Trust: The Root of Sustainable Innovation for Successful CEOs

By Olivia Keller, SmartOrg |  June 20, 2023

As an innovation professional, the last thing I want to do is introduce another panacea of a metric or methodology when there’s already an overwhelming amount of information out there.  I’ve felt and seen how frustrating it is to become lost in a sea of context-less case studies and flavor-of-the-month solutions. Case studies alone can’t be used as proof that an innovation initiative will work for you just because they resemble your business.

Let’s now think of innovation strategy not as an idolized solution, but as a foundation built on trust. Trust between your idea of growth and the people, who if valued, will be as passionate as you are to manifest the vision laid out. It’s in centering trust at the root that allows CEOs to generate resilient growth for their innovation strategy.

Olivia Keller, Innovation Associate and Product Manager, Smart Org

For the CEO, the onus of success is built on the trust between your employees and your leadership. I invite you to embrace that employee trust is one of the most valuable outcomes produced during innovation strategy. It’s in building trust between leaders and employees that the roots of innovation strategy set themselves up for sustainable, resilient growth. This goes beyond fair salary packages and benefits that ensure an essential level of productivity and keep the company afloat. It’s a long-term investment with delayed rewards, but it’s crucial to the effectiveness of the strategy and resilience of the innovation culture you build to set your company apart from the menagerie of competitors.

A present CEO may not have enough time to rebuild broken trust. That is certainly true of former JCPenney CEO Ron Johnson. Hailing from Apple with a promise to revitalize the struggling retail giant, he left with a reputation for morale-killing inflexibility and making veteran employees feel small. He had real insights about the firm, but his initiatives were out of touch with organizational knowledge and stakeholder evidence. Johnson was fired after just 17 months on the job, having overseen a $4 billion loss in sales and a plummeting stock price. 

Meanwhile, Cynthia Williams, current CEO of Hasbro brand Wizards of the Coast, jeopardized company confidence in a gambit to increase monetization. The consequence has been a whirlwind of scandal: leaked strategic documents, depressed morale and productivity, and enough product boycotts and cancelations from long-term customers to crash the product site as customers fled en masse to a lead competitor site (crashing theirs too). That’s enough drama for a Netflix documentary.

These are cautionary tales about the risks of uncompromising commitment to a solution, and the inability to recognize the human leadership necessary in designing strategy that makes sense for your company.

Your employees are not looking for you to be the visionary originator of the solution, but trusting that you’re the best person to continuously define and target the problem.

As a strategic consultant, a mentee, and a firm member with direct CEO visibility, I’m confident in saying that your employees are not looking for you to be the visionary originator of the solution, but trusting that you’re the best person to continuously define and target the problem. A CEO will devote their attention to gathering facts that inform problem definition and represents organizational expertise, ultimately deciding where to play and how to grow. The visible incorporation of your people’s knowledge into insights that feed those decisions helps further trust in the CEO’s vision and lays the foundation for an innovation culture employees feel enabled to contribute to.

A forward-thinking CEO presents a strategy and leaves room for flexibility. An inflexible strategy leads to loss of trust, because it fails to react to the data and lived insights of your people and market. Are you going to believe so deeply in the expected outcomes of your initiatives that you neglect to continuously learn about the problem? A flexible strategy develops trust by first being aware whether evidence validates the strategy’s problem-solution fit and then creating decision quality control for strategy course-correction.

 Here are some questions to get on that path:

  • What specific communication points have you scheduled that will let you apply learnings and make course corrections?
  • How will the measures you’ve chosen tell you if you’re solving the problem the way you intend, beyond financial outcome metrics?
  • To what extent has the impact and priority of highlighted issues been backed by evidence?
  • What evidence do you have to support the assumptions and hypotheses from the problem definition?

By embracing the premise that employee trust is the root of sustainable innovation strategy and resilient culture, your strategy becomes a living part of your organization, a testament to your ability to lead and solve problems.


Olivia Keller

Olivia Keller is an Innovation Associate and Product Manager at SmartOrg, which provides software and services for innovation and portfolio management.