How Do You Create a Culture of Innovation?

Building a culture of innovation means more than sticky notes and Ping-Pong tables. Leaders must bake this new approach of fresh thinking and driving change into the company’s mission. Vistage spoke with Chair Lonnie Martin and member Cathy Choi about the challenges of building such a culture.

Based in Sacramento, Martin helps facilitate Vistage’s Executive Leadership Program in collaboration with Stanford Graduate School of Business. Choi, a member since 2009, is president of Bulbrite, a lighting company. A shift in energy regulations forced her to revamp her product line.

Q1 When it comes to creating a culture of innovation, what is the role of the CEO?

Martin: The CEO has to think it’s important and has to be behind it. But it’s overall an organizational thing. The CEO needs to be the orchestra conductor.

Choi: The CEO must be aware that a culture shift needs to happen and be willing to go through the painful process, because it definitely has not been an easy one.

Q2 What is the best way to engage and motivate your employees toward creating this kind of culture?

Martin: Communication. Leaders need to articulate the direction of the company, what the organization is trying to be good at, who they’re serving, and the desire to get new ideas bubbling up. Innovation isn’t just new products. It could be new ways of conducting your business, so that you develop a competitive advantage or do something more efficiently.

Choi: One was reminding them of our purpose—why we’re here. We have a very defined purpose: “To create beautiful light and help people turn life on.”  That hasn’t changed. But the second piece is educating the team that the world has changed. The acronym VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) best describes our situation. VUCA is the new norm. To survive, we have to shift the way we think and behave.

Q3 How can customers and other outside influencers help develop innovation?

Martin: You can never know enough about your customer. Dig around and observe what’s going on. You’ll get some new ideas about how customers use your products and the adjacent pains or issues that you can solve.

Choi: We created an internal war room. This came from a Vistage speaker I heard last year who asked us, “Do you know every move that takes place in your market?” Now we post trends that people are seeing from the market. It keeps you fresh, wanting to innovate.


Lonnie Martin

Lonnie Martin
Vistage Chair since 2010

Martin has more than 30 years of executive experience within the venture capital, telecommunications, and information technology industries. He’s a facilitator in the Vistage Executive Leadership Program in collaboration with Stanford, which focuses on innovation.

Cathy Choi

Cathy Choi
President of Bulbrite
Vistage member since 2009

Choi is president of Bulbrite, a family business in New Jersey that manufactures and supplies energy-efficient lighting solutions. She’s served as a judge for Enactus, a Vistage partner that works with university students
to generate sustainable change through entrepreneurial action.