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Chuck Swoboda Show Notes Page

Chuck Swoboda was working in a big company that was supposed to be an innovator. Seeing the bureaucracy and the senior leaders not really upholding the company’s core values, Chuck became frustrated and left the company. He went on and worked in a smaller company, eventually becoming the CEO, and did everything opposite of what a big company would do and found success through innovation.

Chuck Swoboda was born and raised in Libertyville, Illinois.  He’s the 5th of 6 children with one older brother, three older sisters and one younger sister.  His parents were married for 64 years.

Growing up in a large family, Chuck learned how to compete in just about any activity, from playing cards to basketball in the driveway to trying to bring home the best report card.  He also learned how to influence others, the value of hard work, and that if you were going to doing something, you might as well do it right.  His Dad had very high expectations, and he learned that to not settle for good enough.

After graduating from Marquette University in 1989, Chuck went to work for HP as a marketing engineer and then progressed through several sales and marketing roles before joining Cree in 1993 as an LED product manager. He had numerous roles at Cree (sales, marketing, manufacturing, general manager) before being named COO in 1997, President in 1999, and CEO in 2001.  He added the Chairman role in 2005 and eventually retired in 2017.

Chuck wasn’t very good a retirement.  He is the author of The Innovator’s Spirit, host of the Innovators on Tap podcast, the first Innovator-in-Residence at Marquette University, President of Cape Point Advisors (his consulting company), and a regular Forbes contributor.  He serves on one public company board, three private company boards, and is a founding board member of the new Cristo Rey high school in Durham, NC.

Chuck is too busy working on interesting challenges to think much about his legacy. He gets up every day looking for ways to help others to realize that anything is possible and hopefully inspire a few to embrace the Marquette slogan to Be The Difference.

Chuck splits his time between Cary, NC, Milwaukee, WI, and Bald Head Island (on the NC coast). He’s been married to his wife Karen for over 30 years, and they have three grown children and one grandson.

Tweetable Quotes and Mentions

Listen to @thechuckswoboda to get over the hump on the @FastLeaderShowClick to Tweet

“If you don’t get people with the right mindset, who think a certain way, you got no chance at innovation.” – Click to Tweet

“Best practice cannot be any better than what someone else has already done. It cannot lead to innovation.” – Click to Tweet

“A manager looks at a crisis as a problem. An innovator looks at a crisis as an opportunity.” – Click to Tweet

“If you’re going to innovate, you have to be brutally honest about what is the facts and what is the problem that needs to be solved.” – Click to Tweet

“Don’t focus on what went wrong; focus on what you can do about it.” – Click to Tweet

“When you’re innovating, the customer can’t know what they want because they can’t describe something that they don’t know is possible.” – Click to Tweet

“Don’t ask customers what they want. Ask them what is the problem they are facing.” – Click to Tweet

“Customers don’t buy features. Customers buy benefits.” – Click to Tweet

“Depending on how much you want to innovate is how much risk you need to take.” – Click to Tweet

“The challenge for most people is not that they don’t want to innovate, it’s that they’re uncomfortable with risk.” – Click to Tweet

“Innovation is coming up with solutions to problems you don’t have all the information for.” – Click to Tweet

“There is a way to do things better; find it.” – Click to Tweet

“The problem with big companies is they’re full of experts. They’ve already tried everything and know it’s not possible.” – Click to Tweet

“Fire yourself every Friday and rehire yourself every Monday.” – Click to Tweet

“Don’t get too stuck in whatever ideas you had the previous week.” – Click to Tweet

“The biggest impact I can make is not in what I do, but it’s who I can help influence.” – Click to Tweet

Hump to Get Over

Chuck Swoboda was working in a big company that was supposed to be an innovator. Seeing the bureaucracy and the senior leaders not really upholding the company’s core values, Chuck became frustrated and left the company. He went on and worked in a smaller company, eventually becoming the CEO, and did everything opposite of what a big company would do and found success through innovation.

Advice for others

Be willing to take risks and less afraid of failure.

Holding him back from being an even better leader

Limitations I put on myself.

Best Leadership Advice

Leadership is an action, and the first step of leadership is to go do something.

Secret to Success

A combination of really hard work and the ability to look at myself each day and ask myself what could I have done better and then do something about it the next day.

Best tools in business or life


Recommended Reading

The Innovator’s Spirit: Discover the Mindset to Pursue the Impossible by Chuck Swoboda

The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail by Clayton M. Christensen

Contacting Chuck Swoboda






Innovators On Tap:

Show Transcript

Click to access edited transcript

Unedited Transcript

Jim Rembach (00:00):

Okay. Fast leader Legion today. I’m excited because I have somebody on the show today. I actually have a somewhat of a personal connection of that whole six degrees of separation, but we also get to learn some very interesting insights and stories about a journey to being an even better innovator. Chuck Swoboda was born and raised in Libertyville, Illinois. He’s the fifth of six children and Hey, he has one older brother, three older sisters, and one younger sister. His parents were married for 64 years. Growing up in a large family, Chuck learned how to compete in just about any activity from playing cards to basketball in the driveway, to trying to bring home the best report card, and he also learned how to influence others, the value of hard work and that if you were going to do something, you might as well do it right. His dad had a very high expectation and he learned that to not settle for good enough.

Jim Rembach (00:57):

After graduating from Marquette university in 1989 Chuck went on to work for HP as a marketing engineer and then progressed through several sales and marketing roles before joining CRE in 1993 as an led product manager. He had numerous roles at Cree from sales, marketing, manufacturing, and a general manager before being named COO in 1997 president in 1999 and CEO in 2001 he added the chairman role in 2005 and eventually retired in 2017 Chuck wasn’t very good at retirement. He is the author of the innovator’s spirit, host of the innovators on tap podcast, the first innovator in residence and market and university president of Cape point advisors, which is his consulting company and a regular Forbes contributor. He serves on one public company board, three private company boards and as the founding board member of the new Cristo Rey high school in Durham, North Carolina. Chuck is too busy working on interesting challenges to think much about his legacy.

Jim Rembach (02:00):

He gets up every day looking for ways to help others to realize that anything is possible and hopefully inspire a few to embrace the market slogan to be the difference. Chuck splits his time between Cary, North Carolina, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and both had Island, which is on the North Carolina coast and he’s been married to his wife, Karen for over 30 years and they have three grown children and one grandson, Chuck Swoboda. Are you ready to help us get over the hump? I’m ready. I’m glad you’re here. Now I’ve given my Legion a little bit about you, but can you tell us what your current passion is so that we can get to know you even better? So

Chuck Swoboda (02:35):

most of my time I’m spending today thinking about how does innovation and leadership come together to really help people do things that they, they didn’t think they could do before. And then the Genesis of that is when I was at Cree and we were building the company, I didn’t really think about innovation. We just did it. So I retire and someone says, well, how’d you do it? And I’m like, I don’t know. And so I said, well, I should read some stuff about innovation. And as I read what other people wrote, I’m like, that’s not what we did. That actually doesn’t even really work, at least based on my experience and what the dynamic was, is that so much of what people talk about as a process or a recipe, and don’t get me wrong, there’s tools that are valuable. But what I saw firsthand was if you don’t get people with the right

Jim Rembach (03:20):

mindset who think a certain way, you got no chance at innovation. And so that’s what I’m spending most of my time on. Well, and you know, I can tell you going through your book, cause I, I’ve had the opportunity to interview several, you know, authors and folks that have, you know, really focused in on innovation because when you start looking at where we are today and the opportunities that exist, you know, a couple of things are kind of converging on us. One is the educational system really does enable, you know, the creative thinking that we need, uh, as well as the emotional intelligence that we need to be even better at innovation. Uh, and the, and the other thing is that when we start talking about opportunities to disrupt, they’re massive. So you’d have a lot of these things converging. Um, and so, you know, Hey, for those that can do it, there’s some significant opportunity.

Jim Rembach (04:09):

But I think, you know, for me to, we’re looking at your book, I love the way that you infuse story into the entire book. So like even talking about Charles Goodyear, even being in debtor’s prison for several years, and then even the first, you know, a really solution that he found that worked, um, wasn’t even in tires. It was something totally different. But you use, one of the things that to me kind of stood out and you hit it immediately. You said from your perspective, Apple, Apple computers that everybody thinks is such a great innovator, you’re like, they’re not innovators. What do you mean by that?

Chuck Swoboda (04:44):

So one, I’m a huge fan of Apple. In fact, I grew up learning to write code in my basement on an Apple two E computer. So just I go back and I ages me a little bit as well. But uh, I think what happens is that, you know, innovation is, it’s gotta be new. It’s got to solve a customer problem and create value. That’s my definition and I think what happens at Apple is that they did some amazing things, but it really hasn’t been since probably the iPhone and iTunes that they did something that I would qualify as an innovation. I think everything else has been incremental improvements. And the reason I think it’s important to make that distinction is you would do, you would take a very different approach if you wanted to do something incremental. Then if you want to do something truly innovative, at least according to my definition, and what you find is that when companies like Apple become successful, they get rewarded for making more money, making more profits, getting more market share, and the things you do to get good at that aren’t the same things you do in the early days when you’ve got nothing to lose and you’re trying ideas that a lot of them aren’t going to work.

Chuck Swoboda (05:51):

And once you have success, it’s very hard to still go back. That risk reward mentality and not essentially you lose your ability to take the same risks you could before. And so that’s why I believe that dynamics there, and there’s a second piece of it because I also believe that Google’s not innovative and that’s because if you look at what happens at Google labs, incredible technology, but what they don’t do is commercialize any of it anymore. And I believe that if the teams at Google, we’re actually going to lose their job. If they didn’t have to figure it out, they would have an electric, they would have their own autonomous vehicle, they would have a competitor to Facebook. But when you go to work every day and if you fail, it’s okay and there’s nothing to lose. I think you lose that focus. It’s, it’s why if you look at the last decade, look at the money Google spent and what they came up with, really cool technology, look at the money they spend at Google ventures and they created entire companies. And the difference was those companies, if their idea didn’t work, they were all going away. And so you get a different motivation and mindset. So that’s what I’m trying to tease out there as Zimbabwe. I’m a big fan of both Google and Apple, but not as great innovators anymore.

Jim Rembach (07:09):

Okay. So as you’re talking for me, I’m starting to think about that person in my own little sphere of, of influence that I could potentially impact in that. Gosh. Um, I have to now understand those differences between the two when we start talking about, you know, a lot. So somebody on on a previous episode talked about a glorified operational plan, right? So if I’m, you know, really just making some small incremental changes, that’s a, that’s a glorified operational plan. Uh, however, I have to take a very different approach if I’m talking about, you know, innovation, disruptive disruption and taking advantage of opportunities. Uh, I’m looking at putting two or three things together and, and you know, creating the synergies and coming up with something new. I have to, you know, now not just manage, but you also make a very, very important distinction between the, the leading and managing element. And you say that you can’t manage innovation. What do you mean by you can’t manage innovation?

Chuck Swoboda (08:09):

So management by definition is getting people to follow a set of rules or process to deliver some kind of predictable outcome that cannot lead to innovation. It’s intended to make a predictable outcome. In fact, the better you are at managing the better guard, delivering those roles, which by the way, there is an in place for management. I don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti management. But those skills absolutely get in the way of innovation. You know, you want someone that instead of coming in and trying to manage risk or avoid risk, you want them to take risk. And instead of someone that says, Hey, we want best practices, right? That’s the right way to get there. Well, best practice cannot be any better than what someone else has already done. So by definition of best practice cannot lead to innovation. It can only lead to the same as someone already did before because that’s what it is.

Chuck Swoboda (08:59):

It’s the best previous idea. And innovation is the next idea. And it even gets into, you know, a manager looks at a crisis as a problem. I think innovators look at a crisis as an opportunity because all of a sudden all the boundary conditions are on the table. And that’s the biggest challenge for most organizations. It’s not that there aren’t people with good ideas. Creating ideas is not the problem. It’s coming up with a reason and an opportunity to do them. And I think you either have to be wired that way or you have to create an environment that forces those decisions. That’s why, you know, big companies normally only innovate when they’re forced to,

Jim Rembach (09:36):

you know, this is a, okay. So I don’t oftentimes like to date, uh, episodes because a lot of the insights that come from them can be really, you know, captured and leveraged, you know, years from now. But right now we’re dealing with this coronavirus issue. Um, and at the taping of this particular episode, and that what you just said, right there is a message that I’m conveying to all of my clients and all the people who I’m coaching is that look, the people who are the most successful in this world, you know, make money on opportunities such as this. And I’m not even getting into the humanity issue. I mean, I have someone who I know personally know who has died from this is they ride and make money on the way down on the economy. And then they also make money on the way back up is they look at issues like this very, very differently than other people. And it’s not meaning that they’re, you know, they’re not human and they don’t have empathy and sympathy and compassion. That’s not what this is. It’s something quite different. Um, so how can an individual look at things such as this and not see crisis but flip it to opportunity.

Chuck Swoboda (10:45):

So let me give you an example. I’m actually working on, so yesterday I do as my innovator in residence role. I work at Marquette part time and they’ve decided that the students when they come back from spring break this weekend are not going to go into the classroom. They’re going to take every class and put it online in four days. Now I worked at Marquette for a long time now. We’ve been trying to take classes online for a decade and it’s been very, very difficult because of this crisis. And I literally wrote an email to a couple friends and called them who worked there. And I said, just so you know, I’m very sorry about all the difficulties, but this is the best moment you could have ever found because now the rules have been thrown out. And so if you think about it, why does someone not want to try something or want to change?

Chuck Swoboda (11:35):

They’re worried about risk of failure, right? Well look, there’s no alternative. You can either shut the university down or you can go online. That’s so well heck I’ll mind doesn’t seem so bad now. And so what happens is you change the mentality. But if you look that applies to businesses over and over is the first time that idea really came to me was I got to hear bill Ford talking after the 2008 financial crisis. And he described that if they had not mortgaged the blue oval and literally bet the company on that package to keep it solvent, there’s no way the changes they made to bring the company have. It could have happened. Cause he said he tried for four years and even as CEO could not move the organization. But the moment his family’s name was on the line, everything changed.

Jim Rembach (12:23):

Gosh, okay. So I’m again, I have to go back to my own world and my own ecosystem. Cause a lot of the folks, uh, may not be in a position to be in large company to do all the innovation thing. But you know, it’s, it comes back to that individual destruction. And what we have to do is we have to make sure that we uncover what you’re calling the innovators spirit and embracing five brutal truths. And those five brutal truths are, it’s not personal. Show the problem in an example of yourself, a focus on what you would do different next time. Accept responsibility and trust, but verify. Now I can also look at these things. If I’m thinking about I want to do this for my team, I want to do it for myself. I want to do for my team, want to try to build that, uh, opportunity within my organization. I can also see how some of these things could undermine one another. So if you could in a high level, just explain what you mean by these brutal truths.

Chuck Swoboda (13:20):

So the concept of the brutal truth says this. Most organizations get stuck in things that aren’t the real problem. So if you’re gonna innovate, you have to be brutally honest about what is the facts and what is the problem that needs to be salt. Because if you don’t, you got no chance. It’s how a small company like Cree becomes a big company. We had less people, less resources, less everything, but we had 100% of our energy on solving the problem. Most large organizations have most of their energy doing something else. So the brutal truth kind of forces people to say, Hey, that’s allows the idea. So the concept behind those five really habits that I’m suggesting are, is you have to get people to realize that when I want to give you the brutal truth, it’s not up to me to say it in a certain way.

Chuck Swoboda (14:07):

It’s up to you to hear it in a certain way. So the first idea is it starts with, you have to understand and assume that I’m giving feedback that is about the idea and a not about the person. Now you might say, well that’s easy as it is. It’s easy to say, is it hard to do? Yeah, it can be hard to do. But that kind of gets the process started because so much of where people get stuck on this is everyone wants me to make it okay for you to hear it and answers. No, it’s, you have to make it okay to hear it. And then you get into the next pieces, which are really just a way of depersonalizing the feedback. So you know, one of the ideas is to make it about yourself. So when I want to give someone really tough feedback, instead of saying, Hey, you know, Jim, that’s a L, I think you really need to do this by say, Jim, I want to help you understand something.

Chuck Swoboda (14:55):

When I had this problem one time, here’s where I struggled and what’s amazing is the moment I’m talking about me, you’ll hear me way better. And so really that process is then about, okay, so now you know it’s not supposed to be personal. You seen it in me so you can actually hear my feedback. And now, how do we get you to focus on not what went wrong, but what can you do about it? Because what went wrong is like that’s where most organizations get stuck. Who did it? Why did it go wrong? And the answer is no, really, what are you going to do with it? And, and so when you start building on that momentum, all of a sudden you create this organizational dynamic, which is problem solving becomes, yeah, that’s screwed up. We should fix it. Yeah. Oh, I had that idea.

Chuck Swoboda (15:38):

So it’s a bad idea. Let’s and use change a dynamic to where you can solve problems and move at a rate that’s just not possible. So that’s where the brutal truths come in. And then the last pieces, I coached a lot of people on this and you know, when you’re talking about helping someone change, they don’t act the way they do for some random reason. Someone’s behavior is a function of actually their core beliefs. So if you want to change a behavior, you don’t get them to practice a new behavior. You have to figure out what the belief is. That’s in the way. And when you, so when you give someone that feedback and you ask them to try to change, you should assume it’s probably not going to work the first few times. And so it trust but verify as is, don’t assume it worked. Assume it didn’t and you’re to say, I have to challenge you directly, but I’m going to watch how you act after that. So I can keep giving you that feedback because changing a belief is really difficult. And so that’s really where the concepts come from. It’s a way to reframe the problem and get you to hear it and then focus on what you can do about it and then don’t assume it works.

Jim Rembach (16:45):

Okay. So as you’re talking, it also leads me into the next point that I’ve found is really important and you made some assumptions in this area and some things came to light which caused you to, you know, determine, you know, what you needed to do differently. Um, and I, and I originally I say what is, because in your dialogue as you were just explaining a moment ago is you’ve, you, you pointed out something that a lot of people are pointing out more and more, is that we shouldn’t ask the question why we should ask the question, what meaning what can I do different? Not why did that happen? There’s those, those are, that’s a really important mindset shift. But you talked about the conflict between doing whatever it takes versus doing the right thing. Can you give us some insight into that?

Chuck Swoboda (17:32):

So, and I think it’s even, it’s even more complicated in that because I think first of all, you have to understand that most of us, um, and this is, uh, a Peter Drucker quote, but both of us are focused on doing things right instead of doing the right thing. And so I think you first have to get yourself head around this idea that the right thing may actually be doing things in a way that’s viewed as wrong right now. All right? So you kinda got to start there and then whatever it takes to get to the goal. What I’m teasing out there is that so often we limit ourselves by boundary conditions that we assume you can’t get past. Um, way to think about it as this, you know, one of the great things someone says, let’s go come up with a new idea. I’m going to say to you, Hey, let’s go think outside the box.

Chuck Swoboda (18:20):

It is the most flawed concept because the moment you acknowledge there is a box, you actually am set boundary conditions that are only going to limit what’s possible. So I always try to help people understand is you have to start with there is no box and if you go there then doing whatever it takes is pretty easy. So we would ask ourselves, when we faced a tough problem, we would literally sit down and go, no, you can do anything possible. How would you get to the goal? And so people say, I can’t get the product to the customer overnight. What would you mean? It’s just the plane’s already left. Could we call a charter company right now? Hire a plane and fly up there, we could do that. Okay. So what you’re saying is we could do it. We’re choosing not to do it. And when you start to reframe things that you realize almost everything, you’re not getting done, you’re choosing not to get done. And I think when you start to think that way, it gets much easier to help people start to see what’s really possible. And so that’s the tension between those two ideas is the right thing is you’re focused on the outcome doing things right. You’re focused on how you got there. And look, there’s probably a little bit of my market Jesuit philosophy there, which is the end sometimes justifies the means.

Jim Rembach (19:33):

Yeah. So I mean for me as you’re talking, you know, I hear, and I, I even say this with my kids a lot, I’m like, don’t, don’t turn your won’t do’s into cantors. You just don’t want to do it. It’s not that you can, and then the other thing is when you point out, um, you know, talking about brick and down into the fundamentals is really the difference between divergent thinking and convergent thinking. So convergent thinking is all about putting it in the box. You know, the divergent thinking is all of the things, right. So it’s, and I think you said something really important as you talked to, talked about, you know, really ideas without boundaries, ideas without limitation ideas. I mean just throw it all out there. And unfortunately what we often do is put those two things together and George land did a research study back in NASA by back in 1968 looking for the most creative scientists for NASA.

Jim Rembach (20:22):

And within that they, they, they really focused in on that divergent and convergent thinking issue. And the findings were so interesting that they actually did a longitudinal study and looked at the education system and kids that came in, you know, like kindergarten and what happened, uh, through the education system with their ability to be a Virgin, you know, in their thinking and how they got converted to be, you know, more, uh, you know, put in that scenario answer. And I’ll put a link to that on your show notes page. Cause I think it’s really important here is that we need to know that if we’re going to be thinking about things that are creative and wild and possibilities and Mo not turning our, you know, won’t do as an a can do is we need to separate out the divergent thinking and the convergent thinking. And, and so for me, when you start talking about, um, you know, this is a customer issue too. So talk about the customer experience. It’s most important is that we don’t necessarily want to listen to them and, and have them or, and do what they’re saying that they want. We need to take a different approach that you suggest. And then what does that approach?

Chuck Swoboda (21:21):

So it really starts with the premise that the customer can’t know what they want when you’re doing innovation. And it’s not because they won’t try, it’s because they can’t describe something that they don’t know. It’s not as possible. In other words, if they’ve never, people give you feedback based on their experiences. And when you’re doing innovation, like if you’re going to come out with a light bulb that never burns out, you can’t consumer test, Hey, what do you want your light bulb? We did? And you know what? They told us make it cheaper. They said, what else? The [inaudible] the two things we learned when we consumer tested light bulbs were I want a cheaper light bulb and I really don’t care about my light bulb. Wow, that’s going to make a really tough to try to convince someone to buy one that never burns out.

Chuck Swoboda (22:04):

Cause now you need to care. And so what you start to realize is, I’m not suggesting you don’t talk to the customer. What we realized is is when you’re talking to them, we were asking the wrong questions. You actually don’t want to ask them what they want. You want to understand what is the problem they’re facing. And in the case of my led light bulb scenario is they wanted a cheaper light bulb because they wanted to spend less money on their light. That was the problem. And so it took us a while to figure out, we first started selling led light bulbs because we said they saved your energy. Well, no one really cares about their energy, but they do care about saving money. And the aha for us is, Whoa, guess what? They only care about saving money. So Hey, buy this light bulb.

Chuck Swoboda (22:46):

It costs a little more, but it’ll save you money and all of a sudden make sense to everyone. But that was a learning for us. And I think it’s a difficulty oftentimes is that we tend to frame things in what we see to be, I’ll call the features. And the feature is it uses less energy and it lasts forever. But that’s not the benefit to the customer. Customers buy benefits and the benefit is it saves them money. Pure and simple. And I think getting that idea down and look as an engineer, engineers are horrible feature people. We love features. In fact, we’re so excited about what this widget does, but customers buy benefits. And so I think we learned a lot about how to think about our products differently and follow it. We didn’t, that did not happen overnight. We started out as a engineering driven feature company.

Jim Rembach (23:36):

Well, I, like you said, I think that’s the normal default in, in an engineering mindset. Right? Um, and so for me, the, the, the story in the book you talk about from that, I mean, absolutely love when you start referring to this particular issue as you talk about Cirque Cirque de Solei and how they totally innovated the circus concept, you know, where if we were just doing that into incremental improvement and listening to our customer, you know, we ended up just getting the better ringmaster of the better animals. And that’s how, to me, Ringling brothers probably is now, you know, no longer an extinct is because of they went down that path. So you’re talking about also an important thing, um, in regards to that whole risk. And you’ve mentioned it several times now. I was a finance major, so for us, you know, uh, we were always taught the whole risk and reward model. Yes. But then there’s also a diminished return if we take too much risk. Right? That’s going way too far. So in the innovator’s dilemma, how do I, how do I know what the boundaries are?

Chuck Swoboda (24:36):

So I actually think your finance model is a great place to start. So you go to your, meet your financial advisor and you say, he asks you two things, how much risk you want to take and what’s your return you’re looking for. And mostly people say, I want to take zero risk and I want a big return. He goes on, sorry, it’s a math problem. Risk and return are correlated. Well, in innovation it’s basically the same thing. And at some point you’re right. There is risk with no purpose that has almost no chance. So there actually is a diminishing return. But in most cases, in most organizations, what I would find is they’re not limited by taking too much risk. They’re limited by not taking enough. In fact, what I often hear people say is, how can you help me innovate with not too much risk?

Chuck Swoboda (25:19):

And the answer is I can’t. Now I can help you make improvements that way. In fact, there’s an incredibly great technology and thought process around you’ll lean manufacturing and six Sigma. Those are phenomenal improvement techniques. But if you look at the really successful six Sigma companies like GE, they’re the least innovative because the things you do, I mean that’s basically saying assuming you have a distribution of results and you want to narrow it and get more consistent every time innovation is about finding results that’s not in the distribution. And so for me, what I try to convince people in the book and and in and other examples is depending on how much you want to innovate is how much risk you need to take and that you can’t decouple the two. And the challenge for most people is not that they don’t want to innovate, it’s that they’re comfortable with risk.

Chuck Swoboda (26:11):

It is this, the fear of failure is very real. We’ve been taught that life is about coloring inside the lines, following the rules to get the right answer. And innovation is about, I don’t believe any of the answers. I think there’s something out there that no one’s seen before. And so it’s just a different mindset. And you know, one of these to understand is that mindset is learned. So one of the things I’m really become a big believer in, even since I wrote the book, is as I meet more and more successful, there’s probably some bit of genetics in this, but it’s mostly learned and it’s how you grew up. Because what happens is life experiences don’t just form, they don’t form behaviors, they form beliefs. And so, you know, most of us, our life experiences have taught us that it’s better to avoid risks than to take risks. That we should settle for the status status quo or best practice instead of, no, we should push for something better. Or you know, it’s even, you know, the conversation is, think about this crisis conversation we had, right? Like most of us have been taught that crisis is bad and bothered. There are bad things. But again, to see, depending on how you want to think about it, it could be an opportunity.

Jim Rembach (27:24):

Oh, absolutely. Now, what road we’re talking about is ultimately culminates into the back of book where you’re talking about these 20 questions to help uncover of the innovator’s spirit. And prior to us actually turning on the record button here, I, I went over that with you and I was like, okay, well we can’t, we can’t hit all 20. That’s why people buy the book. Right. Um, and again, we’ll put a link to your book in the show notes page. Um, but you actually said, Hey, because of that, I’ve come up with something, you know, as kind of like a quick check, quick test. And you said you even use it when you would interview people. So what is the, the synopsis version or the cliff notes version of the 20 questions?

Chuck Swoboda (28:00):

Yeah, so, um, the 20 questions, just a little background. So when I wrote the book, there’s actually a hundred questions in the book to the reader and I wrote it like I was interviewing you to come work for Curry. That was actually the, my mindset of when I built the book is how would I try to figure out if you had the innovator spirit and then help you discover it. The 20 questions were when I was done, someone said, okay, so if you’re going to interview someone today, what would you do? Those are my best ideas. Too complicated. So I came up with three and I call it the UFO test, which is actually a variation of exactly what I did at Creek. And so the first test is for uncertainty, the U. And what I would ask people typically is something along the lines of, in an interview room, I’m sitting across the table, there’s a whiteboard.

Chuck Swoboda (28:42):

And I’d say, Hey Jim, I want you to tell me how many barbers are there in the city of New York. And I want you to figure it out right now, no phone. And I would see what would happen. And three at three things happen. You’re either going to go, that’s a silly question. And by the way, I did this to finance people, HR, everyone, lawyers, doesn’t matter. So you’d say, silly question. Okay. Or you start working on, I go, well how do I have enough information to do that? And a third person goes, let me just see if I can figure this out. And they get on the whiteboard and they try it out. We wanted the third group only because what it’s like to actually pursue innovation every day is you have to come up with solutions to problems. You don’t have all the information. So that’s the first one.

Chuck Swoboda (29:23):

The second one is about failure. So my second favorite interview question was, tell me what your biggest failure is. I don’t really care about your successes. I want to know what you failed at. And when people would talk about this, I would learn a lot about how they think about failure and if they learn something from, because that’s essentially what they’re going to do every day. So it wasn’t a high tech approach, right? I’m just simply putting them in that situation, see what would happen. And then the third idea is about ownership. So when you’re going to innovate, you’re going to run into things you don’t expect, right? You have to adapt, adjust. But you need people who like want to get to the goal. And so I would typically look at their resume and find out someplace they worked or something that went wrong.

Chuck Swoboda (30:05):

Example was, I interviewed someone who, she was the head of marketing at Kodak and I was interviewing her for a job at Cree. And I said, so I’m curious, you worked at Kodak when they declared bankruptcy? She goes, yep. I said, why’d you let it happen? And she goes, excuse me? I said, yeah, well why’d you let it happen? She goes, I didn’t let it happen. I was the head of market. I said, well, they paid you to try to make the company not go bankrupt, right? Yeah. So why’d you let it happen? And as we talked, she started to realize, okay, this guy’s a little bit crazy. I’m sure she thought that she has actually a sense, told me that. But, uh, she started to, well, I said, what could you have done about it? And she pretty quickly got the, you know, there are some things in hindsight I could have done, I should have challenged this. I should’ve done this differently. And that’s what you’re looking for. And for people who can’t get that sense, it’s not that they’re better or worse, they’re just not going to be very good at innovation. And so that’s what this whole idea is. It’s some people are wired to be an innovation and some are better off doing other things. And so I was just simply trying to figure that out. And so the 20 questions are more extensive version of trying to get at that.

Jim Rembach (31:11):

Well, I appreciate you sharing that and I mean, and again, you just, you sharing that gives a whole different perspective and insight into how we would go about to discover that in ourselves as well as others and, and creating a team, uh, where you can, you know, do more of that. And so for me, here’s one of the things that I share with you. A couple that I did a few years back is I just reached out to people randomly be part of, um, a mastermind group. I mean, a lot of those you can get into an are paid deals, but this was just open. Um, and so that’s kind of what we ended up doing without me even realizing it is looking for people like that that kinda had the propensity and kind of wired a certain way so that we can help one another. Um, and we actually did that for a little while and then I got some huge benefits and gains in a couple, you know, really good code, close friends out of that. But that doesn’t come easy, right? You have to go through a lot of trials and tribulations and you need inspiration in order to drive you. And you talked about one particular quote, um, earlier, but we use quotes a lot, you know, to help get us focused and going in the right direction. Is there one or two more that you can share to help us?

Chuck Swoboda (32:15):

Wow. So, uh, as you know, you’ve seen the book so that there’s a quote in every chapter. Um, and I, I still come up with them every day. You know, most of the ones I’m most inspired about have to do with that. There is, there’s always a better way. I think it’s, um, Thomas Edison’s quote is there’s a way to do it better find it. And I think variations of that quote always inspire me because if you assume there’s a better way, if you just assume that no matter what you do today, you can do it better tomorrow. It will radically change your approach. The moment you’re not buying into your own idea is the best. It enables you to do something that most people simply can’t do. I mean, look, it’s very easy to come up with a great idea. You have this great podcast, well, it works. Are you willing to change it? You’re willing to push the limits because if you assume it’s good, you’re probably not trying to make it better. But if you assume it could always be better, you’ll try things. And so I think that mentality really gets at the core of, you know, kind of what I was looking at it. There’s plenty of other ones about failure, not being afraid of it, but I think it’s this pursuit of better that are my favorites.

Jim Rembach (33:22):

No, as I say, don’t drink your own Koolaid. Right. Well, you know, you as reading through the book, and we talked about this off mic and I’ll bring it up, is, you know, you talked about being at HP and being frustrated with some of the things that HP, and that was part of the contributing factors to you accepting of the offer after your pursuit several times, but creating a, and then, you know, I referred to it as that whole and went from, I went from mogul to monolith. Um, and you kind of went full circle back to feeling like you were part of HP again, that was part of your frustration. So that was a hump you had to get over a, and we’ve talk about humps because there was a lot of learning opportunities and even the book one of your five, you know, you know, one of your five brutal truces, you know, being able to talk about me so that I’m not, you know, making other people go on their heels and that they’ll listen better is we talk about stories of getting over the hump. Is there a time where you’ve gotten over the hump that you can share?

Chuck Swoboda (34:15):

Wow. Um, many. Um, I would say so a couple things. So, you know, when I was at HP, I saw the bureaucracy in people, we couldn’t do things. And you know, I was a big believer in the HP way. And I remember when I was getting frustrated one night grabbing my boss’s boss’s boss at a sales conference and saying, you know, I’ve got a question for you. How come you don’t really believe in the HP way? So I would tell you I was a little bit on the upper kosha side of noxious, however you want to frame that. And I said, I am never gonna do some of these things again. And so I had a list of things not written down, but in my head of when I left HP, we’re never gonna do it this way. And in the beginning it CRE, we did basically everything the opposite of a big company cause it was a small company.

Chuck Swoboda (35:04):

Well, you know, I stayed there. I get there at $6 million in revenue in 30 people. Will I stay long enough in some point? It’s 1.6 billion in revenue in 7,000 people around the world and all of a sudden that idea of just kind of winging it every day was really painful, especially in a public company when every quarter I had to explain why we hit the numbers or not. And the fact is is that a very innovative approach has more ups and downs. It just does if you’re not. And so in a large public company, the tension to deliver predictability starts to outweigh that. And I didn’t really realize it until I’d become a little frustrated in my last couple of years as CEO just because I was, I’d done it for over 16 years and when I was forced to retire for a health problem, I got to had a go a going away kind of event with the employees.

Chuck Swoboda (35:54):

And it was when I stood on that stage that day, I started to realize, wow, the things I don’t like about my job I did to myself because I did them for the right reasons. I looked, the company’s owned by the shareholders. I did what they wanted and expected and what I was paid to do, but they weren’t the things I love to do anymore. And so it’s really only been in the last couple of years as I put the book together that I was able to honestly go back and reassess what those things are. And you can see some of the things in the book I talk about. I tried to sell what will become the most valuable part of Cree. I tried to sell it two years before I left and it’s going to become the most important, but it took 30 years and it still hadn’t turned into a good idea.

Chuck Swoboda (36:41):

30 year startup within the company and someone was like, this is crazy. Let’s just sell the asset and get some money for it. It will become the future. So even I who believes in betting long and doing these things, eventually you get worn down. And the reminder is if you want to innovate, you can ever let yourself go there. The moment you fall into that trap, you get stuck. And so for me, a part of what I learned is it’s important to step back. Sometimes. I, you know, I would even say that, uh, if you’re going to innovate, you probably don’t want to work on the same problem for too long because at some point you stop asking the questions, right? You, you become, what I talk about is you start to become the expert that you’re trying to avoid. I mean, mine on my famous quotes is that, you know, at Cree we always said the problem at the big companies as they’re full of experts.

Chuck Swoboda (37:31):

And so they’ve already tried everything and no, it’s not possible. Literally I was told when I left HP by the head, scientist Creek could never be successful because the physics of our material system simply could not ever be made to make a good blue led. And you know, we didn’t only prove them wrong and we created two industries as a result. That, but that’s, there’s a mentality to that. And I think with what all of us have to realize is, is that you have a friend that says he tries to fire himself every Friday and rehire himself every Monday. And he said it’s helped him try to remind himself to not get too stuck in whatever ideas he had the previous week. Because if you start a new job, it’s really easy to see this. But when you’re doing the same thing a long time, it becomes very difficult.

Jim Rembach (38:20):

Chuck, thanks for sharing that. I’m, and I’m glad you’re doing better as far as the health goes. Uh, you’re looking good. Feeling good. And so I think that talking about this transition and where you are now and some of the things that you’re now focused on at your finding your passion again, and a lot of it, I start thinking about goals that you’re probably setting within yourself. And so what is one goal that you’re willing to share with us?

Chuck Swoboda (38:43):

So I don’t get up with very many like tangible goals anymore. There are more philosophical, um, you know, I get up every day going, I’ve been very fortunate and blessed with a lot of great opportunities and a lot of success of which is mostly due to the result of a lot of other really hardworking people that is a great team. So I’m now in a situation where I realized that the biggest impact I can make is not in what I do, but it’s who I can help influence. And so I become very passionate about trying to really share, share some of this insight and wisdom with another set, another generation of leaders. And so, you know, I, I get really excited and passionate about trying to teach young leaders how to get over some of these hurdles early in their career instead of late. Look, I was a 20, I was a 34 year old public company CEO.

Chuck Swoboda (39:38):

I was pretty sure I had all the answers and I had no idea what I didn’t know yet. It took 16 years to realize, wow, that wisdom stuff that those old people used to talk about that I became, it’s really valuable. So what I’m trying to figure out is how do we share some wisdom without having to have people, you know, start from scratch. Now, don’t get me wrong, I think you have to learn a lot of it, but I think there’s this balance. And so what my goal is is we can teach people to think differently and do this better, but what we have to think about it in very different ways and part of that is blowing up the system that we have today

Jim Rembach (40:15):

and the fast leader Legion wishes you the very best. Now before we move on, let’s get a quick word from our sponsor.

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Chuck Swoboda (41:11):

back by a boundary condition that you don’t know is there. You, no matter what you try to do to think outside the box, they, they’re there. And so I’m always held back by limitations I put on myself. What is the best leadership advice you’ve ever received to actually lead? So many of us talk about it, but leadership is an action and that the first step leadership is to go do something. [inaudible].

Jim Rembach (41:36):

And what is one of your secrets that you believe contributes to your success?

Chuck Swoboda (41:40):

I believe I’ve a combination of really hard work and the ability to become pretty introspective. The ability to look at myself each day and ask myself what could I have done better and then do something about it the next day.

Jim Rembach (41:55):

And what do you feel is one of your best tools that helps you lead in business

Chuck Swoboda (41:58):

or lie? Uh, probably the best tool that I have available to me is self reflection.

Jim Rembach (42:04):

And what would be one book that you’d recommend to our Legion? It could be from any genre. Of course, we’re going to put a link to The Innovator’s Spirit on your show notes page as well.

Chuck Swoboda (42:12):

So I think that, uh, if you’re interested in innovation, my favorite book of all time is the innovator’s dilemma by clay Christiansen because it’s not just about companies read it closely, it’s about people and leadership and their mindset. And if you really understand why and how people think these problems are completely solvable,

Jim Rembach (42:31):

okay, fast. Literally Jen, you can find links to that and other bonus information from today’s show by going to fast Okay, Chuck this in my last company. Hold on. Question. Imagine you were given the opportunity to go back to the age of 25 and you can take the knowledge and skills that you have now back with you, but you can’t take them all. You can only take one. So what skill or piece of knowledge would you take back with you and right

Chuck Swoboda (42:52):

why? I learned to become willing to take risk and less afraid of failure and I would take that back because I think if without that limitation I could have done more sooner than it than the way I got there.

Jim Rembach (43:07):

Chuck, I had fun with you today. How can the fast leader Legion connect with you?

Chuck Swoboda (43:11):

So you can find out lots of information about me on You can follow me on LinkedIn. Follow me on Twitter at the Chuck Swoboda. I also happen to write an article for Forbes weekly and last but not least is my own podcast around innovation and really the mindset behind other innovators and what it takes. It’s called innovators on tap and you can find it wherever there are podcasts.

Jim Rembach (43:34):

[inaudible]. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and wisdom. The fast leader Legion honors you and thanks you for helping us get over the hump.