2020 has thrown a wrench into almost everyone’s plans. It’s been hard to gain momentum in a year full of so many concerns and setbacks. The new year will be a welcome restart after 12 tumultuous months.
If you’re trying to regain your footing, or want to set some ambitious goals for 2021, take your cue from the world’s most innovative CEOs and business minds. These dynamic leaders are poised for a great year, and you can join them for the ride.
Innovative leaders don’t just announce themselves. Many of them work quietly, building next-generation companies and products without a lot of media attention.
So how did we find them? In a few ways:
When people do extraordinary things, word gets around. We checked in with members of our networks to find out: Who’s innovating like nobody else? Who’s going above and beyond creatively, technically, or financially?
Innovators get written about. We took a look around online to see what our favorite publications had to say. In sites like Entrepreneur, Forbes, and Inc., these leaders are getting a lot of attention.
Social media is the new town square. We pored over Twitter trends, Facebook groups, and Instagram galleries to get the skinny on which business leaders are making a real difference.
Metrics like CAGR and market capitalization speak volumes about a business leader’s acumen. More innovative leaders grow companies faster, larger, and more sustainably than their peers.
To be sure, we spotted a lot of innovative leaders. But to us, the following 10 stood out.
From Fortune 500 CEOs to up-and-comers, there are 10 industry leaders I’m keeping an eye on. These individuals are constantly looking for ways to improve their companies, their communities, and the people around them:
1. Jeff Wong
A technology aficionado who is shaking up professional services
2. Stephen Dalby
A concerned — and creative — father who saw a huge parental problem and solved it
3. Tracy Grace
A second-generation entrepreneur and diversity champion who heads a fast-growing IT consulting firm
4. Brent Shafer
An innovative business modeler who is working to transform the American healthcare industry
5. Rich Wood
An innovative mind in customer service and beauty products
6. William Richards
A web-based systems guru who created the world’s leading URL redirection service
7. Safra Catz
An acquisitions master who is leading Oracle into its next decade
8. Zach Ferres
A tech entrepreneur who helps companies achieve digital transformation
9. Mary Barra
A trailblazer in the male-dominated automotive industry
10. Asheesh Mani Jain
A marketing mastermind whose creativity is matched only by his generosity
What can these innovation leaders teach you? Let’s take a look:
The “Big Four” refers to the largest professional services companies on earth. This is a very exclusive group, captained by only the best of the best.
One of these companies is Ernst & Young, which employs Jeff Wong as its global chief of innovation. This former eBay executive has forged a successful career in Silicon Valley, but his insights on modern technology in business are valued by C-suite executives in every corner of the world. He’s certainly one of the most innovative leaders in professional services.
Stephen Dalby is a father of eight children, so he’s well aware of the issues that come with parenting in the 21st century. When looking at options for his son’s first phone, he noticed that every smartphone was expensive and unnecessarily high-tech, so he created a cellular network for kids in Gabb Wireless.
While Stephen is pro-technology, he realizes that kids don’t need unlimited — and potentially dangerous — features at a young and impressionable age. He founded Gabb Wireless to help other parents solve this problem with a safety-focused phone for kids.
Tracey speaks passionately about diversity in the tech industry. As a black female entrepreneur in IT, she wants to pave the way for minorities to have opportunities in STEM fields. Along the way, she has built IBEX into a thriving tech company, proving herself a strategic leader in her industry. Her experience shines in the consistently high quality of her work.
Brent has a long track record of creating value-based business models that yield big returns. After successful stints at other major corporations, such as Hewlett-Packard and Philips, he is currently applying his innovative approach at Cerner.
As part of the Healthcare Leadership Council, Brent’s new mission is to transform American healthcare as we know it. It takes a fearless and brilliant mind to tackle such an undertaking.
Few organizations are as innovative as Nu Skin. You can thank CEO Rich Wood for that. His mindset is one of constant progression and improvement. “Innovation is the lifeblood of any company and determines long-term success,” he says. “We all know of companies who have failed because they did not innovate.”
Rich’s recipe for innovation includes identifying actual customer needs and using industry-leading technology to solve them. This approach led Nu Skin to be named the world’s No. 1 at-home beauty device system brand in 2018.
William’s two decades in the tech industry led to the founding of EasyRedir, now the world’s leading URL redirection service, in 2014. His experience building web-based technology systems and launching tech companies provide a powerful résumé for one of the most innovative minds in the tech industry. Building and growing EasyRedir is the cherry on top, providing a needed service to companies at a world-class level.
Founded in 1977, Oracle has long been a leader in software development and implementation. Much of its success is thanks to the innovative mind of Safra Catz, who has been a part of the organization since 1999. She is also a director of the Walt Disney Company, further showcasing her ability to think outside the box. She is credited with over 100 acquisitions since joining Oracle, a bold strategy that has paid off tremendously.
Corporate transformation is the name of the game, and Zach is the master. In 2012, he was named CEO of Coplex, which aids businesses in their digital transformations. By purchasing the company in 2016, Zach doubled down on his work. In the modern world, businesses cannot thrive without an active and effective digital presence, an innovation that Zach is spearheading with his own company.
Mary joined GM when she was 18, and she is now the first female CEO of an auto manufacturing company. With GM diving into more electric cars and competing on innovation with companies like Tesla, it will be interesting to see what the leader of GM comes up with.
Asheesh is one of the smartest marketing minds that I know. Many of the people on this list are those who have built or run massive companies. Asheesh is one of those smart people who consistently brings creative strategies to different forms of marketing. He’s also one of the world’s kindest people — always trying to bring innovative ideas to people who need help.
Innovative business leaders are not one-size-fits-all. Different leaders made this list for different reasons. Let’s look at a few notable ones:
Some leaders shine in the products they develop. Nu Skin’s Rich Woods, for instance, is behind many of the latest skincare innovations on the market. Mary Barra of GM is building trendy, affordable electric cars and SUVs.
Many of the quietest innovations are also the most important. Tracy Grace, CEO of IBEX, has her high-diversity hiring system down pat. And while Coplex doesn’t build physical products, it’s the best in the business when it comes to digital transformation.
Results relative to experience
When you were 18, what were you doing with your life? Mary was climbing to an executive-level post at one of the world’s most valuable auto companies. Leaders who do incredible things for their age are undoubtedly innovative.
Growth, mergers, and acquisitions
Massive growth, whether achieved organically or through corporate acquisitions, is impressive. CEO Safra Catz couldn’t have integrated 100 businesses into Oracle without some serious innovation chops.
Whatever the future holds, it’s a good bet these innovation leaders will be there to meet it. They’re setting the example not just for their companies and industries, but for all of us in business.
Image credit: Matheus Bertelli; Pexels