Innovation starts at the top. In this age of disruption and global competition, growing companies can’t afford to sit back and wait for an eager employee to bring good ideas to the table.
The struggle is understandable, but the solution is obvious. The most innovative leaders in the world come from the startup environment, where agility and disruption aren’t just nice but necessary. When businesses look for innovative CEOs — whether they’re massive corporations or startups themselves — they should begin by looking at the pool of candidates with the most relevant experience.
Your best CEO candidates may come from accelerators.
Startup leaders can be found in plenty of places, but one source offers a larger, more successful pool than the rest: startup accelerators, where entrepreneurs sharpen their skills in disruptive innovation.
Why Accelerator Experience Is Key
In November, Harvard Business Review and Mastercard unveiled a study that sought to explain what distinguishes leading innovators. The study, Become 2020, analyzed responses from more than 1,000 executives about how companies pursue innovation across functions like human capital, customer experience, and data usage. As researchers reviewed the responses, they noted that the firms tended to fall into three groups: leaders, followers, and laggards.
Leaders in the study emphasized speed and creative thinking throughout the organization. Researchers found that an astounding 96% of leaders bring new ideas to market quickly, compared to just 17% of laggards. Almost 90% of leaders prioritize innovative practices at the top, suggesting that those companies favor entrepreneurial executives. The study also found that leaders empower employees to think like entrepreneurs far more than the other groups.
Those findings align with the characteristics of executives with startup accelerator experience. What other arena puts so much focus on time to market, individual empowerment, and deliberate disruption? Executives with extensive and repeated experience prioritizing these qualities make ideal candidates to lead innovation-hungry companies. The question: How can a company seeking a new CEO evaluate candidates with accelerator experience based on their innovative potential?
Finding an Innovative New CEO
Even when searchers know where to look, finding the right CEO can be a steep challenge. A good one not only needs to bring product innovation to the table, but also a clear, organization-level vision for the future.
CEOs with accelerator backgrounds specialize in taking companies from one development stage to the next. Cocoon Health hired CEO Kate Whitcomb out of the accelerator environment for this very reason. Whitcomb’s partner role at HAX, an accelerator focused on helping companies through development and scaling phases, made her a smart pick for Cocoon, which is looking to expand its business model into software licensing.
Especially in the tech sector, aligning company and CEO specialties is key. A leader who hails from a seed-stage ag-specific accelerator might be a great choice for a younger firm looking to disrupt legacy agricultural companies like John Deere.
When the fit is right, the results can be extraordinary. Sam Altman, former president of Y Combinator, stepped away from the popular accelerator in March to start an AI research company with SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk. Altman, who sold social networking app Loopt for $43 million in 2012, is a natural selection for a socially responsible AI firm.
That match matters not just for individual projects, but for the long term as well. Executive exits hit an all-time high this past year; disruptions in a leadership team also tend to disrupt ongoing innovation work. Investing more time in a CEO search may seem like a silly move when a company lacks a leader, but it minimizes future disturbances for the innovation team.
As innovation expectations for CEOs increase, companies can’t hope to do something new by looking for leaders in the same old places. What better place to look than in the accelerators where the market’s most successful innovators got their start?