As CEO of Pearson, Andy Bird oversees one of the world’s largest textbook publishers. But when considering Pearson’s long-term direction, Bird isn’t necessarily looking to his fellow Goliaths; often he takes inspiration from the Davids of the world.
“We are desperately trying to be a startup,” he said during a panel on innovating at scale at the londonbusinessblog.com Innovation Festival on Wednesday.
While the sentiment may surprise some, it was shared by all panel participants. Immediately after Bird made his point, Barbara Humpton, president and CEO of Siemens Corporation, chimed in: “You have to be intentional to stay in that day-one mentality,” she said, and “fall in love with your problem of the customer, not with your own technology.”
Humpton and Bird were joined onstage by Jeff Jones, president and CEO of H&R Block, and Ather Williams III, senior executive VP and head of digital strategy at Wells Fargo, for a 45-minute discussion on the difficulty and importance of driving of innovation within larger organizations. (H&R Block was the youngest company on stage, at a vibrant age of 67.)
That innovation manifests itself in each of their companies in different forms. For Wells Fargo, for example, it meant changing direction to prioritize mobile development. “Our strategy has shifted from having the largest branch network of all major banks to mobile-first,” Williams said. At H&R Block, it was the organization itself that had to be reconsidered. “We broke the company’s economic model by telling our investors we would make drastically less money and completely reset the company’s financial envelope. And the reason we’re going to do that is because we have a relevant crisis and we’re rebuilding the business for the next generation,” Jones said. While that conversation may have sparked some nervous laughter, Jones said it eventually allowed the company to relocate employees to remote work during the pandemic. “If we hadn’t done that, we wouldn’t have the success we have now,” he added.
But creating a culture that values unconventionality can be difficult for companies of their size, when everything from regulation and customer sensitivities to brand equity can create piles of bureaucracy. For example, when Jones taken over at H&R Block in 2017, he found a company that was overly cautious, even squashed. “We had to go back to the facts and think about how we can teach people to make decisions,” he said. “It has paralyzed us before; we have now tried to correct course.”
Of course, not everyone accepts change. And to address any naysayers within the office, the consensus was clear: “It’s important to have a clear strategy and vision and . . . to give people the forum to disagree. All those things are super important,” Jones said. “But ultimately, if someone still disagrees, if they’re constantly that person who slows down the rest of the team or organization, [we say] ‘We’d love to write a great reference for you.’”