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Robyn Bolton | MileZero
Innovation Requires Leadership Not Ideas
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Robyn Bolton is the Founder and Chief Navigator at MileZero where she helps companies that struggle with innovation to be market leaders.

MileZero is an consulting firm that works with companies (typically $100M - $1B in revenue) that struggle with innovation and want to be market leaders

In this episode

Robyn Bolton of MileZero states, "Innovation is a leadership problem and that is a very uncomfortable truth to recognize." Most leaders recognize the importance of innovation but they are dragged back by their compensation to focus on the next quarter or at best fiscal year. Innovation must be looked at like an investment rather than a one-off event. Most organizations are not set up to innovate effectively so step 1 is to acknowledge where you are on your journey. Robyn points out that public companies who are recognized as innovation leaders often get a 90% stock market premium compared to those who are not. Robyn takes us through what an organization needs to do to create a culture of innovation. Listen to the end to hear the details of a very special gift she is offering our listeners.

A glimpse of what you'll hear

02:13 Innovation is fostered or destroyed by leadership not ideas

04:17 It's a myth you need an innovative leader to have an innovative organization

05:35 How you resolve the tension between innovation and your short-term financial objectives

07:33 Innovation is a long term investment not a short term event

08:52 Benefits to leaders who drive innovation

13:33 What you need to do to create a culture of innovation

16:58 Learn about Robyn. Email Robyn at

Episode Transcript
(Note, this was transcribed using a transcription software and may not reflect the exact words used in the podcast)

Centricity Introduction  0:04  

Welcome to the best kept secret videocast and podcast rom centricity. If you're a b2b service professional, use our five step process to go from the grind of chasing every sale. to keeping your pipeline full with prospects knocking on your door to buy from you. We give you the freedom of time and a life outside of your business. Each episode features an executive from a b2b services company sharing their provocative perspective on an opportunity that many of their clients are missing out on. It's how we teach our clients to get executive decision makers to buy without being salesy or spammy. Here's our host, the co founder and CEO of centricity, Jay kingly.

Jay Kingley  0:43  


I'm Jay Kingley, co founder and CEO of Centricity. Welcome to another episode of our Best Kept Secret show where I am happy to welcome Robyn Bolton. Robyn is the founder of mile 00 is a consulting firm that works with upper mid market companies, typically 100 million to a billion in revenue on how to become more innovative in their businesses. She's based in Boston, Massachusetts, welcome to the show, Robyn.


Robyn Bolton  1:13  


Thank you, Jay. Happy to be here.


Jay Kingley  1:15  


So Robyn, I have been passionate my virtually my entire life, when it comes to creative, being creative, being innovative, working with others on how to think out of the box, as I entered into the professional world, both as a consultant, and as an executive at a number of companies, I normally really focused on how to introduce innovation. I've talked to so many business leaders on the subject, it is, of course, a sexy topic. But that doesn't mean that people really get it. I'm reminded of one of my favorite quotes actually on creativity, which goes something like this, it is easy to be creative, when you are unconstrained by the facts. And, Robin, when I talk to so many executives, they really articulate the struggle around how do you come up with new ideas? How do you think differently? How do you get this out of the box creativity that everybody is looking for. And as I hear this time and time again, it makes me wonder if they're really thinking about it the right way, as someone who is one of the top experts in the innovation world What say you?


Robyn Bolton  2:46  


I understand why they think innovation is an idea problem. But it's not innovation is a leadership problem. And that is a very uncomfortable truth to recognize. It's also one that's really easy to miss. And the reason innovation is a leadership problem is because you have leaders, you have executives who want innovation, they recognize the business value of new ideas of new businesses of driving growth, but they get rewarded and measured based on the month on delivering the quarter on delivering the year. And so you have this tension between what they want kind of emotionally, you know, I'd say socially in terms of recognition around being innovative. But the fact is, their, their bonus their paycheck, their you know, Career Success relies on delivering the near term. And innovation takes years. And so you're not going to hit your near term, monthly, quarterly annual goals by investing in innovation that doesn't pay off for another three to five years. And so it's the it's that tension, that leaders face, that often caused them to pull money from innovation, put it to the core business to deliver the near term results. And that's why innovation fizzles and dies. It's the leadership challenge. It's not a lack of ideas.


Jay Kingley  4:19  


I want to come back in a minute to sort of those trade offs in in maybe a new way that they should be thinking about. But before I get there, I have a question for you. I think there is a view out there that you cannot have an innovative organization without a leader who is very innovative and creative. True or False?


Robyn Bolton  4:47  


I'd say false. I don't think the leader necessarily has to be innovative. The leader has to be a leader and recognize the talents that they have have in there team that is innovative, that is willing to act, even if they're encumbered by the facts and create new things. And the leader needs to create the space for them to do that, to give them the resources that they need to create to give them the air cover from on high, that they need to be creative and buy them the time to bring things to fruition. So really, the leader has to be if you think of the art world, the leader has to be a patron to the artist, not the artist him or herself.


Jay Kingley  5:36  


Great analogy. And I think it's very enlightening to look at the innovation challenge as a leadership issue more than an idea, a problem, and I think you've articulated the issue. So let's talk about how you need to look at it. How do you resolve the short term pressures with the idea of innovation takes time that goes beyond the quarterly review cycle, and I'm gonna throw a related issue out there. Let's talk about our people. And with people, you have the annual performance review cycle, which again, it doesn't sound like it is in sync with how the innovation cycle works. So what's the right way for organizations and leaders to be thinking through how you do innovation?


Robyn Bolton  6:35  


So I think the first thing is to recognize what you just said, that the way the company the organization is set up is at odds with innovation. And so what you need to do to be innovative is almost the exact opposite of what you need to do to be successful, and have in the core business. And simply acknowledging that difference is really, really important. Once you've acknowledged that difference, you then have to look at innovation, the way you would look at, I'd argue any other discipline or function in the company, just the way you look at marketing, or finance or supply chain where you invest there, you have to invest in innovation and view it with the same discipline, that you view those other functions. Innovation is not an event, you're not going to have a hackathon over two days, and come out with a billion dollar business that's ready to launch in six months, which is what some organizations think is gonna happen. Innovation is an investment. And it's got to be an investment, the way you view investing and other functions that are part of making your company successful.


Jay Kingley  7:42  


You know, we're going to talk now about the benefits and how an innovative company gets rewarded. But before I get there, this idea that innovations and investment, you know, we have our operating budget, we have our capital budget, and the timeframes are different. And I think that the Uber leaders, if you will, have got to make the case to their stakeholders that they are investing in the future of the business, not just in tomorrow's results. And it is about getting that balance. And I think we have seen examples of companies that turn off their investment budget, and the investment community punishes them. Because in classic investment theory, the value of your business is forward looking. And so that strategy of, of mortgaging our future for the present, rarely is rewarded. But it is about that balance. And we'll come to that in a second. But let me let me talk first about the decision maker, that leader who needs to make this tough decisions about balancing and protecting the part of the organization that is investing in their future and in their future market leadership. What are the returns to them for doing a good job at managing this process?


Robyn Bolton  9:19  


There's lots of rewards and benefits. The first one I'd say is just pause for a moment and think of business leaders that immediately come to mind when you think about who is a great CEO or who's a great leader in business. And often the names that come up in your head are people that are closely associated with innovation. And that is in a lot of ways one of the biggest benefits to you as a leader if you do can it take that really brave and courageous act, to treat innovation like a discipline to invest in to create the space and the time for your innovators to do their amazing work? Is you You essentially create a legacy for yourself as one of the champions of innovations in the in the company in the corporate world. And going back to your question around, does the leader have to be innovative? Again, no, the leader doesn't have to be innovative, they have to create the space it to essentially unlock the potential of their teams of their organizations, and the benefits accrue to the business and the benefits accrue to the leader who had the courage to make that choice. So it's an incredible way to build a legacy. And it's an incredible legacy to build.


Jay Kingley  10:38  


And I think it goes beyond, obviously, just the legacy, because as I was alluding to, I have always believed that innovative organizations do better financially, both in terms of stock market value, and even in the P&L. Robyn, do you have any hard numbers for us that would support that assertion?


Robyn Bolton  11:05  


Of course, I do. So yes, in the stock market, companies are rewarded for being innovative. And Forbes does a really interesting kind of ranking and calculation that actually looks at the innovation stock premium that companies get. And so the stock premium is basically the portion of the company's market value that can't be accounted for by today's business by today's kind of net present value. And companies that are in their top 100 list of most innovative have between 35 and 90%, innovation stock premium. I mean, imagine that 90% stock premium based on something that doesn't exist today. You see it also is you said Jay, in the bottom line that McKinsey looked at companies that are considered great and innovation companies that are considered, you know, average representative of the market. And the best in class innovators had profit that was almost two and a half times that have kind of average companies in their sector. So it's not just like, oh, well, you know, that company's innovative, and they're in software, and hardware. Now, kind of like to like innovative companies have about two and a half times more profit than even average companies. And then I think, very interestingly, given that there's so much conversation going on right now about the great resignation, employees want permission to be innovative, they want to bring those ideas forward. And companies that create ways for employees to do that, to not just bring their ideas forward, but actually work on and kind of see them to whatever the natural end point is, those companies have, you know, a five to 44% increase in employee retention. So if you want to keep your best talent, innovation is a great way to do it.


Jay Kingley  13:03  


Another observation I would share, if you go back, I don't know, 1950s, maybe even the 60s and earlier, and you looked at publicly traded companies, a big proportion of their value came from their tangible business acts, assets, property, plant and equipment. But today, the overwhelming majority of the value of businesses through their intangible assets. And the biggest part of that is their intellectual property. And what is it that a company does to generate new intellectual property, its innovation. So I think no matter how you look at it, it is essential that companies to in order to succeed, by the way, not just the big public ones, arguably even more important for smaller businesses, who got a dance between the steps of the elephant, to stay agile, to stay nimble, and to stay ahead of the pack requires enormous innovation capability. So given the overwhelmingly strong case that you put forward, Robyn, what are the key things that any business needs to do tactically in order to be successful at innovation?


Robyn Bolton  14:24  


Like I said, it's not an event. Innovation is not an event. It is a business function. And what that means is that when you decide to take innovation seriously and truly invest in it, you need to invest in it the way you would in any other of your business lines or functions. You need to set a clear strategy, clear strategic and financial goals. Now, those goals we talked about are gonna be you know, three to five years in the future, not next quarter, but you can still set goals. You need to set realistic expectations around timing, you know, success rate of the things that you work on resourcing, it's not unusual for, for me to hear that, oh, we want to $250 million business launched by the end of the year with two people and $10 in funding. That is not realistic. So set realistic expectations around what you can accomplish one by one, then resource those teams that you put together appropriately, make sure they're cross functional, make sure that they have people with the right mindsets, and make sure that you give them access to the money and to the expertise that they need. And last, but going back to where we started, this tension between the existing business and the new business, recognize that tension. And then as a leader, it's your job to manage that tension. And to shield the innovation team from that core business, which I always like to say is going to love it to death that they're going to be very the core business is going to be very excited about the innovation team. And in the spirit of helping, they're going to give a lot of advice, which is just going to drag all the innovation stuff back into looking like something like the core. So protect the innovation team, from all of the help that the core is going to try to give so that they can be maybe not unencumbered by the facts, but not rigidly bound to the facts, shall we say,


Jay Kingley  16:25  


Robyn, you have challenged us on to think differently about this subject of innovation. At the same time, I think you have laid out a path forward that we can follow to get there. So we're going to take a quick break. And then we'll be back to learn a bit more about Robyn.

Centricity Introduction  16:47  
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Jay Kingley  17:46  


Welcome back. Let's find out a bit more about Robyn. Robyn, talk to us a bit about the pain points that you solve for your clients. And why do we need you to get rid of this pain.


Robyn Bolton  18:00  


So the pain points I solve for my clients. One of them is the pain point you started the show off with which is we need to be more innovative, we need more ideas. Another pain point is I'm investing in innovation, but I'm not seeing any return on that investment point. And then my favorite one is that we need to disrupt ourselves. And usually the first and the third of we need more ideas and we need to disrupt ourselves. I disabuse my clients have those ideas pretty quickly, you know, one by sharing what I shared with you of, you know, here's probably the root cause of why innovative is innovation is challenging, that disrupt ourselves. You know, I worked for Clayton Christensen's firm. So I'm probably more of a stickler for the word disrupt than other folks. But to be disruptive in the Clayton Christensen sense means that you're doing something that's look offering something that's lower cost, and worst performing than what you currently offer. And as soon as you say to company, like, are you willing to offer something that's cheaper, not as good? No way, understandably, so it's important to break through those first and then really get to the heart of it, which is usually I'm investing in innovation, but I'm not seeing a return on the investment. And so to address that, you know, first you got to get to the root of the problem. And then, the way I work with clients is extraordinarily collaboratively, I could go off try to solve your problem, put together a beautiful recommendation, bring it to you, but then it is going to probably end up like every other consulting deck you've ever received, which is propping up a wobbly table. We've got to do this together. Because what we're doing to help make the company the organization more innovative is we're changing how it operates and how it thinks. And so kind of a joke clients that we're going to do this I do, we do you do, I'm going to take the lead, I'm going to show you how it's done. You're going to get mentored and coached along the way, then we're going to do this side by side. And then you're going to take the lead, and I'm going to be there to support you. And we do this, kind of follow this I do, we do model, both in building a capability. So building that function around innovation of finding the right people, setting up the right structures, processes, the right governance, to really help the organization deliver on those strategic and financial goals that we talked about before the break that have to get set up. Also, you know, once we get that set up, we got to start getting those returns, launching the new businesses coming up with the ideas, running the experiments, kind of rubber to the road kind of stuff and making it real, because I always guarantee whatever we come up with in that kind of first part of things of the process and the templates, that is hopefully more right than wrong. But there's still a lot of wrong in there. And the key is to really shape those things shape, the capability, shape, the process, shape, the governance, to work for that specific organization, for that specific culture, and industry and everything and molded so that it is unique to the organization, because that is what will make it stick. And we'll make it work. So we start, you know, really kind of getting those businesses trying cranking, start, you know, even as I call them revenue generating experiments, because it's a business, it's not a nonprofit, we got to get some revenue in the door. So how can we do that quickly, sorry, all along the way, is, is the coaching, because like we talked about, you know, you have to do things in innovation, completely different than how you do them in the core, you need support to do that.


Jay Kingley  21:53  


But like anything that we do in business, simply going through the motions and saying, I do innovation doesn't mean that you're any good at it. And clearly, innovation, like everything, it's important that you do the things and the processes and the governance that you talked about, so that you don't only do it, but that you're great at doing it. And that leads me Robin to ask you, what makes you great at what you do?


Robyn Bolton  22:23  


That's a good question. So what makes me great at what I do, I have essentially spent my whole career in innovation, doing innovation. And it first kind of formative experience straight out of undergrad. I was in a big company, I was in Procter and Gamble, trying it to develop and launch one of the first brands that they had launched in 30 years. And you know, we all now know that brand is Swiffer and Swiffer Wet Jet. So it was an incredible experience to be part of the team that brought that to life. But I assure you, I bear the scars of birthing that Swiffer. And so I know how hard it is to do something new in a big company. And I know how important leadership was in enabling Swiffer to get to market. And so you know, I'm not coming in from a point of theory or best practice, certainly bring those in. But I've walked the talk. And so I understand the challenges the real day to day challenges that folks face. That said, I do bring in that theory and the best practices, and all of that kind of world class thinking that's going on, you know, outside of the company, because those are phenomenal starting points, we have enough work to do. Let's not recreate the innovation wheel. Let's build on the thinking that people have already done. Let's adapt the thinking that has already happened and the tools that have already been tested. So I bring all of that world class thinking to my clients. And together we figure out how do we make this work for my client. And then last can along those lines is very flexible. I tried to be very humble, I will be the first to admit like, I know a lot about innovation. But my clients will always know more about their business than I will. As much as I will try to learn it. They will be the experts on their business. And so we've got to listen to each other to make progress. And last, I try to make it fun. I mean, we spend too much time at work for it to be drudgery. So let's have a good time along the way and enjoy ourselves and laugh and not take things too seriously. It's serious business, but we don't have to take ourselves seriously.


Jay Kingley  24:53  


You talked about how you started at P&G and I encourage everybody to go to Robyn's LinkedIn In Paige look at the her career arc, I am sure you will find it as impressive as I get. But I'm interested in something a little bit different Robyn, if you think about your personal life, your professional life, what's the thing that has happened to you that would most explain why you're doing what you're doing today.


Robyn Bolton  25:22  


I think there are two things. There's one thing that explains why I'm doing what I am. There's another story that explains kind of why I do it the way I do. So first, why I do what I do. This is it ties to P&G. So I went to university at Miami University, which is in Ohio. P&G, very close by. And of course, in a business school, it's held up as like the end all be all the most perfect organization that has ever existed. And probably not surprisingly, I have a slight streak of anti authority and rebellion. And I thought there's no way that any company is perfect as all my professors are making PG out to be. So when they, you know, the recruiting, time started, and they asked me to interview for a brand management role, said Haha, I will interview and then I will turn them down and then they will not be perfect anymore. Oh, to be 20 again. And what I ultimately wanted to do was to work at an ad agency. So interview with ad agencies interviewed with P&G got my offers from from both sides. And then it was over spring break my senior year at Miami was looking at them and realize that P&G was going to behave me twice as much to live in a city of half the cost of living or Chicago or New York. And as rebellious as I am. I'm also terribly practical and caved and said, alright, well, I'll go to P&G for a few years. And then I'll go over to an agency, luckily, truly pure luck. When I went to P&G, I was hired directly into the innovation team and started working on Swiffer, which was a codename at the time. And then, quite literally a year to the day. After I graduated Miami. I was in front of the North American sales force announcing the launch of Swiffer. And that's a pretty unbeatable first year out in the real world. And so I got by bit by the innovation fun that have stuck with it ever since. But now for the story about why I do things, how I do them. And that's a that's a more recent story. So back in 2005, my mom passed away very suddenly and unexpectedly and my mom was a nursery school teacher. And you know, sometimes you come across people that are like, Oh my gosh, you were put on this earth to do this job. That was my mom, she's like the pied piper, like kids she had never met would gravitate to her. And so when she passed away, it was remarkable the number of children who came to her calling hours. And one of the I will always remember there was one girl who's probably about eight, my mom taught four year olds. And everyone that week, this little girl was the most wrecked individual. I saw that entire week, which is just inconsolable. And so I actually stepped out of you know, kind of a greeting line one over to talk to her to see if she was okay, because I didn't see any grownups around her. And through sobs, she said, your mom changed my life. And I thought you're eight. There's not a lot of life to change. What. And then she explained that when she was four, she was struggling so much in school, she was struggling so much socially, in terms of learning that her parents were gonna pull her out of school, and we're gonna homeschool. But my mom noticed that she liked to sing. And so my mom would sing with her. And to be very clear, my mom could not carry a tune in a bucket, not a singing family. But my mom's dying with this four year old. And that gave this little girl the confidence to keep trying. And now she was in elementary school. She's in her school choir. She said she had friends. She's doing well at school. That was the moment that I realized what success actually looks like that it's not about kind of all these, you know, things that we look at money, yachts, whatever titles, that it's about changing someone's life. And it's the little things that we do the everyday interactions. The times when we do something that maybe makes us feel a little silly, but that connects with someone and gives them courage and support. That's what leads to a successful life. So that's why, you know, I do my work in innovation, but I always do it with that story with my mom and that little girl in the back of my head of am I working with my clients We were making their life better


Jay Kingley  30:02  


That was just a terrific heart warming story it, it brings to life. What it is that you do, I have no doubt that we've got a lot of people in the audience that would love to reach out to you and better understand how to pull off what I think for a lot of people is this very high degree of difficulty but essential task of how do you make your organization more innovative? Robyn, what's the best way for people to reach out to you?


Robyn Bolton 30:34  


Best way to find me is on email. So my email address is And that's Robin with a y not an a.


Jay Kingley  30:44  


And we will put that in the show notes. Make it very easy along with Robyns linked in address. I, Robyn, you were amazing today. I think you've given us so much to think about, but really, you've acted I think as a bit of a North Star that can guide us to how we should become more innovative. And as you know, look, as amazing as that is, I think you can do more, I think you can do better. I have got the backs of our listeners. And I'm going to put it straight to you. I'd like you do a little something extra for the good people that are listening, taking notes, and really rethinking based on what you've told them. How to think about innovation. What can you do?


Robyn Bolton  31:36  


All right, I respect that Jay, you gotta you got to advocate for your customers got to advocate for your listeners. So congratulations, mad respect to you for doing that. And so what I will do for listeners of this podcast, when you email me put in your email that you listen to Best Kept Secret. And I will respond with a link to a very quick, very short survey where you will get asked questions to assess where you're at, in your innovation journey. And when I get the results when I get the answers to your questions, I will pull together a custom innovation roadmap for you giving the first three things that you need to start working on. If you're going to be serious about innovation.


Jay Kingley  32:29  


Every successful journey starts with self awareness and understanding your starting point. So Robyn, that is amazing. Listeners. Let us take her up on that great offer. Robyn. Thank you. Thank you for being such an amazing guest on the Best Kept Secret to our listeners. Let's keep crushing it. Until next time.

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