Business and Markets

Don’t Look Back: Advice from CEOs on Leading Through Change

October 4, 2016  • Carolyn Zelikow

Key Points

  • Four CEOs and leaders discuss leading through innovation, and offer three lessons for staying ahead of the curve in global commerce.

Taking charge of a company that is on the cutting-edge of innovations in its field can be daunting. As part of Aspen Across America, four CEOs and leaders from a diverse range of industries discussed “leading innovation” – and through the course of the conversation, one message became clear. Change is on the way, and the companies and nations that do not lead change face a future where innovation destroys more than it creates.

Walter Isaacson, CEO of the Aspen Institute, led a conversation with Muhtar Kent, president and CEO of Coca-Cola; Craig Menear, CEO of Home Depot; Jonah Peretti, founder and CEO of BuzzFeed; and Greg Coleman, president of BuzzFeed; who gave three lessons for staying ahead of the curve in global commerce – along with an overview of how they view technology as disrupting their fields.

  1. Learn from without, lead from within. Truly innovative ideas never come from corporate headquarters, said Kent, describing Coca-Cola’s innovation labs in Mexico, India, and Israel, where hundreds of entrepreneurs are given resources to “disrupt” Coca-Cola’s packaging, brand, and processes. These disruptions result in scalable innovations, such as the company’s now-widespread use of plant-based plastic bottles. Kent explained his company’s commitment to experimentation: “You have to dream a bit to have innovation that you can commercialize.”
  2. Follow the consumer. Peretti said that Buzzfeed achieves 7 billion views each month with a simple strategy: Create a content community that centers on what people want to share and express. “You have to serve the whole human,” he said, describing Buzzfeed’s signature mix of news, millennial humor, and new forays into video and TV.
  3. Profits before payouts. Menear echoed the emphasis on customers, and described how his own board fully backs a strategy of investment before earnings. “Build and push where the customer is going. If not, you’ll have a pretty short mission,” he said.

The panelists also acknowledged that the toughest barrier to innovation in established companies is often internal resistance to change, especially when those changes affect business processes across hundreds of thousands of employees, partners, and brick-and-mortar outposts. Their solution was that executives must surround themselves with individuals who share a sense of urgency, openness, and a hunger for results. Menear added that a sense of appropriate competitiveness also helped push his managers to achieve difficult milestones. Reflecting on the broader climate of innovation that is changing media, retail, and consumer-packaged goods, the CEOs agreed that leading innovation is the first requirement of any global leader today. Whether the innovation comes in the field of viral videos or home technology, effective leadership requires an open mind.

Aspen Across America went to Atlanta in September to host a panel discussion and dinner with the Scheller College of Business at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

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