Close this search box.
Close this search box.

You’ve Got the Talent. How Do You Get Them to Innovate?

No industry is safe from disruption by a scrappy startup with brand new innovation.

Even when great ideas happen at legacy companies, smaller, more nimble players typically can outpace them in the race to market because their internal structures are less hierarchical and built on meritocracy. “Unlike a startup where the best idea can be tested and then rise to the top, that just isn’t true for a large company that’s been in existence for a while, like General Motors,” says Michael Arena, GM’s chief talent officer. Successful innovation is the result of the right people connecting at the right time, and then others buying into and championing the new idea. “The social dynamics matter as much as the idea itself,” Arena says.

Legacy companies must act like startups by creating the right social dynamics and an environment that allows innovation to emerge naturally, rather than creating innovation incubators or siloed groups devoted to innovating. “Innovation hardly ever happens deep inside one team. It almost always happens at the collision point between two different teams, or as one internal team’s network connects with a network outside the company,” says Arena, noting that General Motors has been shifting toward this kind of “social capital” structure and away from a human capital structure.

Arena points to three roles that are critical for innovation to take place at larger, legacy companies:

“Innovation hardly ever happens deep inside one team. It almost always happens at the collision point between two different teams.”

Brokers introduce new ideas. “These are the wild-thinking people who are out there playing on the fringe. They’re curious and out there trying to discover new things. They’re essential to the process of innovation,” says Arena. But in the larger, legacy company, those people aren’t enough. “We’ve all seen bold beautiful ideas that never saw the light of day.”

Connectors execute on those ideas and get them implemented. They are able to get buy-in from local groups inside the organization because they excel at engendering trust.

Energizers are the individuals that spark the interest of others across the organization and unleash the passion necessary for those innovations to advance, says Arena. “CEOs are almost never energizers. They hold the purse strings and have to say ‘no’ more often than ‘yes’.” But that’s okay, Arena adds. That isn’t their role. “CEOs play less a role in innovation than we think they should. When it comes to innovation, leadership is overrated.”

Instead, CEOs should focus on talent development and making sure all three roles are represented well inside the company. They also should be creating an environment in which people feel comfortable experimenting. “If a CEO is only worried about execution and driving efficiencies and bottom-line results, they create very tight systems,” Arena says. “The CEO has to loosen the system so that people can engage and build new ideas.”


  • Get the CEO Briefing

    Sign up today to get weekly access to the latest issues affecting CEOs in every industry
  • upcoming events


    Strategic Planning Workshop

    1:00 - 5:00 pm

    Over 70% of Executives Surveyed Agree: Many Strategic Planning Efforts Lack Systematic Approach Tips for Enhancing Your Strategic Planning Process

    Executives expressed frustration with their current strategic planning process. Issues include:

    1. Lack of systematic approach (70%)
    2. Laundry lists without prioritization (68%)
    3. Decisions based on personalities rather than facts and information (65%)


    Steve Rutan and Denise Harrison have put together an afternoon workshop that will provide the tools you need to address these concerns.  They have worked with hundreds of executives to develop a systematic approach that will enable your team to make better decisions during strategic planning.  Steve and Denise will walk you through exercises for prioritizing your lists and steps that will reset and reinvigorate your process.  This will be a hands-on workshop that will enable you to think about your business as you use the tools that are being presented.  If you are ready for a Strategic Planning tune-up, select this workshop in your registration form.  The additional fee of $695 will be added to your total.

    To sign up, select this option in your registration form. Additional fee of $695 will be added to your total.

    New York, NY: ​​​Chief Executive's Corporate Citizenship Awards 2017

    Women in Leadership Seminar and Peer Discussion

    2:00 - 5:00 pm

    Female leaders face the same issues all leaders do, but they often face additional challenges too. In this peer session, we will facilitate a discussion of best practices and how to overcome common barriers to help women leaders be more effective within and outside their organizations. 

    Limited space available.

    To sign up, select this option in your registration form. Additional fee of $495 will be added to your total.

    Golf Outing

    10:30 - 5:00 pm
    General’s Retreat at Hermitage Golf Course
    Sponsored by UBS

    General’s Retreat, built in 1986 with architect Gary Roger Baird, has been voted the “Best Golf Course in Nashville” and is a “must play” when visiting the Nashville, Tennessee area. With the beautiful setting along the Cumberland River, golfers of all capabilities will thoroughly enjoy the golf, scenery and hospitality.

    The golf outing fee includes transportation to and from the hotel, greens/cart fees, use of practice facilities, and boxed lunch. The bus will leave the hotel at 10:30 am for a noon shotgun start and return to the hotel after the cocktail reception following the completion of the round.

    To sign up, select this option in your registration form. Additional fee of $295 will be added to your total.