After the Shark Tank: BNY Mellon on Broadening Innovation Impact

By Kelsey Alpaio |  May 19, 2017

On ABC’s hit reality show “Shark Tank,” aspiring entrepreneurs vie for investment from a panel of industry “sharks.”

The Bank of New York Mellon, the global banking and financial services firm, runs a “Shark Tank” of its own. But instead of investors like Barbara Corcoran and Mark Cuban, BNY’s judges are selected from the company’s pool of senior leaders. They may be little-known outside of the company, but for the employees who participate, getting face time with them is a big deal.

BNY Mellon’s program is called A.C.E., for “accelerate, collaborate, execute.” “You’ve got senior leaders running business lines who are listening to pitches from employees who they may have never met,” says Adetola Abiade, Director of Global Innovation for the Americas at BNY Mellon. “[They’re] asking them questions, asking them about financials, asking them about concepts, asking them about the assumptions. ‘Is this a real problem? Why do you think this is a client need? How do you think BNY Mellon is going to make money?’ [The employees are] addressing all kinds of VC-style questions in real time.”

When Abiade moved into her current role in 2012, her main mission was to drive innovation engagement across the company, and to create a network of innovation champions. (BNY Mellon can trace its roots back to 1784, when it was founded by Alexander Hamilton.) One of the first projects she designed to pursue those goals was A.C.E. But Abiade says that the importance of innovation in BNY Mellon’s culture extends beyond events like the internal “Shark Tank.”

“We focus a lot on culture, and on collaboration around teams,” she says.

Abiade spoke with InnoLead to explain how her team is using coaching, equity incentives, and metrics to extend their innovation impact beyond the A.C.E. program.

How Innovation is Structured at BNY Mellon

I feel like the whole firm is our innovation team, because of the way it operates…The global innovation effort, prior to where I sit today, used to sit under the office of the president. Over the last year, there was a concerted effort to take global innovation, that culture and employee engagement piece, and marry it to the technology organization, where there has been a lot of great transformation around… digitizing and growth as an organization.

I sit right now within our client technology solutions organization. There are innovation leads who manage innovation centers around the globe, and I sit on a team with them as a peer network… I help to take the employee engagement effort and thread what I’m doing through the centers and support them.

[Innovation] really needs to be a culture that we cultivate in a lot of locations. Right now we have nine innovation centers that help to do that…

What’s really nice is that each of those centers has a theme, or an area of specialty, that really helps to set them apart and aligns them to the corporate strategy. For example, in London, the innovation center team is focused on client co-creation. How do we work with our clients, how do we think about digital, how do we think about the technology experience and the business experience, and improving that?

Why Run a “Shark Tank?”

When I started on the team back in 2012, one of the first projects I got was helping to shepherd the “Shark Tank” program, A.C.E (accelerate, collaborate, execute)…

[Some of the questions we thought it could address included things like] how do we identify the talent that helps to drive innovation? How do we identify the people who are touching the pain points and seeing the operations first hand? How do we get their voices included into the transformation? You have the executives who sit at one level, but you don’t get to everybody at the bottom of the food chain. It’s the only way that you can hear everyone’s voice.

We were able to democratize this innovation process by creating this competition…People could have some fun. We set it up in almost an NCAA format.

To give you an example of how it would work: On March 13th, we launched our fourth generation of A.C.E., and we give a four-week idea submission period, where employees are asked to submit business cases addressing a particular set of business challenges that have been put forth by our executive committee…

You have the prompt, you have the questions, and then employees will read those, and then they’ll have four weeks to submit. They’re working together with peers and colleagues trying to figure out what’s the best way to go about it…

After the [idea] stage is done, they go to a semifinal round, and a regional final round, and in each of those rounds, the employees will pitch their solution in five minutes. That’s all they get.

It’s a strictly timed segment — a five minute pitch and a five minute Q&A. Judges who are selected to listen to those pitches during those two rounds are actually from the top 200 pool of organization [leaders] worldwide.

You’ve got senior leaders running business lines who are listening to pitches from employees who they may have never met. “Is this a real problem? Why do you think this is a client need? How do you think BNY Mellon is going to make money?” They’re addressing all kinds of VC-style questions in real time…

Then the judges, after each of these pitch rounds… they are talking about the validity of the use cases amongst each other. As they’re learning insights from the pitches, they’re actually saying, “Wow, this is something that’s really neat. We might be able to use this in the business.”

You get to see this ecosystem of inclusion, and knowledge-sharing happening, whether people win or lose.

This year, we’ve secured a two-month incubation period [for winning ideas], where we’re going to take people through agile development, [and] design thinking methodologies, and get them in front of the various committees… If you’re pitching a big idea, you have to go in front of risk, legal, and compliance.

We’re creating time for the teams — the top eight teams that make it to the end — to go through this vetting process, to practice, and build the prototype….You coach them through that process, and then on September 28th, at the end of the seven-month cycle, the top eight teams will pitch their ideas to our CEO, and members of his direct report team.

That is [live-streamed internally using Adobe Connect]. What’s cool is that we secure rooms around the world in various cities [for employees to watch]. You have people staying up in all time zones, rooting for their colleagues… It creates a fun element to say, “OK, this is what success looks like. This is what pitching an idea looks like, and this is the training and the behavior that you need to model…”

Engaging and Coaching Participants

During the four-week [idea generation] period, we are also [providing] tools, templates, and programs to support people to think differently…We’re delivering design thinking sessions in person around the world, so people can come in and get introduced to the methodologies. If they’re not really sure how to get started, teaching them those concepts in terms of the key phases of empathy, and all those things that help to spark thought, they’re getting that in real-time.

What you’re doing is, you’re exposing new concepts to people who may not have thought that design thinking matters to them in their job, or was relevant to them. We’re hosting these sessions in the innovation centers.

I’ve also launched this new podcast series to help find a way to get insight from people who have knowledge about certain topics. There is a gentleman who’s an innovation champion by coincidence, and I’ve used him as a subject matter expert to talk about our NEXEN platform, which is literally digitizing all the services that BNY Mellon provides…

We’re having conversations, kind of NPR-style, low-key and informal, to help people understand complicated things using these podcasts. I’ve put together five of those to help with some information. We have something on agile, we have a design thinking crash course podcast, and we have two on our NEXEN digital transformation…

In addition to the podcasts, we have also released “where are they now?” articles. If you think about a Cosmo-style article where you’re asking, “What was your inspiration for that winning idea? What was the biggest challenge? What’s the greatest lesson? Where’s the status of your winning idea today?” We did profiles on each of the three winning teams dating back to 2013, to give current state progress of where they are today, and pearls of wisdom for what people participating in the fourth edition need to think about to get to the finish line…

Everybody wants to get that exposure. It’s about showcasing our best people, and making sure our leaders see, “There’s an employee sitting in India who, he may be a new hire, only at the firm six months, but wow — he’s really helped us generate revenue based on this idea.”

Creating an Equity Incentive

There are cash incentives for A.C.E…The top winner gets a maximum of $25,000 per person, and then it’s a cap of $100,000 per team…There are incentives that we have for first place, runners-up, and then we also have a “cool award” tied to A.C.E., where it’s an audience favorite. As the top eight teams are pitching, we open up our idea platform, “My Idea,” and we actually create a live poll. We allow employees in real-time to vote on their favorite idea, regardless of if it wins. A week after the real winner is named, we then reveal who the audience favorite is, and those people get $2,500…

We also have an incentive program for A.C.E. where the winners, once the idea is implemented, are eligible for stock and incentives up to 10 percent of the value of the idea after the third year. That’s an equity award.

That’s a big deal, because you want to make sure that people aren’t just going to pitch at A.C.E., and then walk away saying, “Hey! Thanks for playing, I’m going to drop the idea.” They’re doing their day jobs full-time, plus they’re shepherding their A.C.E. idea, updating the executive committee every six months or on-demand, as needed.

They’re responsible for driving the ideas throughout the business lines. They deserve that percentage up to the third year of the idea going live…

A lot of employees will tell you it’s not the money that’s the driver. It’s the fact that they’re getting the global exposure. Their ideas, to get implemented, have to go to senior leadership of that business line. Their names are coming up in conversation in meetings, and they’re being asked to present and pitch their ideas…

We have a lot of people who are getting that type of credit from a professional development perspective and a career perspective that has nothing to do with money. That, to me, has been the biggest takeaway from this innovation program.

Measuring Involvement

We have a corporate strategy that everybody understands. It’s well-articulated. It’s what we align our performance management documents to.

When you’re talking and thinking about what you’re going to do for the year, what your impact is, it’s aligned to that. When that trickles down, it’s easier to have a conversation about how you need to think about innovation.

Success is also how they’re collaborating. We’re changing the way people collaborate, because we want to make sure that people understand you can’t innovate alone…

A lot of the successes that we share, we share with the [whole] firm. We write articles. We have blogs. We have all kinds of exposure opportunities for employees to get the credit, and we copy their managers [in e-mails] on a lot of the successes. If somebody gets an award, we let their manager know…People managers, the 9,000 that we have in our company, realize that this isn’t some “nice to do.” Your employees are actually engaged.

We also have a dashboard. We have this thing called “My Dashboard,” where you can actually measure all kinds of metrics around your team…We created a new lever in there around innovation, to show how many people on your team have submitted an idea to the portal… How many people in your team have submitted to a campaign like A.C.E.? What regions are innovating the most? What locations? What cities? There’s a lot of data there that’s helping the culture piece [of the] conversation.

Obviously, as the ideas get implemented, the businesses will track the ROI. That doesn’t get centralized in my office or on one team. We have to have metrics that are embraced by the business to make sure that everything is above board before we recognize people, because the measurement and the impact does matter.

More than Just a Program

A.C.E. is an event, but it’s not meant to be the one thing that demonstrates innovation. That’s what we work against.

We don’t want people holding ideas just for the competition, and thinking that’s it. We focus a lot on culture, and on collaboration around teams. We focus on getting better…[We] don’t look at [innovation] as the special thing. That’s why we don’t want it to be event-focused. It has to be process-focused.

We have to make our clients see us as innovative…We make sure in our client surveys, we have questions about innovation. How are we perceived?

This is why changing the way people work is the bigger deal when it comes to innovation. Because, when you get it into those different layers of marketing and how we articulate the value of what we do, we’re teaching people about how to talk about KPIs…We’re making sure that we’re arming our people with the right knowledge to make sure that we’re acting innovative, thinking innovative, and practicing what we preach in that area.

To download a PDF that provides an overview of BNY Mellon’s innovation centers, visit our Resource Center.