting innovation but is that true? What if you took the approach that your role is not only to make innovation real in your company but also to make your CEO an innovation hero?

As a leader of innovation or transformation in your company, you are one of a very short-list of people that are paid exclusively to think long-term and in disruptive terms about the future of your company and its path for growth. Your CEO is relying on you to do so even if it feels they are not. Take the perspective of making your CEO (or any senior leader) an innovation hero and do the following to chart a path for success:

Start by taking a baseline of your reality of your situation and the environment that your company and your CEO must navigate. This includes understanding the financial realities of your business, the structure of your markets, the dynamics of your investors and the culture of your company. Understanding this not only is necessary for you to do your job as a corporate innovator but better prepare you how to be aligned with how to translate long-term innovation strategy into consumable sort-term metrics.

Think big, long-term and disruptive because your job is to help the CEO understand the value of innovation! Regardless of the size of the function, you are being paid to think long-term, innovate AND make a tangible impact. It is indeed hard work, though the work will look different from the tasks required to make short-term numbers. You need to embrace the reality that part of your job is to look beyond the short-term pressures that every company has and look around corners and enable the company’s long-term growth or transformation.

Embrace the governance process for your company and make it work for you. While over time you may transform processes to accelerate more transformative ideas, in the short-term you need to embrace the tollgates, business cases or other mechanisms and make them work for you. Think about how to make the most disruptive of strategies into “consumable” concepts that will flow within the mechanisms of your company. Be a champion for your function, and recognize that change may not happen overnight, or with one conversation. When you do so, you are forcing debate and action and that is how you get the company to move and your CEO to engage.

Concurrent to making the governance process work for you is to prove value and show conviction in your business cases and concepts. Innovation is not easy and I believe that the best ideas get better under pressure. I’ve had many CEO’s tell me that no matter what the business case process may be, they are ultimately looking for what value is the idea going to provide, how does it advance the strategy of the company and the conviction and passion of the leaders sponsoring the idea. This is where you, as a leader of innovation, need to show your conviction by making it tangible and real for your leadership. Even if the short-term economics of your concept don’t meet the hurdle but the long-term value makes strategic sense, you need to prove this value and show your conviction. Your CEO is looking at your commitment and confidence to make these long-term strategic investments.

You also need to take personal risk and this is where you need to look in the mirror and understand if you have the DNA to drive corporate innovation. Put yourself and your function in a place where you are ready to make commitments that make it into the operating mechanisms of your company. You need to be on the same side of the table of your CEO relative to the success or failure of the company. If you are not ready to risk your compensation or career for what you are advocating, why should your CEO?

You will have situations where your CEO or leadership is just not aligned with where you are trying to take them or they have misaligned motivations. This is why CEO and leadership alignment is critical when launching an innovation program. So be sure you have alignment and then don’t shift blame. Embrace the reality and the risk and be the innovation leader that your CEO needs.

This article was originally published on Enterprise Innovation, a leading publication for corporate innovation profiles, news and guidance.