Today’s episode of Mayfield’s CXO of the Future podcast will feature a conversation with Neil Goodrich, a passionate believer in creativity and culture. Neil is both CIO and Chief Innovation Officer at M. Holland Company where he is responsible for establishing IT strategies, digital organizational change, and outstanding user experiences. Neil received his Bachelor of Arts in Criminal Justice from the University of Illinois at Chicago, and a Master of Business Administration in Operations Management from the UIC Liautaud Graduate School of Business. He continues to have strong ties to the UIC campus, where he mentors a cohort of high performing students as part of the Business Scholars program.
Listen to the podcast here:
Neil’s degree in criminal justice led him to spend the first few years of his career as a private investigator doing insurance fraud investigations. He believes the experience was a huge part of his innovative foundation.
“You get a case file with no standard operating procedures. It’s pure creativity as you try to chase down the outcome you want.”
Neil’s career pivoted from private investigator to a special projects and business analyst. He eventually became the middleman between business users and technical folks focusing on problem solving through creativity. The technology piece became a tool in his toolbox. At M. Holland, Neil rose from IT Manager to the company’s first technology-related role on the Executive Leadership Team, responsible for all IT functions, as well as leading digital change within the organization.
“When it came time to create my current role there was a lot of discussion about information versus innovation, and that information piece felt too passive. It captured the operating responsibilities, but the real mandate was to be a provocateur, to get in there with ideas and sort of mix it up. And so that’s how I ended up as both CIO and Chief Innovation Officer.
Today we’re a team of 20 plus and have launched a PMO and a cybersecurity and data analytics practice with the purpose of solving problems and enabling outcomes and capabilities that the organization wanted.”
Unique Skill Sets for a CIO and Chief of Innovation
Neil never set out to say, ‘I want to be in technology,’ or ‘I want to be a CIO.’ It was always a byproduct of doing the things he loves to do, and his passion for problem-solving.
“In a role like mine, you need to have great social skills, mental adaptability, the ability to switch gears, change the plan, look at the results of something you’ve just done and decide whether it’s working or whether you need to pivot. I would describe those as self-reflection and emotional intelligence skills. You need to be able to look at a situation and be inventive about how you’re going to go after it. You need to take things and rotate them 90 degrees, re-examine them and see if there’s an entryway through that different perspective.”
Neil believes that his job is to be a leader in circumstances where people are looking for guidance. His creative way of providing guidance includes leading his team in monthly improv exercises to hone ‘think on your feet’ creative collaborative social skills.
Improv tenets he uses include the “Never Say No Onstage” rule:
“So if I say, ‘I want a divorce,’ you can’t say ‘We’re not married’ because you’ve now killed the storyline. You have to say, ‘Yes and …’. If you think about it, when somebody brings you an idea that isn’t necessarily a good idea or if somebody wants to talk to you about something that isn’t feasible, there’s a way to talk about it in a positive way so that person will come back later with another idea.
“Then there is the game where you stand back-to-back. One person has a real picture and the other person is drawing on a whiteboard, but they can’t see what the other person is doing, and so the person is forced to describe the image they’re holding. And you start thinking about the granularity of language and the ability to articulate. So the person drawing on the whiteboard will say, ‘What do you mean it has a leg in one corner? Which corner?’ Folks would go away and they would come back a few days later and say, ‘You know what just happened? Kelly was talking to me and I did the thing from the game two weeks ago!’ And so each of the folks playing and observing the game are on their own learning journey, learning to be either more articulate or to chop stuff up until they can get the clarity that they need.”
The monthly improv sessions were the beginning of a creative new culture for the technology team. Regardless of a person’s position on the team, their job has always been to look at opportunities and say, “Hey, we could apply this technology that I know about to this business problem that this person doesn’t know about.” Neil’s team started to solve problems that the organization didn’t ask them to solve or that were considered unsolvable, and this changed the leadership’s outlook on technology. In time, they were invited to design and strategy meetings. That culture of curiosity fuels so much. It fuels connecting with other people, building relationships, and taking an interest in the business.
Solving Problems with Active Listening and Observational Learning
When Neil first started, it was clear that they needed a CRM. He decided that the best way to learn about what customers wanted was to ride along with the salespeople and watch the conversations they had – this experience made him realize that the customer often wanted to talk about a lot of things beyond programmatic answers, but account managers didn’t always have that information at their fingertips.
“We went to business leaders and said ‘We should definitely put in the CRM, but that’s only a fraction of the conversation that’s happening. Customers want to talk about all of these other things, so we think we should start by building a proprietary app that draws data from core systems, so whatever the customer wants to talk about is no more than two clicks away.’”
The app was a big success with users and proved to the organization that Neil’s innovative approach worked.
Driving Innovation in a Large Corporate Environment
“Innovation, like Digital Transformation, means different things to different people. We focused on innovation because we were looking for ways to programmatically find new ideas and actively manage a portfolio of different kinds of ideas. Before the portfolio approach was in place, we had little tiny incremental ideas competing with really cool whiz bang ideas competing with solid ROI projects.”
So, Neil’s team made a place for each thing:
One of their leaders is the adjacent next business idea person
A different leader was focused on extracting all the value from the digital platforms that were already in place, but underutilized
They had people who were experiencing pain because the incremental stuff wasn’t getting done, and the breakthrough was finding a framework that the group could talk about where everything has a home.
So even in early innovation maturity, the mindset is there and the pieces are being put in place to better enable ideas new and old. This last year, they started an internal innovation program for the first time. Once a quarter, 20 people are drawn from all across the organization and run a couple of themed workshops. It’s a totally new vehicle for capturing ideas. They did a couple, for example, on the next normal and decision making without automation. Through these workshops, a cool relationship map emerged and that went right into the hands of their VP of Operations in terms of things to go after.
Advice for Startups
Neil thinks that startups need to think about a Venn diagram that illustrates customers and technology and the business. There is a little tiny space in the diagram that overlaps, and startups need to get the overlap with the larger organization so that they can better understand what that service is capable of.
“You’re going to have to ice pick your way through that and it’s going to be messy, and you need to be patient. It’s challenging to find large organizations that are willing to take that time to talk to startups. They say, ‘I have twenty-five minutes, let’s get this thing done.’ But that’s not how creativity works. I think it’s important to find a common language to tell the story about what your product or service could unlock.”
Be human first. It doesn’t really matter what you’re talking about, whether that’s navigating team issues or creating a new solution.
If you’ve surrounded yourself with the right people and you have the right relationships (and those relationships are authentic), you’re going to find a way, you’re going to figure it out, you’re going to get through it.
I’d rather have an awkward direct conversation that permanently improves our relationship. I think we’re just humanists. And I think that’s transcended into the culture of the group.
As the technology and innovation leader at the M. Holland Company, Neil is responsible for establishing information technology strategies, digital organizational change, and outstanding user experiences. His multi-disciplinary background includes previous lives in accounting, project management, and investigation while his recent work has focused on building technology teams around cultures of creativity. He received his Bachelor of Arts in Criminal Justice from the University of Illinois at Chicago, and a Master of Business Administration in Operations Management from the UIC Liautaud Graduate School of Business. He continues to have strong ties to the UIC campus, where he mentors a cohort of high performing students as part of the Business Scholars program.