Today’s leadership imperative is clear: Uncover new market opportunities, define new business models and drive top-line revenue growth on a sustainable basis — or risk obsolescence. It makes sense. All products, services and even business models become commodities over time. Constant invention and reinvention is the everlasting leadership imperative.

Some forward-thinking organizations recognize that executive development itself needs reinvention. These organizations are quickly moving away from traditional executive education into the realm of business innovation. For instance, NBCUniversal is explicitly linking professional development to strategic business growth. Widely known for its successful television networks, motion pictures and theme parks, the company is facing massive change in the media and entertainment landscape thanks to Netflix, YouTube, Amazon and the like.

Disruption is everywhere. So, NBCUniversal is investing in its people — strategically. Led by Rebecca Romano, vice president of talent development, and a small team of learning professionals, they have created NBCUniversal’s Talent Lab. The talent lab represents the company’s new mindset regarding the interplay between talent and innovation and includes a high-tech physical space to match.

The talent lab isn’t the typical corporate university. It includes tiered programs specifically designed for all levels of the organization as well as key phases of employee and professional development. That involves everything from the company’s 80-year-old NBCUniversal Page Program for early-career media professionals to programs for senior leaders who are close to transitioning to the executive suite.

It’s called a lab because it’s just that — a space where people come together, cross-fertilize ideas, and contribute to one another’s learning. In addition to facilitating professional development, the lab is a mechanism to promote NBCUniversal’s strategy of fostering a “symphony” — or strategic business synergies — across its various businesses and brands.

To promote new mindsets and behaviors to grow the top line, the talent lab provides programs specifically geared to senior leaders whose role it is to shape both business strategy and culture. These programs focus on high-potential internal talent viewed as game changers, culture carriers and pioneers for their business. Individuals are recognized by their management and invited to participate based on their current and anticipated strategic roles.

Participants in the talent lab’s six-month-long DRIVE program, for example, comprise 25 top executives from across the company’s business portfolio. The group is divided into five cohorts, all focused on a specific enterprise business challenge that requires rethinking the company’s — and industry’s — business model. Cohorts visit parent company Comcast’s Silicon Valley incubator, meet with strategic partners, and share their observations and recommendations with executive management to conclude the program.

Along the way, participants gain new mindsets, strategic frameworks, and tools to use in their day jobs. The result is a one-two punch of real opportunities to transform the industry, and a talent base that returns to drive individual businesses with a more strategic lens focused on business-model innovation and growth.

More and more, competitive advantage comes from innovative business models. Leadership development programs that prepare people to shape emerging business models in their industries instill the competencies that can proactively shape the future.

Most learning and development leaders have realized successful careers based on highly structured approaches with predictable outcomes. It was the recipe for success. But executive education focused on innovation requires embracing the same principles and practices as the innovation process itself. That means getting comfortable with uncertainty. Iterate. Viewing setbacks as learning. Trusting the process.

Those who infuse innovation into the DNA of their models, approaches and the experiences they deliver to emerging leaders in their organizations effectively shape the future of their companies and industries. That is strategic impact.

Soren Kaplan is an affiliated professor at USC’s Center for Effective Organizations, founder of InnovationPoint and author of “The Invisible Advantage.” He can be reached at



  1. Federal Reviewer

  2. Wonderful article Soren. I like the idea of a Talent Lab and the fact that it includes people from all levels of the organization. Every team member can contribute to the innovation process and it’s nice to see significant companies involving everyone throughout the organization.

  3. Where can I see more about Talent Lab. I’d love to take a look at the kind of offerings they are talking about here!

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