Concrete Advice on Improving Alignment with Your C-suite

By Scott Kirsner |  February 15, 2023
A short 8-minute excerpt of the conversation, which you can play in its entirety below.

We convened a discussion on LinkedIn audio earlier this month to share concrete tips for getting innovation projects aligned with C-suite leaders. The discussion grew out of Rachel Antalek’s recent InnoLead piece, “5 Techniques to Get Aligned — and Stay Aligned —with Your C-suite.

The speakers included Antalek, former VP of Concept Innovation at Starbucks and Founder of Antalek Strategic Innovation Partners; Jill Lawrence, VP of Design at Crown Equipment Corp.; Steve Kaufer, Co-Founder and former CEO of TripAdvisor; and Robert Erman, a Senior Vice President and GM at Broadridge. Below are nine concrete pieces of advice they shared during the conversation. The full audio is below.

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1. Balancing Appreciation for Innovation and for Operations

Steve Kaufer: I’d always wanted to convey during our quarterly or annual company kickoff meetings, the notion that we’ve got a great business serving millions of customers, they expect certain things from us. But it was our job to also spend some of our time trying to invent the future.

Steve Kaufer, Co-Founder, TripAdvisor

And I would say that for a couple of audiences. One [was] the folks that might have an idea anywhere in your organization, and I wanted them to raise their hand… I wanted to give permission for people to think big, and be able to explain to their report or to their manager, that they needed some time to be able to think about what…direction the company could take in a couple of years that would be meaningful.

It was always a challenge to prevent it from devolving to, “Well, I think we should add this feature or that feature…” But in that kind of very public forum, I would do my best to praise the work that we’re doing to service our customers today. And remind folks and egg folks on to be thinking about how our whole business should be different. In a couple of years, we needed to lay the seeds.

I found that having the CEO up on stage and the C-suite be giving that focus, that spotlight, on the things that aren’t the big needle-movers today was very helpful in kind of building the organizational culture [and] emphasis on that kind of constant innovation.

Last point: the couple of times where I forgot, or where I didn’t pay enough attention to the core of the business, and was only talking about the future thing that we were doing because I personally was just so excited about it, I got a lot of flack for, “Hey, Steve, you’ve got to remember, 80 percent of the company is not working on that new exciting thing. And we need to feel important, too.” Message to any leaders out there: it is a balance. It’s fine to be very excited about both. Don’t forget either part of those two constituents.

2. Business Needs to Have Skin in the Game — and to Participate

Jill Lawrence, VP of Design, Crown Equipment

Jill Lawrence: All the instances that I can think of where we had success in an innovation effort was when senior leaders either personally were involved, or they had identified key people from their team who were participating with us — whether that participation was in visiting customers [or] in evaluating or shaping the ideas that were being generated. It’s almost cliché to say, the business needs to have skin in the game. But I think they really do — they need to have skin in the game, and that can come in the form of financial investment. But I think it’s even more meaningful when it’s personal participation.

3. Have North Star Conversations, But Deliver Near-Term Outcomes

Robert Erman: At the CEO level, what’s the north star? How does innovation take us, in a five-year [period], towards our long-term horizon of where we want to be?… Sometimes those include some moonshots and some bets. But the best way that I find to get to success on innovation, is also to have what I’ll call accelerated outcomes — nearer-term wins, where you can take the north star, but show a demonstrable outcome, either to your clients, or to the business, on how some of those learnings fall into place.

If you don’t have those near-term outcomes, what can happen is what I’ll call ‘corporate exhaustion…’

…If you don’t have those near-term outcomes, what can happen is what I’ll call “corporate exhaustion,” right? You get into the innovation. And at some point, they’re saying, “Show me the money, show me the savings, show me the business benefits.” And I think sometimes people get too much into the strategy. And the execution is where I tend to focus. Because I think that’s where you keep the momentum going.

The way that I always tried to test the dedication of the executive suite to something is by testing certain outcomes, and making sure that they’re aligned, and that they agree that that’s adding value… You definitely need to have those consistent touch points. And I think you need to demonstrate value. You always have to figure out how the story is going to unfold. And if at any time somebody comes to you and says, “Hey, my patience is running out, where are you right now?” You need to have readily at your disposal, some sort of value proposition of where you are. One of the things that I found, especially with technologists, they really like to keep things in the dark until they’re ready to show it, and sometimes they missed the window by which somebody wanted to see an outcome. That’s where I’ve seen things go astray.

4. Get Customer Feedback Sooner, Rather than Later

Steve Kaufer: I’ve certainly seen a number of projects where the company is genuinely excited about this new thing that’s coming. And the engineering [and] the product teams, they’re putting their heart [and] soul into building something that’s going to be sustainable, it’s going to be great; it’s got a solid foundation; it’s going to be [able to handle] the future. It’s code and a tech stack that that they’re going to be proud of. And I’m sitting at the top saying, “Yeah, that’s all well and good. But darn it, I gotta get something out. And I want to get it out in three months, so that I can prove to myself first, and then all the rest of my stakeholders that that this thing has legs.” I personally have an engineering background; I can appreciate the wanting to build a solid foundation. But getting that first bit of customer reaction, getting that first “lessons learned” for the big new initiative [is important.]

I want a roadmap that shows results that are helpful to the business in three months. And then three months after that, and then three months after that…

[For my next company,] even for those new initiatives, I want a roadmap that shows results that are helpful to the business in three months. And then three months after that, and then three months after that — even for the projects that aren’t going to be needle-movers for a couple of years. I really want to make sure the whole company can see the progress, and that we can pivot really early on if we’re not seeing what we’d expect.

…When you want to talk about some of the toughest things I faced, it was getting the organization to be willing to make those trade-offs. Because the criticism would often come back, “Oh, you just want to hack it together,” or, “Oh, you just want to put some junk out there and see what happens.”  Of course, it’s going to take longer to get to your full endgame if you have these milestones every three months. But the benefit, I argue and believe in strongly, is that you get to get your first set of customer feedback, which invariably changes the product. And that’s a great thing, not a disappointment.

Jill Lawrence: I think that the danger can be showing activity for the sake of activity. There needs to be some real thought into… the cornerstone assumptions that the new initiative is founded on. And how can you test those assumptions early, in order to really de-risk what it is that you’re doing? Sometimes, there’s a tendency to do what’s easiest, or maybe what seems most obvious as a first step. But I’ve seen a lot of success when teams take a step back and say, “What’s the fundamental assumption that that success is going to be grounded on? And then how do we test that assumption?”

5. Keep Expenses Low

Rachel Antalek: Like it or not, you have to behave like you’re a startup. You really need to kind of sing for your supper. For me, that worked on a quarterly basis… you’ve got to say, “Hey, look, here’s where we are, here’s what we know, here’s what we’re hoping to learn, here’s how we’re going to spend the budget to learn those things, and here’s what you should expect from us in three months from now.”  

Rachel Antalek, former VP of Concept Innovation at Starbucks and Founder of Antalek Strategic Innovation Partners

…You’re often sitting in a space where, regardless of how much alignment there is, other business units look at you and say, “My gosh, I could use those funds, I could use those people.” So you’ve got to balance confidentiality and things that may need to be IP protected, but at the same time, you’ve got to show enough of at least what you’re learning and what the organization can take from what you’re doing.

When we first set up what they now call the Tryer [Center] at Starbucks, we were in a garage. We spent under $30,000 getting this garage. We barely had HVAC. One of the guys on the team had this brilliant idea of like, let’s just get fabric to stretch over whiteboards that looked like a Starbucks store. When we put that backdrop up, and then we [added] the cardboard and the wires, light bulbs went off. We can envision so much as innovators. But the rest of the organization can’t always, right? And so how do you bring it to life?

There’s another example I’m thinking of well beyond cardboard… [With a client of mine,] we actually built something in an environment where we needed to sell into a retail client. We physically built a grocery department, and then [Matt Mueller] had this brilliant idea that not only would we walk these retailers through the environment, but we’d sit them down at a conference table, and we talk about all the consumer problems we were solving. And we would share the monetization of what [the result] would look like for them. [Matt] had this great idea, and we did it on a grocery store register receipt, right? So [we] added it all up, and then handed them a receipt of what we thought it would mean to them… Just that ability to put ourselves in their world, there was one instance where a major retailer CEO went through all of this with us. And a week later, he had his had his C-suite on a plane to see what we were doing.

6. Let it Become the Executive Team’s Idea

Jill Lawrence: I think that what we’re often trying to do is help create a context where the executive team can have their own a-ha moment. As the innovation team, we’re passionate, we have ideas, we’re already committed to the idea — but you need to walk them through it, and let it become their idea, give them their aha moment… We’ve taken a lot from theories of adult learning. Your C-suite, your executive team, you’re taking them on a learning journey. The lightbulb has to go on for them. And I think that’s when you can really be the most successful, and build that momentum.

7. Back Up Storytelling with Data

Steve Kaufer: I love that technique of making it feel like it’s their idea. It doesn’t always work. I don’t particularly personally care whether I think it’s my idea, or someone else’s, but it is just human psychology to get any individual to be excited about it, for the reasons they think are their own.

I think I’m all about that story of how the user is going to appreciate whatever this new innovation is. And then I just want some numbers behind it. Like, is this going to be useful to three percent of our audience, or 30 percent of our audience?

To the broader point of storytelling, like, I hate it when people come into my office and say, “Hey, we want to do feature x, y, and z.” I’m like, “Come on, tell me how a traveler on our site is going to want this, is going to find it, is going to be excited about it.” I think I’m all about that story of how the user is going to appreciate whatever this new innovation is. And then I just want some numbers behind it. Like, is this going to be useful to three percent of our audience, or 30 percent of our audience? The story is also blended with, if you buy into this being a valuable service to the customer, here’s how big the market is, here’s how we think we’d monetize. Again, I’m thinking in TripAdvisor terms, but like, after I buy into the idea, what’s the net outcome in a few years that that would get me excited to push for funding for [it]?

Robert Erman: I remember one situation where I pitched an idea. And I saw a line-of-sight to half a billion dollars. It was a fairly large organization. And I remember, one of the very senior executives at the time was, like, “Rob, we really need to find something that’s billions of dollars.” From my perspective, you’re always better off finding tangible results that you know you can achieve, than creating things [in] an addressable space that [are] eye-popping. I think you have to show demonstrable outcomes. Because if you don’t, the budget and everything can really dwarf your hope for innovation. What I’ve always found to work is that if you could have a practical business plan, and practical business outcomes, you’ll probably have a much better chance of actually succeeding, than if you get too grandiose.

8. Go on a C-suite “Listening Tour”

Rachel Antalek: You have to go on a listening tour, and really listen deeply to — particularly those who are not accountable for innovation — what’s on their mind, what are they worried about? What are they worried about this year? What are they worried about three years from now? Not only is it a great learning, and helps with the alignment piece of it, but it also it lays out for you what the challenges and the blind spots and the constraints will be. I always found, and I think my teams always found, that knowing those constraints up front, and building those into design and really thinking about how do we not sacrifice the essence of what we’re trying to do for the consumer, while at the same time doing something additive that somebody in the business as has asked for — [that’s a] super-creative challenge for the team, and usually created a stronger innovation at the end of the day. So really digging in and listening to what people are worried about in the C-suite, we found to be invaluable.

9. Be Humble, and Never Stop Recruiting Supporters

Jill Lawrence: Innovators as a breed, we can sometimes get a little bit arrogant, we can sometimes think we have the right answer for the company. And you really need to straddle the distance between challenging the organization, and listening to the organization.

Sometimes, we get so passionate in our convictions, that we’re not playing nice with others in a very distributed organization…

Robert Erman: Sometimes, we get so passionate in our convictions, that we’re not playing nice with others in a very distributed organization, with lots of matrices and technology organizations and business organizations and marketing organizations. It is really important to create community, and bring everyone together and get them to sponsor and prop you up. Trying to go it alone, if you are part of an organization, is a fool’s errand. You really have to find that marketing edge, and how you get people to support you, and we keep going back to this, but either be patient or drive you for nearer-term outcomes, because that’s what the organization needs.

Listen to the complete 56 minute conversation by clicking “play” below, or download the MP3 file for later listening.

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