Personal Disciplines: Learning the Art of Letting Go

by Declan Denehan

Editor’s note: In this series, we share personal stories from business leaders in a new book by Luis Solis; Innovation Alchemists: what every CEO needs to know to hire the right Chief Innovation Officer

Look for Chief Innovation Officers who can let go of the old to take on the new

Letting go of old ideas, processes and preconceptions frees you to take on new opportunities and be more innovative.

One of the biggest lessons I learned about thriving in a corporate environment relates to a topic familiar to anyone who has lived in New York City: real estate. My first apartment in Manhattan was a studio, no more than 500 square feet. I lived in that studio with a woman (who would later become my wife) for the first decade of my life in New York.

I quickly learned that to survive in that small space I had to let go of many things: mental (my preconceptions of city living), and physical (items that weren’t all that necessary or important). I learned to live lean and mean. I also had to become a fairly good negotiator, fighting for what was important (like closet space) and what wasn’t (like my Jameson’s Whiskey mirror).

Letting Go is Liberating

Like in life, letting go of the ideas, processes, preconceptions and “stuff” that exists in a corporate environment can be really liberating — for yourself as well as your colleagues. Let me give you a few examples of how letting go played out in my career. Although the process was often incredibly unsettlingly and unnerving, letting go allowed me to grow, learn and move on to better opportunities.

From Partner to Intrapreneur

My first job was at a small consulting firm. I eventually became a partner and was excited by the opportunity of growing this modest, yet profitable, company. It was a startup, so the approval process moved fast, which I loved. But just as I took on my new role, opportunity knocked, and I went through its door, I accepted a position at a large banking institution, which meant learning to navigate through corporate layers to get things done. People who knew me gave me no more than a few years.  But I survived, through a series of mergers, joint ventures and sales, and I learned what I needed to thrive (be flexible, embrace ambiguity) and what to let go (being impatient or too rigid).

I carved out a nice niche as an “intrapreneur,” building a series of businesses related to Investor Relations and Servicing. Eventually, the decision was made to spin off the Division where I worked into a JV with another large bank. So I tried to let go of my world before they did: I offered my resignation and proposed an arrangement that would have allowed me to buy out the business.

The new JV CEO rejected my proposal (and my resignation), but offered a structure for the group that provided considerable autonomy and a compensation package that allowed us to participate in the success of the businesses we led.

Establishing an Enterprise-Wide Product Team

My next challenge came in 2001, when the CEO offered me a new position to establish and lead a product team across the entire company, something I had little to no experience doing. At the time, I really never thought of myself as a products guy, but I thought, ‘Why not?’ To move forward, I had to let go of the self-contained unit that was performing well and establish a new function (and assume a $350 million P&L) at a company in the midst of a significant organizational repositioning.

My job was to change how product management would operate across the enterprise and be accountable for the growth and return on investment in product offerings. If we couldn’t break through the “business as usual” mentality, I knew we would fail. I was managing a large group of people, many of whom had difficulty letting go of old ways of thinking and doing things within the organization. I had to work at pushing myself, as well as my team, to think differently, reminding them this was a new way of doing business. While the core business was the transfer agent business, we started with corporate actions because we could see clear wins.

Within months, the revenue impact to that business grew to multiples of what it had been. That, combined with positive customer feedback, allowed us to successfully reposition the business to deliver cohesive solutions to clients’ equity servicing needs and to deliver substantially improved margins.

Corporate-Wide Strategy and Innovation

Later in my career, I had lunch with a Vice Chair of BNY Mellon who was running a very large (over 10,000 employees) and diverse set of businesses that was generating more than half of the company’s net income. This lunch resulted in an offer to help establish a new role focused on strategy and innovation across these businesses. Although this was new unfamiliar territory for me, I weighed the potential impact not only to my growth but also to the organization.

So, in 2008, I became part of a small team trying to figure out what an innovation program would look like and how it should be structured to thrive within the DNA of the organization. We launched the program in 2009, setting up structures to facilitate and reward innovation within and across the various business units. With significant executive support, by the end of 2010, collective innovation-related efforts resulted in a pre-tax contribution greater than $75 million and in 2011 exceeded $100 million. This innovation program has now been adopted by the entire organization and continues to drive positive results.

Leading Disruptive Innovation

Although the broad-based innovation program is proving quite successful at impacting the process, pace and culture of innovation across the company, there was a belief that more disruptive innovation could be accomplished by establishing a small group and charging them with identifying and developing breakthrough growth opportunities. So, last year I joined a new small group of very talented individuals operating under the banner of Strategic Growth Initiatives that is focused on identifying and incubating large scale initiatives and also making investments in strategically interesting companies with technologies or business models that can drive value for the larger enterprise.

Lessons Learned

People may interpret my story of letting go more as a story of risk taking, or always moving forward and never looking back. But that’s not how I see it. I fully recognize that while all of the above, and a wee bit of luck, are necessary for anyone who wants to thrive in today’s business culture, being open to freeing yourself and, thus, your colleagues is the core of whatever innovating I’ve been able to trigger within myself and others.

Too often in American culture and business we think we are defined by what we have accumulated–the big house, the fancy suits, the lofty title, the number of direct reports, whatever it is we think define who we are within an organization. Don’t misunderstand my intent: I like my stuff and corporate perks as much as the next guy, but I now understand, particularly as the business world, technology and corporate environment are changing at breakneck speed, holding on too tightly–to people, ideas, and dated constructs–is not the path to truly creative thinking or leading individuals.

In fact, I believe this is one time when leading by example is critical. Being open to new prospects and letting go can truly spur those around you to think out of the proverbial box, imagine the possibilities and, ultimately help a company grow and prosper.

image credit: kickstarter.com

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Declan Denehan is Managing Director – Strategic Growth Initiatives at BNY Mellon. Declan’s LinkedIn profile hereOct. 8, 2014: Declan Denehan will be presenting Building Innovation Contests that Work at Back End of Innovation (BEI) Las Vegas, Nevada.

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