Three things to look for in your next corporate innovation job

A look at some key questions to ask when you're interviewing with a new company.

Over the years, as our network at Future Foundry has expanded, I've found myself playing the role of recruitment consultant more often than I'd imagined, not by being non-communicative, highly elusive and poorly-informed, but by helping folks who work in corporate strategy, innovation, and growth to find their next career move and working with good companies to connect them with great candidates.

Although unexpected and entirely devoid of monetary compensation, it's something I love doing; there's nothing better than, on the one hand, being able to recommend great people to the companies I know who are hiring and, on the other, seeing people thrive in a new environment.

In my early days as a pseudo-consigliere, I'd estimate that around 90% of the candidates who told me they were looking to move on from their current company and into a new role were primarily motivated by three things:

  • A new challenge to get their teeth into
  • A fresh set of professional opportunities to pursue
  • A clear path for progression in their role and career

In large part, they were driven by the desire for personal development, career advancement, and making a significant impact on the industry they were working in.

But over the last couple of years, perhaps as a result of the brutal economic climate we're all operating in, I’ve noticed a shift in rationale - now I'd estimate that 90% of you who are looking for a new role are primarily concerned with:

  • Whether the industry you're in is on a positive trajectory
  • Avoiding never-ending restructuring and re-alignment
  • Finding long-term stability and job security

Unfortunately, many of you are being forced to find new gigs out of necessity rather than curiosity. Still, in and amongst the urgency, based on maybe 50 or so similar conversations that I've had over the last couple of years, I thought it'd be helpful for me to share the three other things you should look for when you're having conversations with potential employers:

1. Clarity of objectives

You can't succeed in a new role as a corporate innovator if the company you're joining lacks focus and direction for its efforts. You'll quickly find yourself uncertain of what you're working towards, unable to prioritise and wholly demotivated.

You need to make sure that what you'll be working on is aligned with broader corporate strategy, that the projects you're involved in will contribute to the company's long-term goals, and that you can successfully measure the impact of your work so you can continue to justify investment in it.

Here are some questions you might ask to get a better understanding:

Is there a clear vision backed by measurable goals?

This will help you to understand whether the company has time-bound targets and is clear on what it's trying to achieve. Companies who engage in innovation theatre rather than serious work can hardly ever attribute a number to what they're trying to achieve, and their answer to this question tends to be vague, to say the least.

What is the growth thesis of the company?

Here, you're trying to ascertain whether the company has committed to doing the work to establish a set of assumptions around where they think growth is likely to come from. Teams without these hypotheses quickly become unsure of what their work is trying to prove or disprove.

How well aligned are the innovation strategy and corporate strategy?

This will help you to understand whether innovation has a seat or a voice at the top table. In most innovation teams, their innovation strategy is often completely disconnected from the ambitions set out in their corporate strategy, and as a result, the work becomes even more directionless.

2. Modern investment approach

It'll be tough to have the impact you want if you're hamstrung by old-fashioned ways of assessing and investing in new projects. You'll get caught in an infinite death spiral of being asked to produce business cases to unlock budget but needing budget to prove business cases.

You need to understand whether the company you're talking to understands and adopts a venture capital-style investment approach in that they get the importance of placing a large number of small bets, they appreciate that most projects will fail, and they know that those that don't will pay for them a hundred times over.

Here are some questions you might ask to get a better understanding:

What is the budget for exploring new venture, product and service ideas?

This will help you understand whether you have the freedom and space to work on identifying new opportunities, developing initial propositions and running in-market pilots or whether you'll be fighting for budget at every turn with little time left to do the actual work.

What do I need to prove to secure funding for specific ideas?

Here, you're trying to establish whether the company is focused on the right leading indicators for new propositions, e.g., acquisition rate, lifetime value and customer feedback. Companies that ask you to prove lagging indicators such as revenue, profitability, and EBITDA often don't take a sufficiently long-term view of innovation and have unrealistic expectations on payback timeframes.

How do you progress successfully validated ideas?

This will help you understand whether a process exists to spin successful propositions into existing business units or out into new entities when the time arises. If it hasn't been considered, you'll find that the ventures, products and services you're working on will fail to reach escape velocity and find a home.

3. Effective portfolio governance

If there's no proper governance in place for innovation and proposition development, you'll struggle to interface with the core business effectively, and that will negatively impact your ability to secure the necessary support, resources, and autonomy you need to make meaningful progress.

Here, you want to understand whether there is executive-level support for innovation, whether the right people are making investment decisions and whether the wider business is sufficiently engaged with your endeavours.

Here are some questions you might ask to get a better understanding:

Is there a vocal champion for innovation at the executive level?

Here, you're trying to determine whether someone on the leadership team, ideally the CEO, acts not just as an executive sponsor but as an advocate for innovation. Without this, you won't have the air cover you need to succeed or bridge potential organisational gaps.

Who oversees, guides and invests in innovation efforts?

This will help you to understand whether the business has the right people in place to effectively judge the success of your efforts, steer the overall portfolio and make sound investment decisions. Without this kind of executive oversight, your work won't get the visibility or buy-in needed to succeed.

Moving on

Every employee needs to work on something motivating in a company heading in the right direction with clarity around job stability and long-term security.

But as a strategy, innovation and proposition professional, you need three more things: clear objectives, money to help you reach those objectives, and effective governance to ensure that money is spent most effectively and efficiently.

Without these, your new role will likely work out in much the same way as your current one.

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