Why would a company that rose to prominence based on its innovativeness abandon its lifeblood when the founder exists the building? There are many examples of this happening out there. However if they follow in the footsteps of the world’s ‘serial innovators,’ leadership can keep a company’s innovation flame lit without having to bring back the founding CEO.

Exhausted and battle-weary company founders are supposed to eventually travel off into the sunset. But the path they travel is often less linear than parabolic, as they find themselves riding back to reignite their creation’s innovative flame.

From crafts (Etsy) to investing (Charles Schwab), founding chief executives have ridden the circuitous route back to the C-suite after initially handing the management reins over to their successor. When pure-of-vision CEOs pick homes in which they’ll retire, it would seem prudent that they rent rather than buy.

This doesn’t need to be the case. Companies stalled in their innovation practices need not pin their hopes on their original architects sweeping in on white stallions to rescue them. Our research suggests that, while transitions away from a founder are hard, they can be managed with the right leadership.

Last month we wrote about a research project where we attempted to codify the DNA of highly innovative companies. We studied more than 60 organizations commonly considered vanguards within their fields, from which five emerged as “serial innovators.” These businesses all had a handful of characteristics in common, the first of which was the way their leadership empowered innovation.

Before we delve into how they accomplish this, let’s first explore why the need for a “Ride Back CEO” exists. Why would a company that rose to prominence based on its innovativeness abandon its lifeblood when the founder exists the building?

It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.

When Steve Jobs left Apple in 1985 (only to return 12 years later when it floundered), he said the company mistakenly prioritized “profits over products.”¹ Big companies have something small ones do not: turf to protect. Things start to happen more slowly. Elaborate processes are established, and decisions are made by committee. Big companies have quarterly numbers to hit and shareholder value to maintain, so they opt to extract value from existing products instead of creating new ones.

There’s a scene in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass in which the Red Queen, having just led a chase with Alice in which neither seems to have moved very far, explains to the confused girl, “It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.” It’s the paradox of the corporation that larger enterprises often under-perform despite increased resources and capacity.

Without variation, senior leadership sets the overarching vision for innovation activity, and preferably does so with fidelity to the company’s original culture. Our research indicates that for top executives to truly empower innovation, they must execute on these four steps:

  1. Set the vision and alignment for innovation: Leadership must communicate the envisioned end state for the journey, which is a breakthrough product or service fashioned from the bottom of the organization on up, and from the outside in. While they can’t conjure the seamless vision of a founder, great leaders can pull together something exhilarating by way of input from around the building (and often outside it). They should also articulate why an empowered workforce and customer base is the best way forward for all concerned. In the end, leadership aim for channeling individual brilliance into collective genius.
  1. Leadership sets goals unachievable under the current business model: Think President Kennedy saying that within 10 years the United States should land a man on the moon, or the top brass at Google proclaiming the company’s goal was to do no less than “organize the world’s information.” These clear, audacious goals inspire employees to innovate around a common purpose. Setting “unachievable goals” forces individuals and teams to fundamentally re-think their mental models for achieving an objective.
  1. Risk taking and experimentation are endorsed by leadership: Risk is the enabler of innovation. “Fast failure” in ideation and experimentation should be considered a positive event, as they eliminate possible solutions from contention. Leaders must get behind the streamlining of process for innovation and the removal of handoffs. They ensure the right decision makers have both the authority and accountability to maintain momentum.  This includes a willingness to eliminate zombie projects that linger around an organization, draining precious resources.
  1. Install a data-driven culture: Data creates a democracy of information, as decisions rely on something other than anecdotal evidence. As Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has said, “The great thing about fact-based decisions is they overrule the hierarchy.”²  The presence of data gives innovators the intestinal fortitude to make choices.

If leaders adhere to these four steps, they’ll be well on their way toward achieving what Jobs said he wanted to, namely leaving behind “a company that will stand for something a generation or two from now.”³

What is a seemingly impossible goal with which you could challenge your team?

 By Nathan Bull

[1] Source: Steve Jobs: An Autobiography. Cited by, “Steve Jobs: The Biggest Mistake Apple Made After I Left Was Focusing on Profits Instead Of Products,” Oct. 23, 2011.

[2] Source: Fast Company, “Inside The Mind of Jeff Bezos,” Aug. 1, 2004.

[3] Source: Steve Jobs: An Autobiography. Cited by “Will Apple Continue Its Dream Run Without Steve Jobs?” Jan. 7, 2012.


About the author

Nathan Bull is a Senior Executive in Accenture’s Operations Consulting practice, working with clients across both public and private sectors to help them establish repeatable processes for innovation.