Leaders Embrace Innovation by Disrupting Company Culture

October 21, 2019, 8:54 PM UTC
Danuta Otfinowski for Fortune

In a constantly shifting landscape, how can long-established businesses adapt fast enough to succeed in the face of constant disruptions? 

“You have to have a leader be comfortable with failures, be comfortable with letting the kids have the keys to the kingdom sometimes, and letting go,” says Margaret Keane, CEO of Synchrony. 

Speaking at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women summit in Washington, D.C. on Monday, an all-female panel of leaders discussed how they’ve successfully adapted their respective companies to constant change. 

And it often starts with disrupting company culture.

“In an agile innovation process, you’re throwing things constantly, right? And you know to kill that stuff. You experiment, fail fast, but move on,” says Irene Chang Britt, CEO of ICB Enterprises. “But what we forget to kill is the old stuff.”

Irene Chang Britt, CEO, ICB Enterprises; Renée James, Chairman and CEO, Ampere Computing; Tami Erwin, Executive Vice President and Group CEO, Verizon Business; Kate Johnson, President, Microsoft U.S.; and Margaret Keane, CEO, Synchrony discuss how to navigate innovation at Fortune‘s 2019 Most Powerful Women Summit.

Adapting with an eye towards innovation is blocked if company culture makes change impossible.

It’s “core to how you invent, innovate,” says Renée James, Chairman and CEO of Ampere Computing. “If businesses don’t know how to repair it, and that’s why they can’t execute.”

A clear understanding of company culture starts with employees: They should be able to easily describe what the company culture is. The next step is ensuring that it’s visible at all levels of the company.

“Once you define it, you actually have to have cultural warriors,” Kate Johnson, President of Microsoft U.S. says. And it’s those people who can call out others—at any level—who aren’t upholding the culture.

And, in that way, companies can  “embrace” the disruptors, says Johnson.

With a clear focus of values and mission, says Tami Erwin, Executive Vice President and Group CEO, Verizon Business, comes customer requirements, and a more focused way to approach partnerships with potential disrupters—and foster faster innovation. “Whoever we’re bringing into partner with us helps us accelerate our mission of enabling a solution on behalf of that customer.”

More must-read stories from Fortune’s MPW Summit:

—Retired Air Force Colonel Martha McSally on why courage is just as important off the battlefield
—”I don’t regret enforcing the law.” Former DHS head Nielsen defends family separation in heated interview
—Why 3 major companies decided to take a stand on gun violence
Tulsi Gabbard calls Hillary Clinton’s Russian jabs “outrageous” at Fortune’s MPW Summit
—Anita Hill calls on candidates to address gender violence
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