Registration open for 2023 AAPL Annual Leadership Conference in Chicago, Illinois. | Early Bird Pricing
American Association for Physician Leadership
American Association for Physician Leadership

What Kind of Chief Innovation Officer Does Your Company Need?

by Darko Lovric | Greig Schneider

August 4, 2020


It can be daunting to hire a CINO. How do you know what kind you need? How can you tell who is qualified?

It can be daunting to hire a CINO. How do you know what kind you need? How can you tell who is qualified?

Twenty years ago chief innovation officers, or CINOs, were virtually unheard of. But by 2017, 29% of Fortune 500 companies had a senior innovation executive, a study by Egon Zehnder shows. The job’s responsibilities vary depending upon the company, the business challenges and the backgrounds of the people filling the roles. Those people include seasoned executives, academics, star inventors, investment bankers, creative heads and founders of startups.

It can be daunting to hire a CINO. How do you know what kind you need? How can you tell who is qualified? Your first task when filling a CINO post is getting a firm grasp on your organization’s innovation objectives.

As corporate advisers and executive recruiters, we’ve helped nearly 80 companies hire senior innovation executives. We’ve found that there are six main types of innovation officers. To help companies decide which type would best fit their needs, we’ve put together a field guide describing each one.


Researchers get annoyed that innovation has become the latest buzzword, because they feel it’s what they’ve been patiently doing for years — finding the next big thing.

Researchers use scientific methodology to tame the profusion of ideas and wrest insights from a multitude of data. They thrive in environments where innovation is as much about determining the right questions as it is about finding the answers. They make the best CINOs in organizations where competition demands true step-change advances and for which intellectual property rules are enforceable — such as pharmaceutical, aerospace and defense, and materials-manufacturing companies. In these industries, innovations also regularly contend with low success rates and regulatory scrutiny.

To prosper, researchers require generous funding and strong business partners who’ll guide them toward ideas that are not just interesting but lucrative.


Engineers have little use for theories. They want to build something that works right now. Their mode of operation is to tinker with ideas and technology and try things out until something sticks. They define innovation as “always working to make something a little bit better.” Engineers often hang out in product-development departments and can be spotted fixing their own computers.

Engineers are passionate about what is possible and impatient with what is not. They focus on hands-on exploration, expert brainstorming and many tests. They’re most suited to industries where the complexity of technology and its integration create opportunities for myriad incremental improvements and occasional leaps of imagination — like technology hardware manufacturing and the automotive industry.

To be most effective, engineers need to be given a way to evaluate the feasibility and appeal of their solutions through prototyping and tests with real customers. Their bosses may also have to rein in their tendency to chase after every new product.


One of the rarest species of CINO. Investors see innovation as a path to big growth, involving the careful allocation of resources to optimize selective opportunities. They are analytical, financially savvy, data focused and driven. To spot one, look for someone in traditional business attire crunching a spreadsheet when everybody else is dressed in jeans and huddled over a PowerPoint deck.

Investors thrive in fast-moving environments where innovation can come from any direction — customers, competitors, startups, labs — and in many forms, from new markets to new technology. Their focus is making sense of a mass of complex and conflicting information and betting on the right horse. Consumer-goods businesses, whose essential growth task is choosing the right portfolio of innovations, often need this kind of CINO.

To be at their best, investors should partner with a technical expert who can help them assess ideas’ feasibility and future potential. They must fight their tendency to pay too much attention to short-term results and current capabilities.


Advocates often start with big aspirations. They can be identified by their nonconforming clothing and a marketing or design background. They define innovation as “delivering something new for the customer” and are laser-focused on that goal.

Advocates thrive in fast-moving industries with a strong sense of what’s fashionable, such as apparel, media and advertising. Their focus is on keeping the brand relevant, crafting the right identity, predicting the future and creating buzz, as well as generating sales. They must feel the pulse of the market and stay a step ahead — which requires speed and agility.

Advocates are good at delivering immediately usable innovation and sensing where customers wish to go next, but their obsession with novelty can lead them to pursue too many directions at once. They are best when partnered with a strategist who can channel their insights into a long-term course of action.


Motivators work to unleash employees’ (and sometimes customers’) creative spirit. That often involves getting the people and the culture focused on vision and imagination while reducing bureaucracy, complexity and risk aversion. Motivators can come from many backgrounds, but are distinguished by their fascination with narrative, people and talent. They define innovation as “unlocking the ideas of others.”

Motivators are not generally located in a specific industry. They tend to be found in organizations that are trying to reinvent themselves. Motivators can skillfully shake up the organization by creating an inviting space for others to innovate within: putting in place the right incentives, organizational designs and capabilities, and protecting the mavericks while encouraging the quiet voices to contribute.

Bringing about cultural change is difficult, especially if your title isn’t CEO. Motivators often face this task without an explicit mandate or even resources, so the support of the CEO and the board is critical for them.


Organizers believe that processes rule. Identifiable by their adherence to a methodology for “getting things done” and their spotless desks, they focus on the key performance indicators, metrics and stage gates. They’re often more passionate about doing things properly than about innovation itself. Indeed, they define innovation as “a clear process for coming up with new ideas.”

Organizers are particularly attracted to professional services, academia and government, fields with many knowledge workers. They can be valuable in companies where innovation efforts require wide employee participation. Assuming there are fresh ideas to run through their processes, organizers create momentum, galvanize support and deftly navigate politics to help innovations go from idea to reality.

Organizers are usually effective, but can also lose sight of the big picture. They need partners who understand customers to help them focus on the right issues, and motivators to help them see when risk taking should prevail.

By being clear about the kind of innovation your organization needs the most, finding the right candidate and creating the right habitat, you will set your CINO up for success.

Darko Lovric is a principal at Incandescent and Kates Kesler. Greig Schneider is a partner at Egon Zehnder.From HBR.orgc.2019 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp.

Darko Lovric

Darko Lovric is a principal at Incandescent and Kates Kesler.

Greig Schneider

Greig Schneider is a partner at Egon Zehnder.

For over 45 years.

The American Association for Physician Leadership has helped physicians develop their leadership skills through education, career development, thought leadership and community building.

The American Association for Physician Leadership (AAPL) changed its name from the American College of Physician Executives (ACPE) in 2014. We may have changed our name, but we are the same organization that has been serving physician leaders since 1975.


Mail Processing Address
PO Box 96503 I BMB 97493
Washington, DC 20090-6503

Payment Remittance Address
PO Box 745725
Atlanta, GA 30374-5725
(800) 562-8088
(813) 287-8993 Fax



AAPL providers leadership development programs designed to retain valuable team members and improve patient outcomes.

American Association for Physician Leadership®

formerly known as the American College of Physician Executives (ACPE)