Career Paths for Innovators

Yesterday I got a note out of the blue from a friend at Intel. An innovator…a serial innovator. Ph.d in electrical engineering, MBA sort of guy. Really smart, and guess what? Sort of outspoken. First he was at Kodak, then moved to Intel, and has been involved in multiple projects, but is nearly always frustrated. Here’s what he said:

The project is going well. We have 8 companies on board now, I hired a good team to run it, and a good Board of Directors. We are going live on the 17th of this month. I feel that the innovation part of the work is done, so my work is done. I am looking to depart in second quarter of next year.

Question: Why can’t he be happy where he is? Why does he feel the need to find something new? What is the company missing here?

No career paths for innovators. One project, then another…and that’s fine. But who’s developing him? Coaching him? Asking him how he prefers to be rewarded? Will he ever reach VP level? Director level? Not a chance. Has he built new business platforms for the companies he’s worked for? Absolutely.

Companies say they want these people, but don’t have a clue how to promote them. In fact, high powered innovative people are usually considered pains in the…….

Most of the companies we’ve studied are worried about this problem. One person from a major firm told us “If I want to get promoted to VP, I’m going to have to transfer out of this (New Business Creation) group and into a division. The only way you get promoted here is by overseeing more people and a bigger budget.”

Sadly…that’s just not how breakthrough innovation works. You don’t always need more people and a bigger budget.

Another company we are very familiar with is beginning to get how big a problem this is. They’ve devoted a person in their Organizational Development/HR group to develop career paths for innovation people. Their tossing ideas around about the best way to do this. But they’re working at it.

To me, this is one of the biggest signs that innovation is taking root as a real business function. It’s not going to go away. People like my friend at Intel may finally have a host of opportunities for professional progress.

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