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Jan. 21, 2021

Billion-dollar leadership success with an innovator’s spirit with Chuck Swoboda | Partnering Leadership Global Thought Leader

Billion-dollar leadership success with an innovator’s spirit with Chuck Swoboda | Partnering Leadership Global Thought Leader
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In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Mahan Tavakoli speaks with Chuck Swoboda, former Chief Executive Officer of Cree, author of Innovator Spirit, and podcast host of Innovators on Tap. Chuck Swoboda speaks in-depth about innovation and how to cultivate it as part of an organization’s culture.

Some highlights:

  • Chuck Swoboda talks about his upbringing and how that influenced the kind of leader he came to be
  • Chuck Swoboda shares why he left HP to join Cree
  • The difference between improvement, invention, and innovation
  • Chuck Swoboda’s insights on innovation and how to cultivate a spirit of innovation within a company
  • The UFO Test in recruiting talent for your company
  • Chuck Swoboda discusses how the crisis can be great for innovation


Clayton Christensen, author of the book “The Innovator's Dilemma”

Connect with Chuck Swoboda

Chuck Swoboda’s Official Website

Innovators on Tap Podcast

Chuck Swoboda on Forbes

Chuck Swoboda on LinkedIn

Chuck Swoboda on Twitter

Connect with Mahan Tavakoli:


More information and resources available at the Partnering Leadership Podcast website: 



Mahan Tavakoli:
Welcome to Partnering Leadership. My guest this week is Chuck Swoboda. He's an author, speaker, podcast host, and innovator in residence at Marquette University. Chuck served as chairman and CEO of Cree for 16 years. There, he grew the company from just over 6 million in annual revenues to over 1.6 billion with 6500 employees worldwide. They were recognized by MIT technology review as 50 smartest companies, FAST companies, 50 most innovative companies.

Chuck is author of the Innovator Spirit. That's part of what we talked about in this podcast, and he is also a podcast host of Innovators on Tap. It is really enjoyable speaking with Chuck about innovation and most importantly, the leadership it takes to transform an organization to becoming an innovative one.

If you're enjoying this podcast, please rate and review it on Apple Podcast. You can access Apple Podcast directly to review or on partneringleadership.com site. Also, I really enjoy hearing from you. Keep your emails and voice messages coming. You can access those on partneringleadership.com. And even there's a microphone icon on the website, just click on it and leave me a message.

Now, here's my conversation with Chuck Swoboda.

Chuck Swoboda, welcome to the Partnering Leadership podcast.

Chuck Swoboda:
Oh, it's great to be here. Thanks for having me.

Mahan Tavakoli:
Really excited. Have been following your work, both obviously your podcast, you have a brilliant podcast, and you have a great book on innovation and we're going to get to that.

But first off, would love to know a little bit about your upbringing and how that influenced the kind of leader that you became Chuck?

Chuck Swoboda:
I grew up in the Midwest, and I was the fifth of six kids. And I think that growing up in a large family certainly gives you some skills that you get to practice early on. You learn how to stand out when you need to, and to not stand out when you don't want to. 

And I think you also learn how to deal with groups, you know, a large family is a pretty interesting organization. You have two parents, but with that many kids, there's a lot more, I think, autonomy to figure things out. So I think it was a great opportunity for me to grow up in an environment where I was pushed hard, but felt loved and was willing to take risks from an early age.

Mahan Tavakoli:
That's fabulous. It seems like you were willing to do that when you were at HP, and Cree came after you, calling, and you took the chance to go join Cree.

Chuck Swoboda:
Well, yeah, but it was the second time. So actually the first time Cree offered me a job, I thought I was going to say yes. And as I was thinking about it, I'd only two years into my career at HP. I was like, I'm early on. What am I doing, going to work for this little startup company in North Carolina that no one's ever heard of?

So I actually turned them down the first time. As much as I’d like to think of myself as someone who's willing to take risks, I had to actually learn. It wasn't until a couple of years later when they gave me a second chance and I said yes, and that really helped me kind of set on a journey to think a little bit differently. The term I like to use is, going to Cree taught me what it takes to be confident enough in yourself to pursue what other people think is impossible. So it was a great experience. But I honestly, as much as my upbringing helped, it was definitely learned over time.

Mahan Tavakoli:
Yeah, and actually that's the one the things that I love about, what you talked about in the book, is that it's a mindset and we can learn to embrace risk taking.

Chuck Swoboda:
Yeah, I think one of the things about mindset is that a lot of people think of it as just this thing that's there. If you look at the data, our initial set of beliefs are pretty locked in by the time we're about 25. Now that being said, so how you grew up obviously has a big impact. But then life experiences from that point forward can certainly shape that.

And so, a lot of the ideas in the book came down to, so how would you get someone to do this? And honestly, when we were at Cree, we came up with ways, but we weren't like, Hey, let's teach someone to be more innovative. We were just trying to solve that day’s problem. And it wasn't until I sat back and tried to write about it that I realized there was probably a little bit more logic to it than we thought.

And so much of it comes from putting people in situations, where they're forced to go through experiences that allow them to see the other side. And whether that's risk-taking, whether that's failure, whether that's challenging them, someone else in a meeting and realizing it's okay to do that.

So much of this is just getting people to put themselves out there and try it for the first time. And you start to become more comfortable with it.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

That's fabulous. And I found myself asking, as I was reading your book, you obviously had a tremendously successful career at Cree. Growing it to 1.7 billion dollars. In a parallel universe, if Chuck had stayed at HP, would you have been able to thrive as much at HP? And would you have been able to have as much innovation or get as much innovation in HP as you were at Cree?

Chuck Swoboda:
I thought about that in the last few years. And I think the answer is no. I think HP was a great place to learn. It gave me some incredible values, and I got to work around some really talented people. From the original group that I joined at HP, I believe of about 15 of us, four or five went on to become CEOs at some point in their career.

So I think who you spend time with does affect you. You know, your cohort does matter. But for me, I don't think until I got out of the HP environment where, first day at work, I get there and they say, Hey, welcome. By the way, we don't have any customers. We need you to go find some. Like, excuse me.  

They go, yeah. Our customer canceled all their orders. And I'm like, You want me to go do that? I just got here. Well, that's why we hired you and I go, Wow. That never happens in a large organization. So for me, I had to go through some of those experiences to get all the way there. It doesn't mean there aren't people who are innovative within a large organization, but the fact is, is that, and you probably saw this in the book, even Cree became less innovative as we got bigger because large organizations require more management to try to essentially organize and coordinate all these people going in different directions. And what we found basically is the better you are at managing, the worse you are at innovating because when you try to control things, you take away some of those behaviors that typically lead to the big innovative idea.

So, I think the answer is no. I wouldn't have been the same person. I think I would have had some success. Although, given that I got frustrated in the first three years. I'm not sure I would have made it that much longer no matter if I would've tried to stay or not.

Mahan Tavakoli:
That's interesting that you’ve reflected on that, and your experience at HP, I totally agree with your sentiments on it. Now, after, would you say 65, not that you were counting, 65 earning calls, you decided it was time for you to move on since as a successful CEO, even you really didn’t want to take chances and risks as much as you did early on in your career. 

So I was wondering, does that mean in your mind, CEO’s also have a shelf life?

Chuck Swoboda: 
If you'd have asked me right before I decided- so a health issue actually came up that kind of pushed me to make that decision. But if it wasn't for that, I probably would have stuck around a little bit longer. And in hindsight, I should have left a few years earlier. So is there a shelf life? I think maybe not for all CEOs, but I think for most people. 

At some point you've seen the same problem over and over. You've already asked the question a hundred times, so you're pretty sure you know the answer. And so you start anticipating what's going to happen next. And the magic of building Cree was we didn't know.

So you went into each one with this opportunity. I know this is possible. I think we can try this. And at some point, your experience gives you wisdom, but I think it also prevents you from taking some of the chances that would have taken out the rest. So, yeah, I think in hindsight, I know for me personally, I should have left a few years earlier.

I didn't like it as much the last few years. I don't know that I realized that at the time, but I definitely didn't.  And I would suggest that, I don't know if there's a magic number, but I do think after some amount of time goes by, unless they're going to let you take a one-year sabbatical, I think it changed a place.  

Now that being said, I think there's also a harm in being a CEO for only two or three years, because you really don't know what you're doing for the first three years. So there is this, there's too short and there probably is too long.

Mahan Tavakoli: 
We are fortunate that after you decided to make that transition, you've spent your time and energy in trying to bring innovation to others, not just from a professor's perspective. Even though I know you are associated with Marquette University. But from the perspective of someone who has lived it, and who has done it with an organization, which is very different. You even talked about innovation, that a lot of times, people view innovation as a process and that's not the way to do it.

Chuck Swoboda: So my definition of innovation is something that's new. It has to solve a customer problem, and has to create real value. And there’s an old quote by Edison, I can't think of it by now, but he said something similar, “I don't want to invent anything that doesn't create utility.” So his point was, if so, no one will buy it, is it really worth having? 

So when I talk about innovation, I've been very specific. There's a difference between an improvement, and an invention, and an innovation. If I wanted to pursue improvement, which I did a lot running operations at Cree, there are some incredible processes that are very well-documented that work. Basically, you're taking variability out of the system, and dialing it in. That will get you improvements every time. 

Then you have people that do inventions, which are these new things. And the fact is the patent office has hundreds of millions of them, very few of them return in anything, because they actually don't solve a real problem or create value.

And then there's this innovation piece. And so, so much of what I tried to get people to understand is, if you take the process approach to innovation, processes following some known steps or philosophies or rules, and it's designed to get you to a known end goal. Well, innovation by definition isn't known. Like how could you possibly take a pre-established set of processes to get to an unknown goal? Well, you couldn't have a process to get to an unknown goal?

It doesn't work that way. And so I always said that it doesn't mean there aren't tools and methods, but I would tell people we were going to be people first and process second. And in fact, we purposely didn't create certain processes because we wanted to allow people to have to, real time, attack those problems.

And to us, that's where the big innovations came from because, the fact is, is that processes are helpful to get you to a pre-planned result. But think about all the companies that tried Six Sigma to innovate, I don't know of a single one that ever innovated.

Well, you think about it, you got this distribution and Six Sigma is about getting rid of the edges and dialing it down the middle. Well, think about that bell curve. Where's the innovation? It's not under the curve, it's in the seventh or the eighth Sigma, it's out there. And so, if you just think about the math or the logic of what we're trying to do, it starts to make sense why I don't believe there's a process to really doing big innovation.

Mahan Tavakoli:
And I’ve been involved in many of those processes. Some of them, almost comical. I was involved with the senior team of an organization, where we were handed out all kinds of squishy balls and everything else, and a nice conference center trying to bring out the creativity and make us more innovative going through a structure process. But again, you underline that it’s more about people, not about process, and how people are willing to approach it.

Chuck Swoboda: 
Yeah, you want to create a situation where people have no choice but to innovate. Whether you want to create barriers or roadblocks, you want people to feel like if I don't solve this problem, I could lose my job. You create that environment and you don't need process.

People have an incredible survival instinct. And once they realize, Oh, we either stay in business or we don't, now you can see what's possible. But when you bring all those rules and boundaries, they limit. 

One of the sayings I'd like to tell people is that, I always say, “think outside the box” is a flawed idea. Sounds great. I used to say it. And one day I realized that the moment you say that, you've acknowledged that there is some box that is somehow relevant, it's a boundary condition, and it limits you. And so, really, what you want to do is create an environment where there are no boundary conditions, pick the end point and work backwards.

And so when I'm working with people now, whether it be companies or other organizations, I love talking to them because they all have these rules that they assume can't be changed. And it's like, why do you believe that? But that's the world we live in and I think that's one of the challenges. That's why to me, it's so much more about if I can get your mindset, you're going to find a way to get there, almost everyone can.

Mahan Tavakoli: 
That's great to hear, and that was great to read because one of the other questions that I’d always been struggling with is that, can you learn to become innovative? Or is it just something that's engrained to some people to be willing to take chances?

Chuck Swoboda: 
When people say learn, one of the problems they often encounter is, okay tell me what I need to do to be innovative? And the answer is no, I need to help you think about who you are and how you think. And if I can get you to reevaluate that, I can put you in a situation, you can discover this mindset, but you have to get the mindset first and then those other pieces come later.

And so I think the challenge is that, are you willing to put yourself in those situations? One of the biggest problems most people have is we're trained, most of us, our whole lives, to avoid failure. Think about it. Did you ever go to a class where the professor said, Hey, I want you to try and do this and if you get it completely wrong, that's okay. No, you fail. 

So you're trained to always get the right answer. Well, if there isn't a known right answer, how do you get someone to do that? You've got to be prepared to try things and know they're not always going to work. Now, the goal is not to fail. The goal is to succeed. But you can't be afraid of it. 

And so, what I always try to do with people, especially leaders that we are trying to push and see if they could really develop, we typically try to create roles for them, where they weren't going to succeed. We didn't necessarily tell them they weren't going to succeed, but we would give them goals, we were pretty sure you're not getting there from here, and see how they react.

And so, some would go through that and they could learn that, Okay, maybe I didn't get there, but I learned a ton, and I'm motivated to try again. I'll tell you some other people did that. And they said, Wow, I don't like that feeling. Those are both okay. But depending on how you reacted, I'm going to change what kind of role I'm going to put you in.

I could use you in different parts of the organization, but I need the person that's not afraid and wants to chase it again, that's the person I want driving innovation. Those other people, I may want them running my manufacturing department because I have to tell you, Cree was so innovative, manufacturing was a little bit too exciting some days.

Mahan Tavakoli: 
That's great. That's wonderful. But in order to do that though, you also would recruit people that had certain attitude, certain perspective. And you start and end the book with a fabulous question you would ask people when you are recruiting them.

Chuck Swoboda: 
We didn't name it back then but I later named it, I call it the UFO Test. And the first question is how many barbers are there in the city of New York? And the way this would happen is you and I will be sitting in a room, and typically, I'm not doing this just R and D people.

You could be interviewing for the finance job, HR, and I'd say, look, I'd like you to tell me how you'd figure it out right now. You can go to the whiteboard, you can just talk me through it. And you'd get three different responses. One was “You're joking”. One was “Okay, let me try. I don't have enough information.” And the third group would go for it.

And really what I wanted is the group that was willing to attempt to solve it, and I didn't care. And this makes everyone crazy. As you learn in the book, I don't really care what the answer is. I care if people are comfortable in an environment of uncertainty and having to try to figure it out. 

And then the second part of that was, is I used to always ask, I never asked about people's success. I didn't really look at their resume other than have a little bit in common with them. So I'd ask them about their biggest failure. And if someone couldn't describe a failure, really, a real failure and explain, kind of, what they learned from it, they weren't going to like the environment because I knew we were going to push them to where that was going to happen and if they tried to avoid it, that wasn't going to work. And more importantly, if they did fail and they couldn't talk about it, then everyone else doesn't learn. ‘Cause one of the ideas you want to do in this environment is, when someone, you want to talk about when you screw up and that's pretty hard for most people.

And then the last one was ownership. My favorite example is, I had a senior executive from Kodak interview for a marketing job. And she had been there when they had declared bankruptcy. And so she was telling me about all her success and I said, well, you were there when that company declared bankruptcy. She had said, Yeah. I said, How come you let it happen? She said, Excuse me? I said, Why'd you let it happen? All those shareholders lost all their money because of you. And she was stunned, and we kind of like - What? it can't be my fault. I said, Well, whose fault is it? It's gotta be somebody's fault.

And she ended up, by the way, getting through that process, and ended up coming to work for me and she's a great friend now. She says I'd never experienced anything like that in an interview but what I wanted to see was, could she embrace the fact that you were going to own results that you didn't totally control? And, because that's kind of what you're signing up. When you sign up, I'm going to do something no one's ever done before. Well, by definition, it's not totally in your control. And so, those are three of the examples and literally if I could find those qualities, I really didn't care how qualified they were otherwise because I figured we could teach them skills.

So the idea is if you can get mindset, it's easier to teach skill set. If you get skill set, you can develop mindset, but it's a lot slower. So that was my approach.

Mahan Tavakoli: 
Yes, that's great. And now Chuck, I'm wondering as the CEO of the organization, how did you create the kind of culture that would continue incentivizing people to be willing to take those chances and those risks. So you were looking for the people with the right mindset, but how did you make sure that stayed a part of the culture at Cree?

Chuck Swoboda: 
So in the early days, I wasn't one of the founders, I got there at 6 million. So the original founders, they kind of already built this environment. Not many of them worked in the industry, they just had these ideas. It's all for the good of the company. If the company succeeds, you'll succeed. So one of our values was Cree is We. One of them was, you have to do whatever it takes to get the goal. No excuses. Okay. That kind of makes sense.

And there were, so there were these ideas that in the beginning, you essentially hired people that you thought fit, and then you acted a certain way. And it was very Darwinian. Like, if you don't like working here, sorry. Maybe she worked somewhere else. It really, we didn't apologize. And so what happened is, it was kind of through self-selection, and really kind of absorbing people into the culture. They became part of it if they stayed. 

Then after a while we had to be more intentional trying to recruit for it. And then at one point, someone said, and this is when I'd become CEO, they said, we're hiring so many people, no one knows what this thing you call the Cree way is. We've never written it down. So I had to try to write it down, and literally, I was describing what these behaviors were, and it's interesting. Our values were more behaviors that were rooted in these belief systems that I'm describing. And I think that helped and then eventually, to be honest, we lost it. So, at some point, probably between 500 million and a billion dollars, we got into over a thousand employees, and I think a couple of years, we grew like almost 50% in a year.

So hiring as many people knew that work in the company. And our approach wasn't, look, you start to just hire people because you need to fill those jobs. And I will tell you, if you believe in a culture driven organization, the moment you start to make those choices, you're going to start to lose the culture. And so it did. 

And I would say that the culture at the end was a little bit old and a lot of, kind of a mishmash of what everyone brought with them. If I could do one thing over, I'm not sure we would try to grow slower, but I would have been okay with a little slower growth, and taken more time to be really intentional about the values. Here's what they are. We're going to live them everyday. We're going to talk about them. 

I actually got a chance to meet someone on their third company recently. And they literally explain the value before they give someone a piece of feedback they might not like. So they're actually, like, out loud communicating them. So like, I'm going to share the brutal truth with you. I don't like what you just did there, and this is the reason. And so they found a way to kind of reinforce it. 

Now it's still relatively small. I don't know how scalable that is, but we tried all the typical things and eventually, it did actually get away from us and I think that's one of the reasons we became less innovative.

Mahan Tavakoli: 
And that's one of the parts of, what I sensed in the book, also reading about you, I love Chuck - it's the authenticity. Where you are also willing to own up to issues or mistakes you might have made which makes it easier for other people in the organization to  do the same. A lot of times, the leader sets the way, the leader is the example, and by you just admitting that and saying that maybe we could've handled it differently, that's the approach that encourages other people to be willing to own up to issues too.

Chuck Swoboda: 
That idea of saying, hey, I tried this, it didn't work. That was part of that original culture. That's what was so amazing. Like, I always believed that. And it was an organization where we didn't believe in the term executive, for example. So the idea was, is,  we all, we have different jobs, we get paid different, but at the end of the day, we're all required to get to this goal.

And it created this environment that was incredibly powerful that I think, honestly for me, it was a lot of fun to work in. I was out there on most days, playing basketball with people from all over the company and it was just because we all worked for the company. 

And even at the end, when we had 7,000 employees, we had one giant holiday party. There were no individual ones. Everyone was invited to the same event. And for us, that was a little bit of our idea that we should be wanting, not to say, those got to be kind of messy, but it was still a fun idea.

Mahan Tavakoli: 
Yes, that's fabulous. And back to innovation, you say that Google and Apple are no longer innovative. Why do you say that?

Chuck Swoboda: 
Well, so, I think you just have to look at what's happened. If you take Apple, there's probably not been a truly innovative product since the iPhone. They have made new products, but the Mac is just an improved version of what they've been making forever. The iPhone, I think, we just got announced the iPhone 12. It's a variation on a theme that was started a long time ago. Are air pods truly innovative? Well, there were other people that made earbuds before them. They did add active noise canceling, but they weren't the first to actually do that, so I'm not sure that qualifies. 

Someone argued with me when I wrote an article about that, that the camera on the iPhone is super innovative. I think they've made improvements, but I haven't seen anything truly that changed the game. You know, it took a customer problem and it solved it in a way. And I would just say this, how often do you feel like I have to buy the new one? Because the old one is simply, it just does something so amazing. And the fact is there's features, but they don't change your life anymore. So that's my Apple story. 

And Google, I mean, we have Google search. And we had this really big R and D budget working on all kinds of cool things. And if you look, there's not many real new products that have come out of Google since Gmail? 

I like both of these companies. I think they struggle with the fact that they've become so big and successful, they are rewarded to build on that success. And it's very hard to do disruptive innovation because typically, to be really good at disrupting, you have to disrupt yourself or another industry. And I think it becomes harder as you start to get measured on what were your profits this quarter?

I mean, literally, being a public company measured quarterly is one of the hardest things to do, and still be profitable. I think one of the few people that's gotten away with it is Amazon. They did went a long time where they said, ignore the profits, we're doing something bigger. 

I think that's, I don't know that that's a very easy to implement strategy. That might be by itself a bit of a unicorn idea. I think a few people can get away with it. I wouldn't recommend it to most CEOs. I know it wouldn't have kept me in the job for very long.

Mahan Tavakoli: 
The other thing Chuck, really resonated with me is the difference within invention and innovation because I would confuse the two a lot of times. How do you differentiate within invention and innovation?

Chuck Swoboda: 
So I would say most innovations include an invention. Although invention could be a combination of pre-existing ideas, just bringing them together in a different way. But it's really about the solving the problem and creating value. So I'll give you an example. When we invented the LED light bulb and we weren't the first ones, but we had this LED light bulb that was going to really do some things differently. 

So we had achieved a price point that no one ever come close to. We had made it look exactly like the old light bulb and we were all excited. So we're out promoting LED lighting as, You should buy this technology, it will save you energy and it lasts forever. And like, the sustainability manager might care, the company, but like no one else cared and we're like, how can we be wrong? Like, everyone wants to save energy and have them last forever. And the answer is no. 

At that point, it was an invention. And it had these features, but the fact is, those features, no customer was worried all that much about saving energy from their light bulbs. And they really weren't bothered that maybe every other year they had to replace it. They just didn't care. And so you go, well, what do you do? And you go, well, what is a problem they have? And the problem they have is everyone wants to save money. 

And the big “aha” we had was, it's the exact same product. We just repositioned it as, Oh, you want to keep throwing money away? Go ahead. If you don't buy these light bulbs, they'll save you money. Oh, and by the way, they do that by saving energy.  And so, the “aha” to me is, sometimes the product doesn't actually solve a problem. I think most inventions, there are features that don't actually create a benefit. In some cases, we just don't know how to explain it. 

I still remember the day that our big “aha” was, our great contribution to lighting is we made a light bulb out of LEDs that looked like a light bulb. That's not a big breakthrough. And we explained to people that it would save them money. But literally those were the two things it took to change the industry. And so I share that because I think everyone can relate to that example, and if you're out there trying to innovate, that's how you have to think about your product. Customer problem first. What are you doing to solve their problem? Go from there.

Mahan Tavakoli: 
It is the difference between the features, that you talked about invention as, can have new features. Part of what Apple is doing, they keep rolling out new features versus what are the benefits. And that's also why, for the first time, I feel like I clearly understand why customers might not know specifically what they need, but what's a better way to understand customer needs to get to the invention?

Chuck Swoboda: 
You know, one of the famous things that we're all taught to do, if you've ever been into businesses, or you want to do something new, go ask the customer what they want. And the problem is most customers will ask you for a variation, or an improvement of their current idea. The old famous Henry Ford quote that is, he said, if I asked my customers what they wanted, they would've said a faster horse, because that's what they can relate to. But what he understood was, there was a better mode of transportation.

And so I think what you have to do is, it's not that you shouldn't talk to customers and a lot of people claim Steve Jobs said “don't talk to your customers”. That's actually not what he said, He actually said: You have to build something they can see, touch, and feel, and then watch and listen when they react to it and you can learn from them. So what you have to kind of do is, you can talk to them before you've invented it. And what you have to listen for is what's the problem that they're trying to solve?

So back to my LED case, it was they wanted to save money. And then, you have to actually show it to them, and not necessarily listen, but watch. People are really good if you watch them interact with something, you'll start to see what you're doing that works and doesn't. And I think those are the two tricks that we seem to miss a lot.

Now, you know, there's a lot of people doing MVP’s, Get a Minimum Viable Product. So I think we've got some of those ideas out there. But what I would say is, before you do that, have you thought about what problem you're trying to solve in the first place? Because just because you put an MVP out there and test it with someone, and they say, I like this, doesn't actually mean it's an innovation,it just means it's better than the other version you could’ve make. You still have to start with what is their problem?

Mahan Tavakoli: 
And that is really important for all of us to keep in mind. Now, you also are associated with a university, and I loved Clayton Christensen. I hadn’t seen this quote from Clayton that you put in the book, which is fabulous. 50 percent, this is in 2017 when he said it, “50 percent of the 4,000 colleges and universities in the U.S. will be bankrupt in 10 to 15 years.” 

Now, this is what Clayton said in 2017. Colleges and Universities didn't listen. Like a lot of institutions don't listen. But now, there is a pandemic, there is a crisis, a lot of them are forced to change. So what are some of your thoughts and perspectives with respect to innovation in education?

Chuck Swoboda: I think the challenge, and I sat on the board at Marquette for 12 years, I'll give you just a really quick anecdote. So we talked about going, using online and using these tools, much more aggressively, because you could see that this idea of learning online was a growing trend. And at Marquette, and by the way, at almost every other major university in the country, they talked about it.

And yet as of January of this year, I would say on average, almost every major university had less than 10% of their courses online. And when we talked about it at Marquette, I asked at one time what's the fastest, we just want to go all online, let's just say, we want to be in the bit, what would it take? If we dropped everything else, we could do it in three to five years. That's how long it would take. Well, in the middle of March, students go away on spring break. They decide they're going to shut the universities down. They can either go out of business or they can find a solution.

They put all their courses online in seven days. And so did every other major university. So what's that tell you? Well, what it tells you is that, not just in higher ed, but in any industry, people aren't going to change unless they're typically forced to change. It's a psychological component.

There is a psychologist, Jennifer Constan, says that “Your mind’s like a rubber band. You can stretch it, but it will bounce back to where it starts.” And that as humans, we associate sameness with safety and change with danger. Well in a crisis, all of a sudden you realize, oh, that ain't going to work. And now, change might be the only chance you have to survive.

And so what I've told so many people during the Coronavirus is that, this is probably one of the most incredible moments we've had in a while for innovation, because when people have no choice, it's way easier for them to start to try and do things that otherwise would have just not been possible.

So I think in higher ed, we've seen a move towards using these tools. But I think the next thing that's going to happen, and by the way, Clayton Christensen's original premise was not the Coronavirus, but there's a demographic shift. We're going to have less students going to college here. In about four years, the number of college-aged students starts to decline pretty precipitously. 

And so you're just going to have too much supply and not enough demand. Like that's a pretty simple problem. So what do you do? Well, your price is going to come under pressure. People are going to compete to try to keep students, so they're going to lower prices even further, and you're going to start to lose the weaker players like any other industry and I think what's happened is we've accelerated that. 

And so higher ed is having to do more than just embrace technology. They're having to ask themselves, What value do we add? Is sitting in a lecture, being talked at everyday, really what people value or do we have to do something that you can't get online? And so I'm actually super excited because there's no reason to take a traditional lecture, in-person, when you could find the smartest professor and get it online. 

But imagine what you could do with that time with someone. You could test, take them through experiments, where they might fail and teach them, Hey, you didn't succeed, but here's what you can learn from it. And here's how you might get better the next day. Think about the incredible applied learning opportunities. So I think higher ed becomes this really interesting place where applied learning becomes a much bigger factor. So if it was 80-20, theoretical to applied, I think it flips the other way. 

And then I think the other thing that happens from an economic standpoint is the race to build the fanciest dorm room, and have the nicest climbing wall, and a lot of other things that have nothing to do with educating a student. I think some of those, they get pushed aside because the math just won't support them. And I don't think people realize that they were paying for them all along.

Mahan Tavakoli: Yes, and it took a crisis for everyone to understand that. That's why I love in the 20 questions to uncover your innovator's spirit at the end of your book, I love number thirteen, which is “is a crisis good or bad for innovation?” And part of what you advocate is that, this crisis can be great for innovation, for leaders that really think about it that way and embrace it.

Chuck Swoboda: 
Yeah. And even for leaders who haven't. What's interesting is, they're kind of being forced to do it anyways. The ones that embrace it have an incredible opportunity. The ones that are struggling, they're still kind of forced to go down this path. So even those organizations have an opportunity to move more than would have otherwise been possible.

So I think it's a tremendous moment because, look there's nothing like, if you do nothing, you're going out of business. We should probably do something, because the worst case we go out of business anyways, so we might as well try some ideas because we know for sure what the other answer is.

And look, that sounds a little bit simplistic, but that's really where not only higher ed, but a lot of other organizations are, and it's a really healthy thing to go through.

Mahan Tavakoli: 
And you have a great quote from President Obama “Sticking your head in the sand may make you feel safer, but it's not going to protect you from the coming storm.”

Chuck Swoboda: 
You got it. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 
So Chuck, when you are asked, obviously, in addition to your brilliant book, what leadership resources do you typically send people to as they look to improve on their own leadership?

Chuck Swoboda:
My leadership was all, living from one problem to the next. So what  I typically tell people is, there's a few interesting books I've read along the way. If you’re interested in innovation, and you've never read Clayton Christensen's book, The Innovator's Dilemma. Read it. And don't worry about the fact that it was written about industries that are old, read it because of what it's telling you about humans and how people act.

He's literally describing a massive leadership problem. Right, it's basically why the best managed companies can't adapt. That's a leadership problem. So I think I'd start there. I've been really interested in some of the books that get into more the psychology of this, I think leadership at the end of the day is a psychological challenge for us.

And I like things that are kind of sometimes not directly aligned. So one of my favorite books is Predictably Irrational. Get into this idea of why do people convince themselves to do things that make no sense? 

And so I would go down those paths, but then honestly, I'm a really big believer in, put yourself in some situations. I think you've got to assess yourself and I think you want to go out and try something. And if you're not comfortable doing it at work, try it at home. When we used to do leadership analysis, the best way to figure out where someone's at as a leader, is not to get a 360 from their team, get one from their family.

It's incredibly insightful. And so look, you could practice at home, practice in a volunteer role. I think you've got to put yourself out there. You're not going to become a better leader by talking about it or thinking about it. You're going to a better leader by doing it, and getting some of it wrong, and then adapting, and moving on.

And I think that's the last piece, you have to ask yourself every day, what worked and what didn't. One of the things I did is my ride home at night, usually relatively late, was an analysis of the day. And I try to always find what are the one or two interactions I had with people that didn't go as well as I thought and I put those on my list the next day to work on, and whether I went to see someone or whatever. And it wasn't how the conversation went, it was the body language.

I'm the CEO, I'm convincing you. Let's get excited about this idea. And I'm watching, you're like, I don't get it. And you're going, I said all the right words, they said the right words, but their body language made it pretty clear, they thought that idea was really stupid. That's on me. That's not on them. That's on me. And I think one other thing I would remind people is if you want to be a better leader, it's up to you. It is your job to convince people to lead, and get them to follow you. It's not their job to follow you.

And so the old basketball coach, only one time, you want to know who the good leaders are? Just walk behind the people. See who's got people following him or not. It's not more complicated than that. And if they're not, it's not the followers’ problem.

Mahan Tavakoli: 
That is brilliant advice, Chuck. Obviously, there's Innovator's Spirit book, Innovator's on Tap podcast. I’ve read the book, highly recommended, it's fabulous. We just touch the surface. Listen to the podcast. How else do you recommend for people to connect with you Chuck?

Chuck Swoboda:
So probably the easiest way is through my website at chuckswoboda.com. I'm also occasionally out there posting on Forbes and LinkedIn, although not quite as much as I was before, just because I'm so busy right now. But yeah, keep up with my website. And honestly, probably the most current thing that's going on is the podcast is still coming out every week. And that's probably the freshest insights that I have going on right now.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And it is fabulous. I love it. Thank you very much for joining us on Partnering Leadership podcast, Chuck.

Chuck Swoboda:

 Oh, it's been my pleasure. It was great talking with you.


Chuck SwobodaProfile Photo

Chuck Swoboda

Former CEO of Cree, Author of Innovator Spirit, Podcast Host of Innovators on Tap

Chuck Swoboda is an author, speaker, podcast host, and the Innovator-in-Residence at Marquette University.

He served as Chairman and CEO of Cree for 16 years where his team successfully led the LED lighting revolution not just by creating new products, but by focusing on solving old problems in completely new ways. He has seen what it takes to make the impossible, possible. Under his leadership, the company grew from just over $6 million in annual revenue in 1993 to over $1.6 billion as they transformed Cree from a start-up into a global market leader with 6,500 employees worldwide. Cree was recognized as MIT Technology Review’s 50 Smartest Companies for 2014 and as one of Fast Companies World’s 50 Most Innovative Companies in 2015.

Chuck is the author of The Innovator’s Spirt, hosts the Innovators on Tap podcast, and has been a speaker on leading innovation for both corporate clients as well as a number of universities including; Harvard Business School, Marquette University, University of Pennsylvania, Duke University, University of North Carolina, and North Carolina State University.

He founded his consulting company, Cape Point Advisors in 2017 focusing on innovation and technology disruption. Chuck serves on the board of Anixter International, Vesper Technologies, KnowBio LLC, and Lonerider Brewing Company.

Chuck holds an engineering degree from Marquette University (1989), where he served on the Board of Trustees for 12 years, including two as chairman. He currently splits his time between Cary, North Carolina and Milwaukee, Wisconsin when he is not boating or fishing on Bald Head Island.