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Today's Innovation Leaders: In a changing environment, innovation leaders need a wide range of skills to succeed and take varied paths to the role.

Innovation leaders have become a mainstay for both small and large companies that rely on a nimble technical workforce and a technology pipeline that can deliver meaningful and rapid growth. Innovation has become more critical for companies not just to deliver new ideas and inventions, but increasingly to monetize technologies as services and deliver solutions to customers and meet unmet needs. As a result, Chief Technology Officers (CTOs) and other innovation leaders are now operating at high positions of authority, as executive officers and directors with innovation responsibilities. In fact, innovation leaders have become a core driver of growth, performance, and valuation.

Today's innovation leader, who may be a CTO or a Vice President of R&D, has a broad set of responsibilities and must deploy a wide range of skills. In large organizations that have centralized R&D assets, the CTO is often the innovation officer for the entire organization and is part of the C suite; in companies with a Chief Innovation Officer (CNO), the CTO and CNO may partner to lead innovation. In this role, the CTO is responsible for advocating for innovation and R&D across the organization, the board of directors, and other stakeholders, as well as recommending specific strategies to turn research and technology into commercialization opportunities. As a result, today's CTOs must possess both the traditional set of technical and management skills and a full suite of visionary and communication skills.

To further understand the attributes today's innovation leaders need, we examined recent perspectives from employees, thought leaders, CTOs, and senior innovation leaders. The goal was to provide early- and mid-career leaders general guidance in designing career paths and navigating complex choices around work assignments and other opportunities to prepare for emerging innovation leadership roles.

Background and Literature Review

The role of CTO arose in the 1980s in the information technology industry. In that context, the CTO was responsible for making sure the company's technology investments matched its needs and strategic goals. The CTO was responsible for the organization's evaluation, adoption, and use of technology (Smith 2003). In other words, the job was internally oriented and operational in nature (Adler and Ferdows 1990; Hartley 2011). As a result, the CTO had little influence in strategic decisions and was typically not included in executive-level decision making (Roberts 2001).

The growth of the CTO role began in the 1990s, with the growth in R&D investments and in the complexity and interdisciplinarity of emerging scientific and technological advances (Bridenbaugh 1992). That growing complexity required a broader perspective on technology issues, and many organizations turned to CTOs to provide that perspective. Where previously the CTO had focused on deploying technologies internally to solve technical issues, increasingly, the responsibilities associated with the role evolved to encompass oversight of science and technology for commercial deployment.

At the same time, CTOs faced an increasingly complex landscape within which priorities had to be defined. That landscape includes organizational attributes and priorities; an effective CTO shifts priorities as the organizational context changes (Van der Hoven et al. 2012). CTOs are expected to contribute to the strategic direction of the company by identifying the opportunities enabled by both new and known technologies; coordinating across internal networks to surface those opportunities; and networking externally with academics, government, business partners, and other technology thought leaders to identify emerging technologies and potential partners. At the same time, the CTO must also be sensitive to matching the company's R&D investments to its capacity to leverage technology for strategic advantage.

As CTOs have assumed a place on the senior executive leadership team, the personal and professional characteristics necessary for success have changed. It is increasingly important that CTOs possess broad influence beyond the boundaries of the technical functions they oversee. Thus, personal, informal influence and the ability to partner productively with other corporate leaders are tremendously important to the CTO's success. Broad knowledge of how the organization works and rich internal and external networks that can quickly deliver information needed for informed decision making are essential (Medcof 2007). In the new paradigm of R&D, which relies as much on external innovation partners as internal labs, relationships with prestigious people and organizations outside the firm also provide a basis for influence inside it (Medcof 2007).

As these changes have spread, they have begun to influence the rising generation of technical leaders. Recent research finds that emerging technical leaders share more traits with rising leaders in other functions than they do with the majority of R&D specialists (Gritzo, Fusfeld, and Carpenter 2017), as would be expected given the evolution in the scope of their responsibilities. But interestingly, Gritzo, Fusfeld, and Carpenter (2017) found that technical leaders are still perceived as different from other rising leaders on several dimensions. Specifically, R&D leaders are viewed as more able to quickly master new technical knowledge and ferret out patterns in complex situations. They are seen as more creative and more able to foster a climate of experimentation than leaders in other units of the company. On the other hand, technical leaders are perceived as falling short of their business-function peers in people management skills, such as managing conflict and addressing incompetence, and in interpersonal skills essential to producing a creative, welcoming work environment. Additionally, rising R&D leaders are not viewed as effective at engaging with upper management compared with their peers in other functions.

Not suprisingly, many rising technical leaders are interested in understanding how they can prepare themselves for innovation leadership roles. They are interested in how individuals in innovation leadership roles were trained or how their career path prepared them for their leadership roles. Companies also have an interest in understanding how to nurture future innovation leaders, to sustain their innovation capability. We undertook this study to gain insights into the skills and characteristics innovation leaders need to be effective, the types of career-path experiences and opportunities that support success in leadership roles, and the advice today's innovation leaders can offer future leaders.


To explore these questions, we developed a plan for gathering information about how firms prepare and structure innovation leaders' career paths. The plan included gathering information about what skills innovation leaders need and how the organizations worked to develop them, what experiences the companies provided to fill formal training gaps, and what characteristics and traits employers and customers value in R&D leaders.

We accomplished this work through three separate activities, each of which sought input from a different set of contributors:

* A face-to-face activity, "The Perfect CTO Exercise," conducted at a meeting of mid-career innovation leaders, gathered input from individual contributors and managers who report up to CTOs through vice presidents or directors.

* An online survey asked respondents about how their firms' innovation efforts were structured and how firms prepared innovation leaders.

* Phone interviews asked CTOs, R&D leaders with innovation responsibility, and thought leaders who interact with CTOs about the nature of the CTO's job and the attributes and skills needed to succeed at it.

The Perfect CTO Exercise

The team began its work by conducting "The Perfect CTO Exercise" during a breakout session at IRI's 2017 Winter ROR meeting in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. The goal of the exercise was to solicit feedback from attendees regarding the ideal characteristics of a CTO. Most of the 40 attendees were individual contributors, key managers, and directors representing a range of industries. The attendees were split into five groups of eight people each. First, each group created a list of attributes the successful CTO should have; then the group distributed 100 points among the characteristics in its list. The result was a ranked list of essential characteristics. The data from the groups were then consolidated into a ranked list of characteristics. Subsequent work focused on the top 20 characteristics in that list.


An online survey was conducted to explore basic questions about innovation career management at large, innovation-focused firms. The survey consisted of eight questions that asked about structural factors, such as who the firm's key technology leader is, who has responsibility for the vision for growth, which group drives innovation; career path elements, such as the frequency of opportunity to move across career ladders and relevant rotations for R&D leaders; and corporate demographics:

1. Who sits at the top of your organization?

2. Who owns the vision for the growth of the company?

3. Which organization owns innovation in your company?

4. What is your firm's career track/career ladder?

5. How often are people allowed to move across ladders?

6. What rotations are considered relevant for R&D leaders?

7. To which industry does your organization primarily associate?

8. What was your company's approximate corporate sales revenue in 2016?

We collected 43 responses, solicited through e-mails to the IRI Community Forum, an e-mail discussion group hosted by IRI and available to members. Respondents were predominantly in technical roles that reported up through a CTO or vice president of R&D (Table 1). The majority of respondents were from chemical, gases, and advanced materials companies; consumer products companies; and aerospace and defense companies. Many of the respondents were from large corporations with annual revenue greater than $5 billion and dedicated innovation functions.

Innovation Leader Interviews

The final element of the study was a set of interviews designed to gather firsthand insights from CTOs themselves. The team interviewed 11 current or retired CTOs, innovation vice presidents, and directors (Table 2). Discussions explored the interviewee's path to the innovation leadership role, critical experiences along the way, and the role of mentors in developing leadership. The team also interviewed several professionals who regularly deal with CTOs in their day-today jobs, including academics, consultants, personal coaches, and executive recruiters.

The interview protocol included a list of questions intended to spark discussion, such as:

* If you could design the perfect CTO, what would that person's key qualities and skillsets be?

* What do you think is the most important skill for a CTO to possess?

* How important is it for the CTO to be a technical expert?

* Do you see benefits to a centralized versus distributed R&D function?

* What are the major pitfalls that make CTOs less successful than they should be?

* How do you see the CTO role evolving in the future?

These questions were used not to restrict the interview but rather to get interviewees engaged and talking. After the introductory questions, interviews proceeded in the direction defined by the interviewees' interests and beliefs. Interviews were conducted over a period of one hour with one to two moderators. All interviews were recorded and then summarized in outline form; the outlines captured relevant skills, experiences, and opportunities that contributed to the interviewees' effectiveness in their roles. The outlines were then used to glean insights about differences in interviewee assignments and experiences leading to the leadership role, as well as what career decisions they felt were in their control and what opportunities were created for them in their career paths.


Taken together, the results of the three exercises suggest that some common attributes pay off regardless of company type or industry, including advanced educational training, a willingness to consider rotations to access different experiences, and cross-ladder assignments outside of an individual's normal technical training channel, such as in customer-facing or business roles. Almost all of the innovation leaders we interviewed (eight) had at least one advanced degree beyond their undergraduate degree. Further, many leaders indicated that accepting rotations or assignments to different functions also provided expertise beyond or outside their formal training, as well as opportunities to broaden their networks. A common theme from The Perfect CTO Exercise and our CTO interviews was the importance of establishing a strong, diverse network both within and outside the company. Such a network can support success in the leadership role; before that, it can create opportunities for advancement or opportunities to take on new positions outside the company, providing a means to develop a diverse skill set. As externally developed technologies play a growing role in corporate innovation, input from The Perfect CTO Exercise and from the CTO interviews revealed that innovation leaders need to be able to develop an external view and have access to insights into emerging trends; for the leaders we interviewed, their networks provided those elements. Finally, data from the survey and interviews showed that innovation leaders rely on many different skills, developed across the span of their career. This broad skill set allows leaders to be more effective in their leadership role, which requires a far more diverse set of capabilities than mere technical expertise.

The Perfect CTO Exercise

As the kickoff activity for the study, the "Perfect CTO" exercise was intended to provide some initial insight into the characteristics a CTO must have. The participants, all attendees at IRI's Winter ROR meeting, were mid-career technical contributors and leaders who have had experience working with CTOs and other executive leadership. This group of 40 innovation managers identified a range of characteristics, which they then weighted by importance. The group-level inputs were unified, with similar characteristics consolidated, and ranked by total points assigned. We then focused work on the top 10 characteristics on the unified list (Figure 1).

The exercise identified a number of essential characteristics that were not gained from formal technical training, but were developed from professional experiences and time in the role. For instance, the most important set of skills (in terms of total points awarded) was the ability to communicate with different audiences, including the ability to articulate a vision to direct reports, the broader employee base, investors, and customers (ranked first in the list); provide good representation to the C suite (as an executive team member responsible for R&D) in communicating R&D matters (ranked second); and the ability to communicate R&D strategy to all stakeholders (ranked fifth). The workshop also identified as important the need for courage to take risks (ranked third), strategic thinking (ranked fourth), and awareness of emerging trends (ranked sixth). Surprisingly, technical knowledge didn't rate as highly as these other skills, coming in at just eighth. Many of the lower-ranked characteristics, those ranked 10th-20th, were secondary skills participants identified as being needed from time to time; these were skills that could be gained from earlier assignments or by engagement with others and experience in the role over time.


In conducting the survey, the research team hoped to gather information about innovation career management to give context to illuminate how innovation is organized in large firms and to give context to the planned interviews. Besides collecting basic demographic information, survey questions asked about who drives innovation at the respondent's firm, how innovation careers were developed and managed, and what rotations or roles are important for advancement of R&D leaders (Table 3).

The survey results revealed that the driver of innovation in organizations is shifting. Asked to select "Which organization in your company owns innovation?" from a list (question 3 on the survey), most respondents (41) identified the technology organization as driving innovation, but a substantial portion (23) also said that some other group drove the innovation agenda. (1) Responses to questions about career rotations for R&D leaders may provide a clue as to what that other category might be: innovation. When asked to identify important rotations for rising R&D leaders, 23 responses pointed to innovation, which could suggest that innovation operates as a function separate from R&D, which was also an option on the list. This result aligns with the work of O'Connor and coauthors (2008), who describe the evolution of innovation as a separate function and map the management system necessary to support it.

The survey results also revealed that at most firms, rising R&D leaders can readily access opportunities to move across organizational boundaries and experience different career tracks. More than one-third of respondents (37 percent) indicated that movement across ladders was allowed three or more times; nearly as many (34 percent) reported such movement was allowed twice. Rotational assignments were also highly varied, with respondents identifying a wide range of experiences as relevant and important for technical leaders preparing themselves for leadership roles, including marketing, individual technical contributor, project management, business, and manufacturing.

Innovation Leader Interviews

Interviews with CTOs, other innovation leaders, and those who interact with them provided a rich source of data about the skills and traits that make a good CTO and the pitfalls and challenges of the CTO role. The interviews were wide ranging, covering the CTO's role in the organization and career path as well as the structure of industrial R&D. Overall, there were significant differences for the career paths for leaders depending on whether they spent their career in one company, gained experience working for startups and smaller companies, or moved from one large company to another.

Every innovation leader we interviewed had filled a range of different roles on the path to his or her current job and everyone saw this varied experience as a key to doing the job well. Many gained international experience early in their careers, and several had customer-facing roles along the way, including in marketing and sales. Some had business management experience, including running a global business, managing emerging businesses, and even being part of a startup company. Experiences in IT, manufacturing, business development, and strategic planning were also seen as being of value. There was no "one size fits all" path to the CTO role, but every CTO interviewed talked about needing to be open to broadening experiences along the way.

Interviewees identified a number of key skills today's CTO must have to succeed. Technical excellence is still a primary attribute; many interviewees said the CTO needs a PhD in a technical field relevant to the company's business, as well as a track record of technical success and a reputation for technical depth. These elements speak to the CTO's technical knowledge; they're also essential to build both internal and external credibility. Today's CTOs also need a range of "soft skills," including team building and networking. Finally, networks are important, especially external networks that can help build the CTO's awareness of technology trends and perhaps lead to opportunities for partnering. The successful CTO brings a strong external network to the leadership role. Our interviewees described the need to leverage their networks for both talent and guidance.

Other important attributes include communication skills, strategic decision-making skills, and the ability to break down silos and build bridges to enable collaboration across the organization. Specifically:

* A successful CTO must be able to communicate in a variety of forms and languages, depending on the audience, from using business language to convey the strategic importance of R&D initiatives to the CEO and business unit leaders, to communicating with the R&D community, where vision and technical depth must be apparent, to talking with the media and external stakeholders. Some interviewees felt that R&D career paths offered limited opportunities to develop these skills. As one interviewee commented, "Most companies still don't let these folks out a lot."

* The ability to develop an innovation strategy that drives business results is fundamental to the CTO role, but the truly successful CTO must go beyond merely having a strategy to integrating that strategy with the company's strategic goals. CTOs need to be able to manage a matrix organization to drive new initiatives and influence organizational strategy. Furthermore, they must be able to translate the vision and strategy into operational steps that deliver results. The strategy category actually captures two skill sets: creating strategy requires skills such as strategic foresight, technology forecasting, and storytelling, and delivering results requires an ability to leverage technology roadmaps, engage in proactive portfolio management, and know when to compromise, as short-term needs fight for the same resources as longer-term strategic efforts.

* CTOs must also possess the courage to make strategic decisions about financial performance, growth, and cost restructuring in response to economic imperatives and operational challenges. These pressures often mandate actions to change staffing levels and operating strategies in the short term in order to ensure competitiveness in the future. Several CTOs we interviewed reported being bound by the same performance metrics that bound their CEOs, which required them to make significant operational and culture changes to deliver growth.

* Today's complex technologies and fast-moving markets require CTOs to understand business factors as thoroughly as they engage with technical problem-solving. Historically, the CTO's role was to deliver solutions to technical problems, often in response to business unit needs. Now, as technology develops rapidly, the CTO needs to be able to sell new R&D initiatives to the business unit--and the C suite. That means having enough business acumen to describe the opportunity in terms the business organization can understand. The modern CTO is often the person most likely to identify new opportunities, or threats, from new business models. As a result, the modern CTO must be a lifelong student, keeping up to date within his or her technical field but also staying current on emerging technologies, competitive approaches, and business models. Very few CTOs are strong at both the visionary and executional parts of the role; most tend to favor one over the other. Our interviewees recognized this fact and noted that high-performing CTOs recognize their weaknesses and seek out others who can complement their strengths. Not having the self-awareness and humility to do this can limit a CTO's success.

One of the biggest challenges for a newly minted CTO, and one that can truly limit the new CTO's success, is the same challenge faced by every new senior executive: the skills, traits, and areas of focus required to get the CTO job are not the skills, traits, and areas of focus needed to do the job well (Farrington 2005; Goldsmith 2008). Rising technical leaders must demonstrate technical competence as they advance through the ranks, but successful CTOs must step outside the technical arena and become organizational leaders and innovation strategists. CTOs need to understand technology, but their primary role is as communicators and leaders.

That work includes partnering with other senior executives to effect change, particularly the CNO, when the organization has one. Companies that recognize that R&D cannot bring new technologies to commercial reality on its own and that business units are not always prepared for breakthrough opportunities are increasingly turning to the CNO role to fill that gap. CNOs are charged with articulating the business opportunities presented by advanced technology initiatives, incubating them into emerging businesses, and scaling them (O'Connor, Corbett, and Peters 2018). When organizations add this innovation function, the CTO is a vital partner to the CNO. Together, the CTO and CNO shape the organization's innovation agenda, often much more effectively than either could alone.

Some of the characteristics that bring a person to the CTO job can be self-limiting. The CTO position is one of the most technically sophisticated roles in any company, usually held by someone with a PhD in a technical field. They are also expected to have a wider expertise. Our interviewees told us they are often broadly engaged by the senior management team to make critical strategic decisions that require assimilating information quickly to identify courses of action. The extreme self-confidence and conviction required to perform in this way can be seen by others as arrogance, making the CTO seem unapproachable. This can get in the way of the job, as CTOs often need to leverage the knowledge and experience of others to achieve success, for the organization and for themselves. Similarly, any personal blind spots regarding skills can become career limiting. Interviewees highlighted several particularly important gaps, including an inability to engage the entire C Suite in the pursuit of innovation, a lack of emotional intelligence to match technical and business acumen, a lack of understanding of competitive and external technology, and an inability to motivate culture change from within.

The span and scope of the CTO job depends on the size of the firm, the structure of the organization, and whether R&D is centralized or decentralized. The nature of the R&D approach can affect the complexity of the R&D leader's role and the decisions he or she needs to make. Our interviewees saw advantages and challenges to both options. Generally, interviewees saw centralized organizations as more efficient and more likely to support longer-range and breakthrough innovation initiatives. Decentralized R&D was identified as more appropriate for innovation initiatives that are closer to the local market. Interviewees highlighted the way in which the centralize-decentralize pendulum can swing back and forth in an organization over time, making the life of the CTO very interesting. In particular, a shift back to a decentralized model can drastically reduce the span and scope of the CTO's job, an experience interviewees who had lived through it found very frustrating, as it left them feeling underutilized and unable to contribute fully to the company's well-being.

The debate over the benefits of "home-grown" versus imported CTOs is alive and well among our interviewees. On the one hand, naming a CTO who has a history within the organization sends a positive message to the organization; furthermore, that CTO is likely to enter the role with a well-established internal network. On the other hand, if new thinking is needed, an external CTO who has experience in an appropriate industry may be the better option, especially if the CEO wants to signal a change in the company's direction to the outside world. As an example of such a choice, interviewees mentioned the 2007 appointment of Mehmood Khan, former head of R&D for a pharmaceutical firm, as Pepsico's R&D leader (Pepsico 2007), a choice intended to signal the firm's shift to a focus on health and wellness.

The CTO Career Path

Above all, our research revealed that there is no single, clear career map for CTOs. Many companies provide employees with the opportunity to gain experience by crossing career ladders, working in areas outside of technology, and working in different geographical regions, but our studies did not identify common assignments that could be categorized as required stepping-stones to a senior position. CTOs who worked for large companies often had structured training and formalized rotational assignments built into established professional development programs; smaller companies don't always have those internal resources. CTOs who had experience with startups or worked for smaller companies, especially with a business assignment, often developed key skills in those assignments. Others learned what they needed as they developed in their leadership roles. Additionally, large companies with integrated assets or in capital-intensive industries tend to promote leaders only from within the company. Companies that are based in specific technologies or are customer-service oriented are more likely to bring in leaders from outside the company, especially if they want to restructure or change the culture.

Interviews provided a more fine-grained view of the CTO career path. Our interviewees had a range of different pathways to the CTO job, but there was one fairly common factor: many interviewees indicated that they had significant support from supervisors as they advanced in their careers. They described instances in which managers were proactive in arranging growth opportunities and volunteered them for challenging assignments. Some interviewees noted that their direct manager functioned as a formal mentor. However, few CTOs had formal mentors assigned to them. Still, most found mentorship important. Some individuals sought out mentors on their own. All sought advice from mentors about a range of topics, including partnerships, leadership, and communication skills. Several interviewees noted that having mentors from both inside and outside the organization was beneficial.

When asked about how they planned their career paths, most of the leaders we interviewed responded that, in fact, they hadn't had a clear plan. Instead, nearly all emphasized that throughout their careers, they focused primarily on performing well in their current role. They expressed the belief that performing well in whatever job they were assigned would lead to new opportunities for advancement and growth, and they emphasized the importance of taking every new opportunity that arose, even if it seemed challenging. International assignments were specifically mentioned as a means to broaden cultural perspectives.

A small minority of the leaders we interviewed said that they had had a vision for directing their career and expressed the view that having that plan had been advantageous. These leaders said that they found it easier to choose which opportunities would be offered to them as they gained more experience and knowledge and built strong networking relationships.

Our interviewees noted a number of skills that they saw as important to the role, including the ability to:

* Work with external partners, including universities, small companies, external consultants, and freelancers;

* Work with a much broader set of stakeholders, including customers and investment analysts;

* Communicate effectively with a wide variety of stakeholders; and

* Digest large volumes of information to identify opportunities that are relevant to the company's strategy.

Responses to the survey question asking which organization drives innovation also provide evidence for another needed skill in innovation leaders: the ability to understand the nature of opportunities that do not align neatly with the company's current business units or that could lead to new lines of business. As new offerings increasingly rely as much on new ways of creating value as on new technologies, CTOs must be able to assess complex new opportunities. This need only exacerbates the tension CTOs constantly must balance between addressing urgent, short-term needs, supporting future-aligned opportunities, and developing longer-term emerging businesses. The rise in innovation functions suggested by our survey data may offer some relief in this regard. Dedicated innovation functions focused on commercializing unaligned, breakthrough innovations will provide a natural handoff for new opportunities and ensure appropriate management systems for each kind of innovation.

The need for diverse skill sets should not be understood to downgrade the importance of technical skills. Participants in The Perfect CTO exercise and the survey recognized the need for a range of experience in technical roles, as an individual contributor and as a supervisor, to develop both critical technical skills and a track record of accomplishment. Survey responses also highlighted the importance of assignments in less technical roles, including manufacturing, business, and marketing, which can provide a broader perspective on the interconnection of functions within a firm and a more complete set of experiences to fuel advancement. These changes in roles may also be accompanied by movement across ladders, a possibility reflected in survey responses regarding the frequency of career ladder changes.

Our leaders also noted certain basic skills and experiences they wished they'd had before taking on the role. In particular, they said that more knowledge in a number of fields would have better prepared them for the demands of the CTO role, including:

* Finance, including how to read and understand financial reports;

* Marketing, including how to build brand equity and gain customer insight and market knowledge;

* Portfolio management, including how to construct, manage, and evaluate a portfolio of opportunities;

* Human capital, including how to deal with a diverse set of people and how to build and maintain a robust internal network.

The successful CTO, our interviewees agreed, needs to be a lifelong student, always finding more to learn. Professionals who worked with CTOs found that leaving technical roots behind and broadening their engagement with a wide variety of knowledge sets and aptitudes was a key challenge for new CTOs.

Finally, our leaders offered some parting advice for those developing careers in innovation leadership:

* Take every opportunity that is presented to you.

* Be willing to supervise other people, especially early in your career.

* Diversify your experience base and skill set; try different assignments.

* Consider international assignments as a way to build understanding of other cultures.

* Consider business as well as technical assignments, such as work in new business development, mergers and acquisitions, and strategic planning roles; take on roles in different business units to learn the linkages between business units and gain an understanding of the rationale for the organization's structure.

* Experience a variety of different company environments.

* Listen in an open manner; learn from others.

* Establish credibility so that when you try to influence change, others are willing to follow you.

* Remember the importance of humility.

CTOs and innovation leaders rely on a range of skills and insights to be effective in their role, which requires them to support both technology and business functions. Communication and other soft skills become more relevant over time, as does the ability to synthesize a large amount of information. Many of the skills needed are developed and refined along the emerging CTO's career path; having an open mind and an aptitude for lifelong learning will allow CTOs--and prospective CTOs--to adapt and learn on the job.

Taken together, the results of the three activities that comprise this study highlight the critical skills and abilities today's innovation leaders must have to be effective as leaders of R&D organizations. The Perfect CTO exercise revealed that many different skills, including communication skills and an ability to engage with diverse groups, were important. Many of the attributes identified by the Perfect CTO groups were also cited by the innovation leaders we interviewed; our interviewees provided insight into the importance of softer skills and peripheral experiences, as well as specific training, in the path to the R&D leadership role. Survey responses reinforced the benefit of crossing career ladders to gather broader experiences and access opportunities to gain exposure to customers, management, and other parts of the organizations. The ability of leaders to be open-minded about trying different roles outside of their technical training was cited by several of our interviewees as critical; the survey responses identified diverse job rotations in different roles as a key pathway to develop the skills required by the role.


CTO career paths vary based on the organization, the individual's aptitudes and preferences, and the opportunities each person encounters along the way. Broad assignments and experiences can help shape the rising leader's perspectives and outlook. The CTOs who participated in this study also recognized that nontraditional roles often helped broaden their experience and provided unexpected knowledge. The experience of working outside their formal area of expertise, in a different location, or in a new culture helped shape their understanding and corporate view. Rising leaders, our interviewees advised, should be open to different assignments that can provide unexpected rewards and advancement opportunities.

Future CTOs will face an even more challenging environment, as the expectations of customers, shareholders, and employees escalate. External pressures on companies to innovate more rapidly and with greater impact will continue to grow. Successful CTOs will recognize that the rate of change in the global environment demands a mindset to create opportunities to innovate within, with customers, and with external partners. These challenges will require leaders to bring a full set of capabilities and resources to support the company's innovation agenda.


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IRI Research Profile

Career Paths in Innovation

Insights into the innovation roles and experiences needed to advance in an innovation leadership capacity and to be prepared for the role of CTO or senior innovation leader.

Goal: Gain a better understanding of the role of innovation leaders in large organizations, the path individuals take to the innovation leadership position, the competencies required to function well in the role, the role's function within a large R&D organization, and the future of that role. Co-Chairs: Steven T. Perri (Eastman Chemical Company), Sara Johnson (GlaxoSmith Kline)

For more information, contact Steven T. Perri (sperri@eastman. com) or Sarah Johnson (sara

Steven T. Perri is a senior research associate and technology manager at Eastman Chemical Company in Kingsport, Tennessee. He is a former staff and site manager at the Eastman Innovation Center located on Centennial Campus at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina. He earned a BS from California State University in Fresno and a PhD from University of California at Irvine and completed a post-doctorate fellowship at Oregon State University, all in organic chemistry. He is a coauthor of numerous articles on chemical synthesis and methodologies and an inventor on numerous patents; he has worked in the areas of chemical technology and catalysis for over 25 years. sperri@

Ted Farrington is a Fellow with Kalypso, where he consults in the areas of strategic foresight, breakthrough innovation, and product lifecycle management. He has worked for several consumer products companies and been active in IRI for many years, having co-sponsored several IRI Research-on-Research initiatives in the area of breakthrough innovation and led the IRI2038 project. Ted holds BS and MS degrees in math and physics from Clarkson University, an MS in chemical engineering from Caltech, and a PhD in chemical engineering from the University of Maine,

Sara Johnson is a director of project management at GlaxoSmithKline where she supports global teams in using Medical Voice of Customer to develop medical content for use worldwide. In previous roles, she has led new product development teams in both prescription and consumer health care and has designed and implemented end-to-end product development and project governance frameworks. She holds a BS in biology from Rhodes College and an MS in biomedical engineering from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,

Gina Colarelli O'Connor is a professor of marketing and innovation management at the Lally School of Management at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She led the Radical Innovation Research Program, in partnership with the IRI, for more than 10 years. Her teaching and research focuses on how large, established firms develop capabilities for breakthrough innovation and how teams working on potential breakthroughs link advanced technologies to market opportunities and create markets that may not yet exist. She has published many papers in leading journals and has coauthored several books on breakthrough innovation. The most recent is Beyond the Champion: Institutionalizing Innovation through People (Stanford Press, 2018).

DOI: 10.1080/08956308.2019.1541726

Caption: FIGURE 1. Characteristics of "the perfect CTO"

(1) Respondents were asked to select all answers that applied; as a result, responses total to more than the number of respondents.
TABLE 1. Survey respondent demographics (n = 45)

Company size by annual revenue (in millions)

< $100                                          2
$101-$1,000                                     6
$ 1,001-$5,000                                  6
$5,001-$10,000                                  10
$10,001-$50,000                                 6
> $50,000                                       15

Transportation & Public Utilities               1
Textile, Apparel, & Advanced Materials          1
Professional & Scientific Industries            2
Petroleum & Related Products                    1
Industrial Machinery, Equipment, & Products     3
Food, Tobacco, & Related Products               3
Federal Labs, Government                        1
Energy, Power Supply                            1
Aerospace & Defense                             6
Consumer Products                               7
Computer, Software, & Related Products          1
Chemical, Gases, & Advanced Materials           15

TABLE 2. Interviewee demographics

Chemical/Specialty Chemical                     3
Packaging                                       1
Consumer Products/Food                          2
Federal Government                              1
Energy                                          1
Software                                        1
Heavy Industry                                  2

CTO                                             5
Senior Vice President                           1
Vice President                                  3
Director                                        2

Highest Education *
PhD                                             5
MS                                              3
MBA                                             3

Years in Role
Average                                         8
Min/Max                                        1/19

Years with Firm
Average                                         16
Min/Max                                        4/38
Male                                            10
Female                                          1

Career Progression
"Home-Grown"                                    5
External Hire                                   6

* Beyond Bachelor's degree.

TABLE 3. Survey results

Question             Responses

1. Who sits at the   CTO 46%      VP of R&D 42%   Other 12%
   top of your

2. Who owns the      CEO 86%      CTO 10%         CNO 2%
   vision for the
   growth of the

3. Which             Technology   Marketing 19%   Other 21%
  organization       60%
  innovation in
  your company?

4. What is your      Single 14%   Dual 74%        Triple 12%
   firm's career

5. How often are     Never 3%     Once 26%        Twice 34%
   allowed to
   move across

6. What rotations    R&D 41       Innovation 23   Marketing 18
   are considered
   relevant for
   R&D leaders?


1. Who sits at the
   top of your

2. Who owns the      VP of R&D 2%
   vision for the
   growth of the

3. Which
  innovation in
  your company?

4. What is your
   firm's career

5. How often are     Three or more
   people            times 37%
   allowed to
   move across

6. What rotations    Technical        Project   Business 15
   are considered    Contributor 17   Mgmt18
   relevant for
   R&D leaders?


1. Who sits at the
   top of your

2. Who owns the
   vision for the
   growth of the

3. Which
  innovation in
  your company?

4. What is your
   firm's career

5. How often are
   allowed to
   move across

6. What rotations    Manufacturing 9   Sales 2
   are considered
   relevant for
   R&D leaders?
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Title Annotation:IRI RESEARCH
Comment:Today's Innovation Leaders: In a changing environment, innovation leaders need a wide range of skills to succeed and take varied paths to the role.(IRI RESEARCH)
Author:Perri, Steven T.; Farrington, Ted; Johnson, Sara; OConnor, Gina Colarelli
Publication:Research-Technology Management
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2019
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