by Nicholas D. Evans

16 traits of a world class chief innovation officer

Apr 05, 20219 mins
CareersInnovationIT Skills

Your innovation program, and the role of the CINO, is too important to leave to chance. Make sure whoever holds the top innovation job has these essential qualities.

As organizations look to accelerate growth, uncover new opportunities, and foster a culture of innovation, they’re often formalizing their innovation programs or expanding the purview of their existing programs. As they do this, the role of the chief innovation officer (CINO) is becoming increasingly important and needs to be carefully designed to achieve these goals.

While I’ve made the case in the past why you don’t need a Chief [insert new tech name here] Officer for every new hot topic, the CINO is a key position with a clear distinction in role and responsibility from the chief information officer (CIO), chief technology officer (CTO), and chief digital officer (CDO) and is essential for many of today’s organizations. Much like the CDO, the CINO role requires a team player who is a highly collaborative and influential leader, well-versed in working across business and IT.

Whether you’re filling the role internally or externally, here are 16 traits and qualities of a world-class CINO that you’ll want to look for when evaluating candidates and in shaping the role.

Collaborative — One of the most important traits for any CINO is that they are highly-collaborative and a team player. As innovations move from promising idea to business value, there’s a multitude of decision points and handoffs; the CINO needs to understand and manage expectations of stakeholders and to minimize the many strategy, process, and culture-related pitfalls along the way. 

Valuing diversity — Studies have shown that organizations with both inherent and acquired diversity in their teams are 45% more likely to have grown market share and are 70% more likely to have captured a new market. The CINO should be a champion of diversity and bring their own inherent or acquired diversity to the table. Perhaps counterintuitively, and with a few exceptions, the CINO does not need to be someone with extensive years of experience in your industry. With digital transformation requiring every company to be a technology company, skills acquired in other industries and adjacencies may be even more attractive than more of the same.    

Humble — The CINO should be an expert in the field of innovation management but always recognize they don’t have to be the smartest person in the room or have all the ideas. They should bring their own vision and ideas (more on that later) but be highly skilled at tapping into the workforce as well as their own extensive internal and external networks for advice and solutions. The innovation program is not about them, but about harnessing the creativity and talent of the workforce and fostering a culture of innovation across the organization.

Purpose-driven — As organizations move from shareholder value to stakeholder value and focus on balanced business models that support all constituents, including employees and corporate social responsibility objectives, the CINO should factor this into program-level innovation goals. This may mean revisiting traditional idea evaluation and screening criteria and working with the innovation council or steering committee to ensure the right balance of initiatives and investments is achieved across the innovation portfolio year-over year.

Strategic — Since there needs to be a clear line of sight between corporate goals and innovation goals, the CINO needs to be a strategic thinker who can work closely with the chief strategy officer. Innovation should inform strategy and vice versa. As an example, the strategic themes within the corporate strategy should help inform which innovations to pursue, and the results of innovation experiments should help to inform strategy. Prior experience coordinating corporate or portfolio strategy will help the CINO work well with the chief strategy officer and understand strategic planning processes.

Visionary — If the CINO has experience as an entrepreneur they can often bring vision and a mastery of the art of the possible to the table. This unconstrained and unconventional thinking can help to inspire others as well as enabling the CINO to bring their own ideas and “big bets” to the organization. If the organization’s innovation objectives are related to accelerating growth, and looking for game-changers, this trait can be a huge value add.

Curious — The CINO should have a natural curiosity about emerging trends and technologies and how they can be applied within the business. They should be an avid learner and have the ability to challenge the status quo and explore innovation opportunities across business models, processes, products, and services. Beyond individual technologies, they should have the ability to see how combinations of technologies can unlock even more use cases and business opportunities. As an example, consider Amazon’s checkout-free shopping, which involves a fusion of emerging technologies.  

Willing to take risks — The CINO should be a risk taker but have a sixth sense about where and when it is appropriate to take risk. For example, at the idea stage there is almost no risk, so participants can be bold. As these ideas traverse the innovation pipeline, and funding amounts increase at various points along the way, the risk assessment must be scaled accordingly.

Advocacy — Since many organizations are looking to foster a culture of innovation across the workforce, one of the first traits for any CINO is to act as a champion for innovation. This means putting in place an environment where employees have the means, motive, and opportunity to innovate and see it as an essential part of their day jobs. They should also use their collaborative, marketing, and influencer skills to recruit other champions.

Marketing — CINOs need to be effective marketers to communicate the goals and objectives of the innovation program as well as specific innovation campaigns and to share case studies and success stories. This requires a carefully planned cadence of communications in a variety of formats to help share the story with both internal and external audiences. Done well, this often provides a guiding north star for the innovation program and inspires the workforce.

Influence — As influencers, CINOs need to be able to become storytellers to help pitch the art of the possible to internal business audiences as well as thought leaders to inspire clients and partners. Social media influence is one element, but they should ideally have a well-rounded skillset as author, influencer, and speaker to influence across a variety of media and channels.

Ability to teach — The education component of running an innovation program is often underestimated, and along with marketing, communications, and training, can often make up 20% of the CINO’s activity as a leader. Since innovation programs often rely on a small core team and a much larger volunteer army, it takes considerable and ongoing effort to train new recruits. The education component is vital to share the goals and objectives of the program, share case studies, techniques, and best practices, bust myths, and train volunteers. 

Analytical thinking — Strong analytical skills can help the CINO make key decisions such as when to continue with an initiative or when to shut it down. This data-driven approach is akin to growth hacking and pivots whereby startups continually fine tune and adjust until they hit that elusive spot where they experience exponential growth. The analytical trait will help the CINO stay on target over the course of the year and get to the desired business outcomes for the program.

Practicality — Since innovation is about taking promising ideas from concept to value and not just about the process of invention, the CINO needs to be a pragmatist with a bias for action and a focus on getting things done. This means focusing on tactical, incremental innovations that can lead to quick wins for the organization as well as the more attractive, strategic, or disruptive innovations. The CINO needs to be a day-to-day problem solver as well as the visionary we described earlier. Without this practicality, and focus on quick wins, which can often be 80% of the mission, the CINO may not last long in the role.

Politically savvy — To endure in the role, the CINO needs to be politically savvy and understand the common forms of attack at the program-level as well as the idea-level. The good news is that many of the best practices related to program transparency and collaboration will help to inoculate the innovation program from would-be usurpers, guerilla attacks, blockades, sieges, and other forms of attack. Strong executive-level support, whether that’s from the CEO, president, CIO or other leader is another way for the CINO to ensure the longevity and success of their program.  

Results-oriented — At the end of the day, the CINO role is all about taking ownership and delivering results for the business. Being collaborative, visionary, a champion, or even practical, are nothing if they don’t deliver results.

The CINO therefore needs to act with purpose and marshal all their traits in harmony to convert ideas into value and then deliver that value to the organization. They need to see the big picture, not just one idea moving through the pipeline, but the entire portfolio, and act as a fund manager to maximize outcomes for corporate investors—the investors in this case being the entire organization and its customers, partners, and stakeholders.    

Bringing it all together

A world-class CINO will realize they may not possess all these traits and will seek them out in teammates. They will set a high bar for themselves and for their team and focus on the highest standards. For example, they may hire storytellers with a marketing or PR background to help make professional pitches to internal business audiences, or they may enlist volunteer innovation champions to work as internal influencers helping to share the innovation story across the organization to inspire others.

There are many other traits, as well as leadership qualities, that the CINO should possess, such as customer obsession, but these 16 should be a great place to start.