Shawn Kanungo is a disruption strategist and innovation expert, and the bestselling author of “The Bold Ones: Innovate and Disrupt to Become Truly Indispensable.”
As a globally recognized innovation strategist, Kanungo works at the intersection of creativity, business and technology. He spent 12 years at Deloitte working closely with leaders to help them better plan for the opportunities associated with disruptive innovation. Since leaving Deloitte, Kanungo has worked with hundreds of organizations on their journey to digital transformation. He’s led complex projects incorporating artificial intelligence, cloud technologies, behavioral economics, Web3 and more. Today, Kanungo is a partner with Queen & Rook, where he advises leading organizations and executives on disruptive trends and invests in early-stage ventures.
His debut book, “The Bold Ones,” has been touted as one of McKinsey’s top decision-making books for leaders. In it, Kanungo offers a playbook for individuals to become bolder and push their careers and companies forward with optimism. His approach inspires individuals to take unexpected approaches to innovation to remain competitive and relevant.
Jeffrey Shields: Before becoming an advisor and consultant to executives and organizations, you worked for 12 years at Deloitte, which is an organization many of our members are familiar with. You worked on disruptive innovation there. How did you become a person who saw innovation and disruption in a corporate environment like Deloitte?
SHAWN KANUNGO: Throughout my years at the firm, and especially at the end of my tenure there, I helped organizations innovate and find opportunities to disrupt themselves. I was the guy trying to go into incumbent organizations and help them navigate technology shifts, cultural shifts, and see how they could move a massive ship in a new direction. I have found it most valuable, most difficult and also most rewarding, to help incumbent organizational leaders who have been incredibly successful to pivot and change when the environment changes around them.
I started small. Whether it was incorporating a new technology or new concept, I would introduce that to an organization. I started when digital transformation was top of mind for many companies, and I was doing a lot of work in that space. And over time, the firm saw me as somebody that was working on innovative projects. The clients saw me that way too. So that’s how that flywheel launched and how I’m now known as an innovation guy. The more that you start flexing the innovation muscle, the more innovation projects you get.
Shields: In an independent school, the CFO or business officer is sometimes a primary innovator because they are focused on resource allocation, which often means doing more with less or doing things differently. Our schools are also relatively small, mission-driven nonprofit organizations. What advantages might our schools and their business leaders have when harnessing disruption today? And how can they leave your talk and be that catalyst back at their school, like you are for companies?
KANUNGO: Number one, I think now is the greatest time to innovate ever. You mentioned the CFO being a catalyst for innovation. I believe that every single person within an organization can be an innovator. Whether you are the AR clerk or the janitor or the CFO or the president or the head of school, no matter who you are within the organization, you have the ability to innovate, to find value within the organization. I fundamentally believe that the most valuable job in the world today is being a value creator. It’s being an innovator. This is because of technology, tools like generative AI.
Many individuals and institutions have been struggling with this idea of how to do more with less, trying to stretch resources. I’m saying we can do way more with way less today because of the technologies at our fingertips. These tools and technologies can help everyone become a 10X professional. We need to rewire how we look at our organizations and institutions and our work. My goal is to inspire folks to see how we all can take these developments and become that 10X professional.
Shields: Our audience works on the business operations side of the house, whereas most school employees are on the academic side, and may see things differently. What advice do you have for our members to build that bridge across the school, so that others see the need for innovation and are willing to move towards it together? Said another way, when you see disruption is necessary or you want to innovate in any area of the enterprise, how do you bring others on board?
KANUNGO: I’m a CPA. Now, I haven’t done accounting in 15 years, but my father’s a CPA, my wife is a CPA, and finance is deeply rooted in my DNA. So I’m going to say this with peace and love to the finance folks who are reading this.
The more that you can understand other stakeholders within the institution, the more you can identify and show how you have an aligned mission. That can open the door to an experiment, to working on something very small.
We in finance have been trained to be optimized, standardized, streamlined, to believe in numbers, to persuade people with the data. That is how we’ve been trained. And for many people, that’s how to move the needle. But that’s not how you move hearts. The opportunity in front of us is to move people with emotion, with story, with narrative, with showing, not telling. If we want to innovate collectively, we need to persuade people with our ideas.
I believe that this group should be leading innovation, but that requires us to tell better stories and better narratives. This may sound crazy, but I think one of the best ways of convincing folks to take a new path is to spend more time eating or drinking with them — having coffee, spending social time. Only in the third hour of an informal get together do you truly know someone’s risk tolerance and what they truly believe. The more that you can understand other stakeholders within the institution, the more you can identify and show how you have an aligned mission. That can open the door to an experiment, to working on something very small. You don’t have to have alignment on everything or even a bunch of things, but you can align around that small thing at first.
The biggest barrier when it comes to innovation is not product or technology but that people don’t understand innovation and are fearful of it. We are incentivized to work on things that we know. If you can show someone you will enter into the darkness together, and you will be there to hold their hand, they’ll be more willing to do that. But you can only do that when you truly understand the other person. So I would say, spend more time with people. That’s how you get innovation through.
Shields: What’s the most exciting thing about generative AI that applies to finance and operations, as you see it today?
KANUNGO: I believe that generative AI is as big as mobile or the internet — or maybe even bigger for finance and operations professionals. It’s not only the ability to audit your financials or streamline processes. I believe that the end is now the beginning. So, for example, the deliverable may be a financial statement or analysis of the financials. Today, you can get AI to analyze the financials and give you those insights to start with, and that becomes your beginning for decision-making.
AI is not the output. It’s not about inputting data and creating reports. AI will rewire how we fundamentally look at our work. It’s incredibly exciting because finance and operational folks will have much more robust tools to help them be strategic thinkers. It’s going to change this type of career.
Shields: So you would encourage our members to not see AI as a threat, but as a platform for them to add value to the work that they do on behalf of their schools, right? If some people are thinking AI will replace them, AI will do a better job, you’re saying that they still have a lot of value to add. You can use your experience, your skills, your education while standing on the platform of AI.
What we should be doubling down on are the things that create value within the organization. Those things require strategic thinking, decision making, problem solving. AI can assist you but it’s not going to solve those issues. Most of the problems within our organization are human-related.
KANUNGO: I believe that wholeheartedly. And I believe that your job is to actually figure out what part of your job will be replaced by AI. The reality is that those tasks are probably redundant. They’re manual. They’re copying and pasting between different Excel documents, which does not add value. What we should be doubling down on are the things that create value within the organization. Those things require strategic thinking, decision making, problem solving. AI can assist you but it’s not going to solve those issues. Most of the problems within our organization are human-related.
So I believe that every single professional should be proficient in understanding how to use generative AI, should have it in their toolkit.
Shields: What is the best advice you can give our members about operating as leaders in this emerging AI environment?
KANUNGO: I would say two things. Number one is that we need to embrace the darkness. What does that mean? The world is changing, and it keeps changing. A lot of people ask me, “When is all this change going to stop?” I tell them that it’s not. Change is on an exponential curve. The world is going to get more uncertain, and we need to be comfortable making bold decisions in a world of uncertainty.
As leaders, the most powerful thing that you can do is to be vulnerable. Ask questions, say, “I don’t know,” ask for help. The most vulnerable leaders will be the most innovative leaders. They are comfortable with uncertainty, with being a sponge for new technologies and new things that are coming out, and with being a deep generalist. They have a pulse on what’s happening, not only within finance and technology and operations, but in media and culture and education. Being aware of the larger economic and technological landscape is super important.
The more vulnerable you are, the more nimble, flexible, resilient and experimental you can be when the environment changes around you. That’s the best advice that I can give in this constantly-evolving environment.
Shields: Thank you very much. We look forward to seeing you speak in person in Atlanta next February.
Learn more about and register for the 2024 NBOA Annual Meeting at NBOAAnnualMeeting.org.