May 15, 2018

Interviewed by Aqueb Safwan

One of the most sought-after thought leaders of recent times, Robert C. Wolcott is a Clinical Professor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the Kellogg School of Management, and the Co-founder and Executive Director of Kellogg Innovation Network. At the recently held Leadership Summit, Prof. Wolcott presented an exclusive keynote on Global Innovation Model.

Serving as the Advisor of Nordic Innovation Center, Prof. Wolcott has worked on the growth aspects of entrepreneurship and innovation. With experience of over 15 years, Prof. Wolcott has been developing innovative growth strategies with global startups in diverse industries. He also works as a Digital Advisor at a German global industrial enterprise called ZF, as well as in the leading digital innovation ecosystem in Italy called H-Farm.

Prof. Wolcott contributes regularly in Forbes, discussing the impacts of technology in different sectors of business and society. His works have been featured in numerous global publications, such as MIT Sloan Management Review, The Harvard Business Review, The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, The New York Times to name a few.

Bangladesh Brand Forum had Prof. Wolcott sitting for this exclusive interview discussing on the concept of “Innovation”.

Bangladesh Brand Forum: Human species have always been evolving with ideas. Why is the word ‘innovation’ so highlighted these days? What is different now?

Prof. Wolcott: I’d say the word “innovation” is probably overused today; however, it has always been essential. Why does it feel more present today? It is because the pace of change is faster and change can happen anywhere, come from anywhere. In the past, you could be on a trajectory for 20-30 years and see a significant amount of success, but these days if you imagine being on the same trajectory over 20-30 years, at some point you will be out of business. I think the pace has changed, the diversity has changed. The volatility of the market requires us to be more innovative and to seek new approaches to what we already do. It requires us to seek new ways of adding values which, perhaps, the customers didn’t even know they needed.

How could leadership encourage innovation in any organization?

First of all, innovation is both an organization’s top down and bottom up. You really cannot think of it as one or the other, you have to think of it as both. How do they fit together? Well, I did a study on senior leadership and innovation where I found four factors that were critical for the top management of any organization to help them drive innovation. First, ‘set the strategic frame’, which means what kind of company you want to create in the future? What kind of business do you want to be in 3-10 years? Is it really an incremental difference from where you are today or something new and transformative? Then, you set the strategic frame that is big enough for your organization to explore and find new paths you did not know existed. The frame should also be focused enough that people aren’t just fussing out and achieving nothing. The second factor is ‘showing commitment’, this generally means showing up. If a leader says, “we are all about innovation, everybody should go innovate”, but it is never on the weekly staff meeting agenda, then people in the organization understand that the leaders are not really serious. The third factor for senior leadership is to ‘provide support’. The most limited resource of any organization is not capital, it is the attention of your best people. If you put your very best people on innovation efforts than everyone else in the company recognizes that you are serious. Otherwise, you are going to get what you pay for. And the fourth factor, often the most difficult one especially for very successful entrepreneurs and CEOs, is ‘getting out of the way.’ If you become a CEO or senior leader you got there by being really good at what you did before, so sometimes it’s hard to give that up, to give the license, ability or freedom to your people to take the lead on things to take things in new directions and maybe you were not as involved as you were in the past. However, if you want an organization to grow, a team to thrive, you have to give the opportunity to strike out and succeed with your support instead of you in the middle of it all the time.

What is Leadership, in your opinion? What are some of the must-have characteristics of a leader?

This is a very big question, but I’d say more than anything else, a leader is someone helping others be better than they can be alone. In fact, a great leader understands that they cannot do everything themselves. They must be a servant of the organization that they are bringing together, they must be leading from the front and behind to help support others to be the best they can possibly be. Hopefully in some cases, to perform what they might have expected. I’d say a critical characteristic of any leader, and this is from my colleague Harry M Kraemer (Former CEO, Baxter International), is true self-confidence. In his definition, it means a confidence combined with humility, confidence that says I am going to go out, and together we are going to make great things happen, but I can’t do it alone. A confidence that says we are going to make great things happen but I am humble enough to know we will face challenges, I am not going to have all the answers but we’ll figure it out. So this notion of confidence and humility really is an essential component of great leadership.

I think a quality every leader should have is the combination of confidence and vision, as well as humility and empathy. These are all very complex concept but when they all come together in the same person, it creates a powerful motivating force; a force for perseverance.

How would you describe your leadership style?

As a Professor, I never consider myself a leader per se. As the co-founder of the Kellogg Innovation, I see my role as convening people, bringing them together, connecting them to each other to discover their own missions. And then to share and pursue their own mission. So less than a leader I consider myself more of a convener, motivator or connector.

How do you encourage creative thinking within your organization?

There are many ways to encourage creativity, but what I find most effective is to ask people to share their own stories. The reason is when people share their own personal or professional stories they are connected with it, and others can identify with that. That sparks ideas within other people when they are trying to figure out their own challenges. It also activates people, makes them more invested and empathetic. I don’t think we do enough sharing of who we are personally or are enough empathetic. So asking people to share stories directs connections; it allows others to connect and generate new paths.

Tell us something about Kellogg Innovation Network. What are some of its future plans?

At the Kellogg Innovation Network what we wanted to do was bringing non-competing companies together to talk about their innovations and growth challenges. This worked well. In the session of 1.0, 50-60 people came together in a room working with each other. Then the 2.0 brought people from government, nonprofit sectors, academia, defense, corporate leaders, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists. Here, everybody gained from the cross-sector exchange of knowledge. Then we started to expand globally, where every year at our annual event in Chicago, delegates fly in from 25 countries; including Bangladesh in fact. We have now created The World Innovation Network or TWIN. The reason for a TWIN is that over the 8-9 years we have had more and more of our friends and affiliates around the world create their own organization within their own regions and countries. For instance, in Japan Innovation Network in Tokyo, they have created their own organization, very well established now but closely we work together. They always come for our summit “Twin Global”. This year in “Twin Global” we will explore the future, more importantly, we will connect and nurture the communities of innovations and growth leaders globally. The world innovation network reflects the fact that, there are people all over the world who want to have an ongoing connection with this trusted network. Thus, we will have expansion in places like Finland, Columbia, we’ve had very good representation from India, also increasingly from Bangladesh.

How important do you think initiatives like Leadership Summit is for grooming future leaders?

Events like the leadership summit are essential. Not so much because of the topics or the keynote speakers that fly from different parts of the world, but the most important thing is a personal relationship of trust. It is the least recognized and most important ingredient in making innovation and entrepreneurship happen. What I mean is, if we have never met before and I come with new ideas to you, you will find me crazy. On the other hand, if we work together, trust each other and then I approach you with a crazy idea, you’ll say, “Rob it’s a crazy idea but I know you are not crazy, so let’s sit and talk about it.” So, for not just aspiring leaders but leaders at the top of their games coming to a program like this, is essential because of the opportunity to connect with others that have complementary missions to build, initiate and nurture trust and relations. It is because of these things we’re able to make a big thing happen in this world.

What would be your advice to the future leaders?

Find what’s inside of you; build and express as much as you possibly can. Seek others who have a complementary mission, whenever you can help them discover and pursue their missions. The more you give an intelligent path to others, the more you get in return, of course in time. It is a few thousand years of heritage that suggests, that the karma you generate by giving, returns to you in multiple ways.

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