October 2014 | Senior Leadership
“Big ideas don’t always come from within,” says Tom Pirrone, president and CEO of SSC US, a space technology and services company. “To think outside the box, you need to be outside the box.” For Pirrone, outside the box is in the Wharton Fellows: Master Classes and Networking for Senior Executives, which brings together some of the world’s most innovative leaders, faculty experts, and a global peer group of senior executives. They meet on site at companies that are well ahead of the curve. “You can hear about innovation in a class,” says Pirrone, “but being there gives you a completely different perspective.”
The CEO knows that his next game-changing idea won’t come from the latest management books, leadership podcasts, or CEO interviews. While those offer insights and new approaches, they’re read and watched by millions of other executives around the globe. The real key to staying on top is finding that idea earlier than others, and transforming your organization to take advantage of it.
After the New York Master Class, which brought the Fellows face-to-face with the president of a ground-breaking advertising agency, a chief curator at the Museum of Modern Art, and former New York mayor and CEO of Bloomberg LP Michael Bloomberg, Pirrone had a chance to put new insights into practice. “Three days after the Master Class ended, I went to our corporate headquarters in Stockholm and met with 95 of our global leaders. I ran an innovation workshop based on what I had learned from the class, focused on creating a culture of innovation.”
Pirrone says the Fellows inspired him to look for ideas the company could implement immediately. He asked those in the workshop what they would need to change to make that happen. Under his guidance, the group came up with 95 ideas. “In order to move some of these objectives forward,” he explains, “we decided to create an ‘Innovation Accelerator’ within our company. The IA will be chaired by me and will consist of 5 to 7 of our most creative thinkers. It will have the responsibility for shaping the future of our company by being a facilitator of innovation and creative thinking around our business. Our company consists of a little more than 600 people in 4 different divisions around the world that are actively engaged in some of the most interesting space programs on the planet. However, even in this exciting and normally quite creative industry, we believe that our efforts in innovation need to increase to ensure that we remain a leader in our sector of the space industry.”
Wharton marketing professor Jerry Wind, director of the Fellows program, says Pirrone’s experience is not uncommon. “We design the Master Classes to bring the Fellows into the world’s most innovative organizations. Some are well known [in Seattle they met with senior leaders of Microsoft and Amazon, and in Silicon Valley with those at Facebook and Google], and others are below the radar. We get a chance to see what is working at start-ups and large corporations like Boeing that have been on the cutting edge for decades, and then work on bringing those lessons back into our organizations.”
The next Master Class, scheduled for February 2015, will convene in Austin, Texas, a city that boasts its own Chief Innovation Officer. “Austin is an exciting place,” says Wind. “There are many start-ups and more established companies that are reinventing value creation strategies.” The class will include a visit to IBM’s Design Lab, where the Fellows will study design thinking, exploring the company’s process for developing new products and services.
Wind stresses that the focus is on identifying ideas that Fellows can leverage and build on in their own companies. For Pirrone, the formula is working. “Fellows gives you an opportunity to think through your own environment and what you are trying to do. If you want to break through barriers,” he says, “this is how to do it.”
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