Corporate Innovator Profile
|Name: Eric Acton
Title: Digital Transformation and Innovation Executive
Previous Experience: Soninsol, Neochange Inc. Charles Schwab
Total Corporate Innovation Experience: 10+ years
LinkedIn: Eric Acton
Eric Acton’s career has spanned a diversity of entrepreneurial and intrapreneurial roles. Serving as one of Dell’s most experienced digital transformation and innovation executives, Eric leads a team of enterprise entrepreneurs who focus primarily on banking, finance and healthcare innovations. We talked with Eric about the importance of pragmatism; why personality is important to his innovation teams; how his experiences as an entrepreneur prepared him for enterprise innovation and about Dell’s innovation priorities now and in the future.
As someone who began his career as a startup entrepreneur and then transitioned into corporate innovation, can you share some of the differences between the two comparable, yet distinct careers?
I actually started my career, inadvertently, as an intrapreneur, continued as a startup entrepreneur and now find myself back in the corporate innovation space.
Regardless of profession, the commonality throughout is a mindset. My attitude has been to roll up my sleeves and dive in, without fear of failure. Since the time my first co-founder and I entered our first startup competition at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management (which we placed 1st), I’ve been motivated to try things, challenge the status quo and challenge assumptions, regardless of risk. An old saying my grandfather used was “nothing ventured, nothing gained.” I really do live by that.
Differences. That’s a good question. As a startup entrepreneur, even people I did not know well were overtly supportive. Many of those people didn’t understand, or even want or need to understand much about the business, yet there was always an admiration out of respect for me as an entrepreneur. Sure, there was risk in what I pursued, but my drive and the encouragement of others masked any threats from manifesting in ways that would prevent me from pursuing my goals.
In the corporate world, however, the attitude is traditionally the opposite. The mindset is risk aversion, and “not to mess up.” Another big difference is that corporations think in terms of scale and predetermined ROI. That makes it difficult to nurture and grow an idea with uncertain outcomes. To this day, big corporations function by being steady, creating processes, and doing the same thing, the same way. The “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude is prevalent.
Today as an intrapreneur, I still have that fearless attitude and urge to create change despite the challenging goals and unprecedented risks inherent to enterprise innovation. As a startup founder, success was often measured by M&A, IPO, revenue growth, new clients etc. In the enterprise, success is often measured by simply not messing up or doing anything to challenge the status quo. In other words, as long as I don’t ruffle too many feathers, the enterprise has my back; but the second my team over-disrupts the norms, we may have to answer a lot of very tough and intrusive questions. The worst sin is to cannibalize the existing business – the very thing we should be doing!
I’ve heard some corporate innovators say that they like their job because it is much like being an entrepreneur but without the risk of losing a paycheck. While that may be true to an extent, corporate leadership is known to hold innovation teams and individuals accountable for failure or underachievement in ways that hurt equally as bad as a lost income. I’d rather lose a paycheck than be corporately neutered!
You define yourself as “loving technology but pragmatic in applying it to the enterprise.” What does that pragmatism look like to you?
As a corporate innovator, pragmatism is essential. It is the ability to have enough conviction that you will go forward with what you believe in; but be humble and open enough to listen to advice and constructive criticism from peers, colleagues and foes alike. In other words, you cannot be too proud to listen to dissenting opinions and sentiments when working in any large organization. You must be able to think on your feet and support your beliefs and recommendations, but you must do so in ways that are respectful to your organization’s culture and norms. If you can’t accomplish this, the organization won’t respect you, and your authority to recommend innovation will be diminished.
As someone who has launched several corporate innovation units, you rely greatly on personality to build your teams. What specifically do you look for in someone’s personality when deciding right and wrong fit?
A good team is made up of people with complementary skills. Part of my job is to find people who are better skilled than I am to perform specific tasks. My role is to connect the dots and fill the gaps. I often look at myself as a chameleon in that I can take on many different roles and responsibilities based on the situation to round out the team.
As an enterprise entrepreneur, I have become a huge believer in the power of diverse teams comprised of individuals with varied backgrounds and personalities. In my opinion, maintaining a group of people with varying opinions and expertise can lead to a cross-pollination of ingenious ideas that are a great benefit to the entire organization. To find this dichotomy of personnel, I rely heavily on identifying people already within the organization because current employees are likely to be both industry experts and familiar with the culture and norms. Once I find a core of ‘right fit’ people inside the company, then I begin looking to counter them with outsiders from different industries and backgrounds.
Most importantly for me, when I build my teams, I emphasize personality fit before underlying skills. That’s because personality is most important to ensure that the entire team can work well together at all times. To emphasize the importance of personality, I always give the example of one of my first partners in business. The man held a Ph.D. in quantum mechanics. He was very detail oriented, could understand very complex matters and worked in a very methodical way. He drove me crazy! I’m the total opposite, give me half an idea and I’m jumping 3 or 4 steps ahead in different directions.
But we quickly found out that we worked really well together because we complemented each other almost perfectly. We were mature enough to recognize each other’s skills while remaining empathetic and understanding of our different points of view. If our personalities were not accommodating to accepting each other, then the relationship – and the business – would have never succeeded.
How does a technology company like Dell, who many perceive as a change agent and digital disruptor, approach digital transformation? What are the goals?
A lot of people think that just because you’re a young corporation and a tech company that the influences of traditional corporations do not have an impact. Let’s be clear, though, many young and small companies aspire to morph into corporations – for better or worse – and Dell is no exception. Many of the roadblocks and barriers that hinder other corporate innovators impact us, and it’s our job as intrapreneurs to anticipate them and innovate our ways through inefficient, unproductive and bureaucratic situations.
Likewise, people tend to associate innovation with technology. But tech is simply an enabler, whereas innovation is a mindset. Our priorities span creating internal processes to better support customer experience and operational excellence, and to improve how our workforce engages with all constituencies, including vendors, suppliers etc. But tech isn’t always the solution – so it’s our job to think broader. Knowing our customers and the types of experiences that they want enables us to think differently about how and why we recommend changes to our company’s business model.
For those thinking about a career in corporate innovation, what advice do you have?
Innovation is rarely that lightbulb moment. If you’re consistently looking for that ‘big idea,’ then corporate innovation is not a career for you. But if you’re the type of person who has the ability to solve a problem at a detailed level and then take a step back and scale it out, you are likely to thrive in a corporate innovation environment.