EY invests in technology and people to create innovation “superheroes”
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EY invests in technology and people to create innovation “superheroes”

In this podcast, Jeff Wong, global chief innovation officer at EY, discusses the company’s innovation ecosystem and the importance of investing in not just technology but also people to succeed in a disruptive environment.
Heidrick & Struggles
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In this podcast, Heidrick & Struggles’ Josh Clarke speaks with Jeff Wong, global chief innovation officer at EY. Wong discusses the innovation ecosystem he has implemented at EY, investing in both technology and people to become better, faster, stronger. He also talks about the leadership skills needed to succeed in a continuously disruptive world, how to hire and develop talent with a growth mind-set, and how critical innovation is for companies to not only survive but thrive.

Some questions answered in this episode include the following:

  • (1:00) When you joined EY in 2015, the organization’s innovation ecosystem was just starting to grow. What’s different today?
  • (5:19) What are the key leadership skills CEOs and other business leaders should harness and develop to succeed in this continuously disruptive world?
  • (8:54) What’s been the most significant challenge you’ve faced recruiting people to this new vision of EY?
  • (10:35) In an era when AI and disruptive technologies are part of the day to day, what do companies need to do to empower their employees to thrive?
  • (14:52) How can CEOs best prepare their organizations for change?

Below is a full transcript of the episode, which has been edited for clarity.

Welcome to the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast, the premier provider of leadership consulting, culture shaping, and senior-level executive search services. Every day, we’re privileged to talk with fascinating people who are shaping the future through their leadership and vision. In each episode, you’ll hear a different perspective from thought leaders and innovators. Thanks for listening to the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast.

Josh Clarke: Hi, I’m Josh Clarke, partner in the Global Technology & Services Practice of Heidrick & Struggles. In today’s podcast, I’m speaking to Jeff Wong, global chief innovation officer of EY. Jeff is focused on transforming EY by mobilizing leaders within client organizations to supercharge their talent, by leveraging the right technologies like data and AI to augment talent, and by creating superhero employees who are better, faster, and stronger. Jeff, welcome, and thank you for taking the time to speak with us today.

Jeff Wong: Thanks, Josh. I’m really happy to be here.

Josh Clarke: When you joined EY in 2015, the organization’s innovation ecosystem was just starting to grow. Fast forward, what’s different today?

Jeff Wong: It’s been a ridiculously great journey. I’ll start with the outside environment. What we talked about in 2015 was how the pace of change was accelerating, and we told these now-quaint stories about self-driving cars and what it would be like to be in the hotel industry today with all these new sharing companies popping up and how disruption was happening to certain sectors in certain areas of the world. Now what we’re seeing is what we thought was going to happen. Every sector in the world, every client we serve, is being impacted by the acceleration and pace of change. And it’s not just the industry being impacted; it’s every part of the supply chain and the value chain in those industries are being impacted.

And then now we’re also starting to see disruption come from multiple directions. When we talked about it in 2015, we always started with technology and how technology is really changing how the world works, and that’s really true and that drives a lot of it. But what we’re also seeing is changes in governments causing transformation and change and driving disruption around the world. Changing perceptions of people, consumers, and what they want out of the world is really different and how they think about the world is really different. And so that acceleration isn’t just on one vector but is on multiple vectors.

So how does it apply to EY? We’ve had the opportunity to start new businesses, to start new business models, to think about how we hire and think about talent differently, not just on the hiring front but also on how we train them, how we grow them, how we promote them. Because really our goal is to create an organization that has a growth mind-set, grit, determination, resiliency inside of it, and I think we’ve been able to make some significant headway over the last four years.

Josh Clarke: One of the things we’ve observed is, with these changes, even the way we define an organization has changed. As a 100-year-old audit company, EY has now evolved into a data powerhouse. Where do you see EY evolving in the next five years?

Jeff Wong: I don’t think our ambition is really changing. We want to build a better working world. We’re just using all the tools and all the assets that we have imaginable to us to really express that vision in a ten-X, hundred-X way. So when you look forward over the next five years, I think that people will see us differently because we’ll be far more capable at addressing what has always been our mission and purpose.

Josh Clarke: Let’s talk challenges for a moment. When you joined, what hurdles did you face and did the organization face on this journey?

Jeff Wong: When I joined, there was no innovation team prior to me in the 150-year history [of the firm]. So this was a brand-new function, a brand-new capability. So, Josh, when you put me into this role, it was just me, so one of the challenges that we faced was how do we introduce ourselves to this 270,000-person firm, when it’s just one person? How do we build a team of people and prove to them that we can think about the world differently, that we should allow our creativity and our imagination to run a bit wild? While all of that was a challenge—I have a lot more air miles than I’ve ever had in my life; I’ve spoken with a lot more groups inside as well as outside than I ever have before in my life—what has really been remarkable is how quickly this organization has taken on the excitement around how all this change allows us to think much more widely and much more broadly about what we can do today and what we can do in the future. This organization has been truly remarkable at adopting this idea that in the next 5 years we can really be different than we’ve been in the last 50.

Josh Clarke: Jeff, as you said, innovation is about change. What are the key leadership skills CEOs and other business leaders should harness and develop to succeed in this continuously disruptive world?

Jeff Wong: I have the grand benefit of traveling around the world and meeting with a lot of external boards of directors and C-suites and talking about change. And the controversial part is that I often see boards filling roles inside the boardroom or filling, I think more importantly, the CEO spots with backgrounds that are not focused on the next 10 years; they’re focused on the last 20. And by that I mean I see a lot of teams and leadership teams being built around long-term historical experience and not being thoughtful enough about how do you solve for the next 10 [years]. So when you think about the leadership skill sets that you need when you’re thinking about the additional board member or you’re thinking about who do you need for that CEO spot or that C-suite spot, that’s an incredibly important characteristic. You need to think about how you can find leaders who can manage through change that isn’t defined yet, that can manage through the chaos—What have they shown in their career about transforming organizations to manage change, to manage new environments? How have they been able to do that?—versus leaning so heavily on what I see as the traditional hire, the platinum-plated resume—they have 30 years of historical success in the industry, so maybe they can lead our firm for the next 10.

Josh Clarke: And specifically, as you think about these examples, we’ve talked about some characteristics of successful executives in these situations, what skills do you look for?

Jeff Wong: I look for somebody who’s been through a difficult and challenging environment and was aggressive about trying to come up with a creative answer to address that challenge. Inside of this new environment, things are changing so rapidly. The definitions of who you’re competing against are changing moment to moment. The idea of who you’re competing with for that customer is coming from so many different areas that you need to find executives who have found an ability to come up with answers for hard problems where the answer was different from how that industry has ever thought about it in the past. Are they able to think about the product they’re delivering as a platform instead of a product? Are they insightful about what your product does for a customer but creative about what it should be doing for a customer, what it could be doing for a customer that is beyond the imagination of the traditional team that’s been in place?

The second thing is get to a successful outcome but not necessarily on the first try. It’s actually really good to see people who have gone after it and tried the creative answer, not quite achieved the milestones or goals that they wanted, but then come back at it, come back at that question in a different way. It goes back to what we were saying earlier. It’s about growth mind-set. It’s about the idea that this is supposed to be hard; it’s not supposed to be easy, but you can work your way through to the ultimate endgame and the ultimate challenge of getting to the outcome you want but just probably not on the path where you thought.

Josh Clarke: What’s been the most significant challenge you’ve faced recruiting people to this new vision of EY?

Jeff Wong: I wasn’t sure when I came here how hard or easy it was going to be to find people to join in this journey. We have a concept called “suits and jeans.” I am a jeans person, coming in more from the outside, the technology world, the start-up world, that ecosystem, but we also recruit from the world of suits, which is people who have been at the firm for 20 or 30 years, senior partners or staff members, so the whole range in between. Because what we have realized is that the strength of what we do in terms of innovation really comes from the matching of those two together. When we are just jeans people from the outside world, we can come up with creative ideas, but we’re not really leveraging the strengths [of the firm]. When we’re just the suits people, we have the history and majesty and the relationships and the assets, but we don’t necessarily have the insight into approaching the problem in new and interesting ways. I mean, to be honest, they’re pretty darn good at it, but it’s an extra layer of this intelligence that we can bring together. When we’re combined, we’re unbeatable. Our success rate project to project to project is far higher than what the venture capital industry likes to quote every time. And so that’s also been exciting to the teams we recruit from the outside. They have a chance to come and have this big vision about where we can go. They have a really high chance of their stuff really working and changing something in the world. That’s exciting.

Josh Clarke: Jeff, in an era when AI and disruptive technologies are part of the day to day, what do companies need to do to empower their employees to thrive?

Jeff Wong: I have a saying here, which is we invest in technologies to make our people into superheroes. The technology is great, but you can’t just plug it into the wall and walk away and think that it’s going to change anything, particularly today. The entire mind-set we have, whether it’s artificial intelligence or blockchain or automation or any of these words, is how do we let our people be more human? How do we give them time back at times, support their judgment in decision making, help their hypotheses, then test their hypotheses, using technology to the greatest possible lengths that it can be used? And this is probably a little different than the dialogue that you hear in the popular press out there, which talks more about technology as something to be fearful of or something that’s driving all this change, and we should be worried about this change, and who’s going to have a job and who’s not going to have a job. And what we’re finding, as a very people-centric organization, is the mind-set we’re going about this with, which is making our people into superheroes, it’s paying off more so because our people love it, our people want it, our people want more of it, frankly. And I travel all around this world talking to our people, and I always ask that question, “So, when we implemented this AI tool, when we implemented this automation effort here or there, what did you think?” The only answer I’ve ever received is, “We love it. We want more of it. Can we do it faster?” We started our own initiative around doing more of it. Every leading company in the world is filled with people like us. So the first thing is the mental mind-set that technology is there to help your people become superheroes, and that mind-set helps a lot of this idea about change that comes from technology.

The second part is around how learning is an important part of our investment in our people. We spend over half a billion dollars a year in terms of training and teaching our people. We have all sorts of systems that we have done to make available the idea of inventing yourself differently or learning a new skill or tool, particularly around emerging technologies. One of those many concepts is a badge’s concept, where you can learn about the new technologies—and not just show your interest but learn some interesting things about the technology and then learn some hard skills that allow you to actually apply these technologies in the project work you’re doing for a client. That’s amazing. We also started a new leadership learning effort, which combines engineering and business and product design and design thinking, so it combines the different skill sets.

So we’re really focused on helping our people learn how to learn and figuring out the new thing. You started out with the question: “In today’s world of artificial intelligence . . . ” In 6 or 12 or 18 months from now, it’ll be a different word you stick in there. And 6 or 8 or 12 or 18 months after that, it’ll be another word that you put in there. Whatever’s the cool word of the day, whatever is the buzziest word of the day, is going to be the next thing that you’re thinking about. So what we’re really trying to teach our people inside of the badges and the learning centers and the new leadership executive learning efforts that we have going on isn’t about a specific technology in a specific moment in time. Well, let me rephrase that. We do teach them about that specific technology in that specific moment in time, but what we really are creating are learning pathways where they can continuously educate themselves, continuously understand what the next thing is, continuously understand different forms of disruption and where it’s coming from. And that is the obligation that senior leadership groups around the world have to their people, to their employees, in a world that’s changing so quickly.

Josh Clarke: Jeff, how can CEOs best prepare their organizations for change?

Jeff Wong: In the end, it fundamentally comes down to one thing. It’s courage. Oftentimes what I see from these CEOs is that they know, broadly speaking, what change needs to happen, how they need to be making decisions differently, how they need to think about the world differently, how they need to invest the capital that they have differently than they have before. And it takes a lot of courage to change the pathway and the success of the previous years. The seven CEOs I’ve spoken to in the last month—wildly successful organizations, Fortune 500, Fortune 100 organizations, wonderful businesses that have worked not just magnificently well but at the top of their class—they need inside of this moment the courage to say, “Yes, but the next 10 years are different.” And so why they’ve been hired there isn’t to rest on the laurels of the previous 30 [years] but to define the next 10.

The second thing is to have a lot of creativity about who they can become. We talked about how people see EY as an audit firm, a tax firm, a professional services firm. I look at us and I say we are data, trust, and relationships. Now imagine who we can be. And when I look at these seven companies I met with, these seven leadership teams I met with, and these seven CEOs I met with, it tells me that, in every single one of those rooms, if you look at their businesses from a different angle, release themselves from the definitions of the past, you can see the light in the CEOs’ eyes as they realize, “We can achieve our purpose and ambition 10 times bigger than we have and than we’ve imagined we could,” because all this change exists, because all of these new technologies are driving this change, because that is the opportunity that change affords them.

And so that’s what I would say, fundamentally, to CEOs: to have courage and be willing to be creative and be imaginative about who you can be, whatever organization you’re leading can be. If you mix those two together, I think you’re going to see a lot of leading organizations really break away from the definitions of the past to become something different and really magnificent and wonderful, and address and change the world in great ways around those two concepts: courage and creativity.

Josh Clarke: So if these are two factors that will enable success, what do you say to a CEO to the question, “Why should I change?”

Jeff Wong: As I like to say, by the time you can see it, feel it, touch it, define it, the disruption that’s happening to you, it’s too late. Conversations with organizations where I know the senior leadership teams, and I know they knew the disruption that was happening, and they thought, “That’s coming at some point. Yes, I should probably be thinking about it at some point.” And then the confidence of a large, established company comes through: “But they’re still small,” or “They’re only in one part of the world,” or “I think some customers like them, but maybe it’s just a niche thing.” And you can see the hopefulness in their description of it. And then it happens, and then you start seeing an industry change, and then everyone turns around and says, “Wasn’t that obvious? Customers just love that product, that endgame better than the established existing product.”

So what I would say to CEOs who are sitting on the fence or skeptical or thinking about it is if you see the signals in the water in front of you—so if you’re a leader who’s thinking, “Yes, but not here. Yes, but not me”—go find someone in your ecosystem who will tell you a different version of the story that you’re telling yourself and be open to being convinced that maybe they’re seeing something you don’t. Because I cannot name a single sector where this isn’t happening.

Josh Clarke: If you were to give one piece of advice to future CEOs and entrepreneurs about what they most need to do today to thrive, what would that be?

Jeff Wong: Everybody at every stage has to realize that entrepreneurship, innovation, driving change in the world, it’s real stuff; it’s serious. We have milestones and targets and goals, operating rhythms, that are as serious as the most core parts of our business, that are as hard as the most core parts of our business, the established parts. Now our systems and processes and methods of thinking about it are very different from the core business. It’s a lot more flexible; it changes a lot. It has to be able to evolve with what we’re seeing from the customers and how we’re seeing the success, or lack of success, in the things that we’re putting out in the world. So it’s hard, and it’s serious, and CEOs need to understand that when they do innovation.

And a lot of people, when they think about innovation, they think, “It’s just fun and games. You guys are just experimenting, and it doesn’t really matter what you do.” The way we do it here, it’s serious. We are passionately firing down pathways all of our effort. The nights and weekends we spend on what we do is because we’re passionate about getting that answer right. We have a lot of fun doing it. I don’t want anyone to think that it’s not a lot of fun. I mean, I have an extraordinary amount of fun doing what we do, but it doesn’t mean it’s not incredibly hard and we’re not incredibly serious about it. So innovation is a very, very serious business, no matter how much fun we’re having doing it. And I think that’s important for entrepreneurs and CEOs at any level to know and understand. You can have a lot of fun doing it, but you’ve got to be serious.

And so related to that, the second thing I would say is that everyone loves those moments when you do a launch or, in our case, when we hit $250 million in revenue on something, which did happen and we’re very happy about that. Those are good days. Everyone gets to celebrate, you have your pizza party or ice cream party, whatever party you want, you hand out trophies. Those are great, but those are not the days that we live for. We live for the grind. We live for the moments in between. That’s where we’re learning, that’s where we’re getting better every single day. You’ve got to love the middle; you’ve got to love the grind.

Josh Clarke: Jeff, thank you for making the time to speak with us today.

Jeff Wong: Really happy to be here, and thank you for having me on the show.

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