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Roopa Unnikrishnan

Based in New York City, New York, USA

  • Founder, Center10 Consulting LLC which is focused on Innovation, Strategy, Talent and Organizational Change
  • An expert in strategy, innovation and operational
  • Senior Fellow, Center for Talent Innovation which does cutting edge research on workforce factors and innovation
  • Founder, Center10 Consulting LLC which is focused on Innovation, Strategy, Talent and Organizational Change
  • An expert in strategy, innovation and operational
  • Senior Fellow, Center for Talent Innovation which does cutting edge research on workforce factors and innovation

Roopa UNNIKRISHNAN has had a decade and a half of experience in roles where she has seeded and driven change in several Fortune 500 companies. In her strategy, innovation and organization effectiveness roles at BlackRock, Pfizer, Citibank and Katzenbach Partners LLC, she identified strategic opportunities, established company-wide innovation tools, helped drive culture and selected strategic projects.

Roopa started her career with seven years in consulting at Katzenbach Partners LLC (KPL), a New York consultancy where she was part of the early start-up team. While there, she worked with some of America’s best-known brands in health and consumer goods. When Roopa left KPL, she was Practice Lead, Outsourcing, specializing in issues dealing with strategy development and managing people and technology in the context of outsourcing and offshoring. Roopa’s financial services experience covers credit cards and asset management, from her time as the strategy director at one of Citibank’s CitiCards division from 2006 to 2007, and in her time as deputy COO and HR lead at BlackRock where she was responsible for strategic projects, process improvement and organizational effectiveness in the sales and marketing divisions. Roopa was with Pfizer Inc. for five years, with stints as VP, Corporate Strategy and Global Head of Pfizer’s worldwide talent and organizational team for the Sales Organization.

A Rhodes Scholar who completed both an MPhil in Economic and Social History and an M.B.A. at the University of Oxford, Roopa also has a varied extracurricular life, being both a published poet and a world-class athlete in sports riflery. She has captained an Oxford University team and won many medals for her nation in the International arena. In 1999, she received the Arjuna Award from the President India, the highest sports prize in the country. Roopa was a board member at Sakhi for South Asian Women for five years, and board chair from 2003-2007 during which time she helped quadruple growth in the budget and programming. Roopa has been a trustee at the T Taraknath Das Foundation for India-America understanding and on the advisory board for ESPNw. In her spare time, she blogs about food at She lives in Manhattan with her husband, a professor and Chief Digital Officer of Columbia University; and their twins.


Hardly a day goes by without a company or regional government announcing an innovation center. But this may not be the best way to kindle creativity, writes Roopa Unnikrishnan. Unnikrishnan is the founder of Center10 Consulting, which focuses on innovation, strategy, talent and organizational change. She has more than 15 years’ experience in roles at Fortune 500 companies. Find her on Twitter @roopaonline.

On October 29, Johnson & Johnson (J&J), the New Brunswick, N.J.-based pharmaceutical, medical devices and consumer goods giant, announced the launch of its Asia Pacific Innovation Center. Located in Shanghai with satellites in Singapore, Australia and Japan, this unit extends the J&J innovation network beyond its original chain of facilities in London, California and Boston. While laudable, J&J should think more innovatively about how it might source innovation. Some of the more interesting consumer and digital plays continue to come from unexpected places. In today’s age, it is time to start thinking about virtual networks rather than centers that require personnel and capital-intensive investments. Instead of a chain of pearls, a more appropriate metaphor might be a net of diamonds — with links in Africa, Asia and the Nordics, underpinned by a big data center that leverages customer data and the web.

A report from the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) on the most innovative companies shows an increasing vitality around innovation investment in rapidly developing economies (RDEs) such as China, India, etc. In addition, two-thirds of breakthrough innovators surveyed by BCG said that they often generate new ideas for products and growth from social media and big-data mining. Innovators who have introduced distinctive products have been identified as casting a wider net and building a culture more attuned to breakthroughs than incremental innovation.

What we’re seeing here is a paradigm shift that goes beyond the current approach that looks for hotbeds of creativity. Why does geography feel less critical to innovation these days? The reason, in part, is that all elements of innovation — the innovation value chain, as it were — are slowly decoupling from their traditional physical underpinnings. The innovation value chain — insight, inspiration, design, development and implementation — is shifting to become increasingly virtual and personal.

Traditionally, universities and large companies were seen as the seats of capability building and insight development. This view has been the core of much writing, such as The Geography of Innovation by academic Maryann Feldman, which asserts that product innovation forms clusters in regions that provide access to knowledge and commercialization tools. But a lot has changed in the two decades since this work was published. While traditional centers of innovation such as Silicon Valley or the Route 128 corridor near Boston continue to draw upon the resources of institutions such as Stanford University or MIT, and the entrepreneurial ecosystem that has grown up around them, today that bedrock of knowledge is shifting.

For example, MOOCs (massive open online courses) allow free access to training from the world’s top universities. As these courses proliferate, they will rapidly increase the geographic reach of cutting-edge thinkers and teachers traditionally bound by the high walls of academia. At last count, 2.7 million students used Coursera’s technical courses worldwide. Partnerships have emerged that bow to the power of these tools — for example, Georgia Tech, Udacity and AT&T have teamed up to offer an online master’s degree in computer science. This is a whole new way to advance knowledge and skills. More importantly, there is an emerging group of players who are much more focused on specific competency building — data management, data security, etc. — and they are set to change the paradigm of learning. Rather than front-loading education (getting that master’s degree), will more talented young students opt to build their capabilities along the way through these resources? In a fast-changing world where new paths emerge and old ones wither away almost every day, wouldn’t that seem to be the more rational option?

The emergence of reverse innovation and big data is about finding new spaces for breakthrough innovation.

The emergence of reverse innovation and big data is about finding new spaces for breakthrough innovation. Of course, they take work; it’s not as easy to identify unmet needs as with tried and tested consumer research efforts — shadowing buyers in London department stores, for example. In fact, it’s getting much more interesting to go back to the method’s anthropological roots — to follow the community health worker in India. This is what inspired the insight that it would be best to equip community workers in India with tools to treat patients locally rather than try to transport them to far-away hospitals. Similarly, as data becomes more accessible and diverse, insights are no longer the stronghold of R&D departments.

Design and development have also drifted into the virtual space of the web. For example, collaborators from Chile and Germany engaged with data and insights virtually to create a very real product that addresses the needs of premature infants and their mothers. BabyBe UG created a product that is brilliant in its use of data, sensors and new materials. It consists of three modules: a bionic mattress with a skin-like gel surface that takes on the temperature and gentle shapes of the mother; the “turtle” that rests on the mother and captures her breathing rhythms and heartbeats, and the control module that makes the connection between the turtle and mattress. Neither of the co-founders of BayBe hail from the health care industry; they have sourced their expertise from a virtual network and built from insights generated by data and a deep knowledge of materials. They have spanned the globe as they’ve designed, developed and implemented their product.

Challenging Barriers to Entry

Similarly, outsourced development shops, whether factories-for-hire in China and India or sites like, have challenged traditional barriers to entry. evaluates, selects and funds innovation production based on the wisdom of the community. Thousands of creative people around the world have submitted their ideas to be evaluated by Quirky, and participants can vote for those with the most potential.

Finally, centers of influence have been crafted around access to capital, technology and talent — the building blocks of implementation. Capital access is being transformed. The extreme case is, of course, Kickstarter. This is not just a way to get the recording of a new song financed. In 2013, a record $10.3 million was raised by the Pebble smartwatch, which caught fire due to its design and compatibility with multiple platforms, including Android and Apple’s iOS. Not only did this peer-to-peer financing approach deliver the capital, it built a following as evidenced by the fact that Best Buy began selling the Pebble in July 2013, and was sold out in five days.

At the more sophisticated end of peer-sourced capital, Sand Hill Exchange is an aggregating marketplace for users to trade startup futures. Sand Hill allows investors and non-investors alike to participate in the growth of emerging companies. By crowdsourcing sentiment, they provide transparency to the startup valuation process. The exchange also clumps similar startups together, creating a view of where transformative efforts are focused. Additionally, it provides a new mechanism to funnel capital to startups, rather than tapping the usual suspects — venture capitalists and institutional investors.

As for company investments, BCG’s study shows that firms in emerging markets are outpacing those in other nations at increasing R&D and innovation funds; almost three-quarters of companies located in RDEs expect to increase spending on innovation next year, compared with only 57% of companies in developed countries.

Technology is increasingly accessible through software as a service, and cloud computing is redefining the “company.” End-users access cloud-based applications through a web browser or mobile app while user data is stored on servers at a remote location. So, one-member or small organizations now have professional management, communications, CRM and financial systems that were hitherto the realm of large enterprises. As a result, more than a third of all Americans are classified as freelance or “independent” workers.

As for talent, when the New York Federal Reserve Bank named Freelancers Union founder Sara Horowitz last year to its board of directors, it sent a signal that the ranks of the self-employed are growing in the halls of big finance. In this new world, these young innovators remained in their milieu, met online, designed a concept, prototyped, produced and got a product into production without the supply chain management issues or billing conflicts that often plague larger enterprises.

So, where does that leave us?

Practically, of course, large companies tend to be key drivers in the economy. Their genius lies in reach (scale), governance (regulation) and operations (manufacturing, brand-building and sales). But more and more, as the “big whales” of innovation get rarer, and as innovations become more dependent on weak signals, entrepreneurs are the innovators of the economy. Large companies may provide for 99% of the economy’s actual wealth and productive work. However, the 1% of entrepreneurs who succeed has the potential to set new directions.

A Portfolio Approach to Innovation

Environments that provide entrepreneurs with access to the capital, infrastructure and policy support they need are in essence putting into place their version of a portfolio approach to innovation. Entrepreneurs are the test balloons for future growth, and they are rarely sticking to specific geographies. UNESCO sponsors an innovation observatory called Netexplo, a network of more than 200 journalists, scientists and academics who detect outstanding initiatives in the Internet and digital technology. Since 2008, this group has recognized 100 digital innovators, who it says have spurred some of the most significant changes in their environments or in changing the assumptions of an industry. The top six are recognized with awards, and the top of that list is proof positive that geography may be replaced by platforms and networks.

Entrepreneurs are the test balloons for future growth, and they are rarely sticking to specific geographies.

For example, the non-profit Ushahidi was born to address a specific crisis –the violence that broke out after Kenya’s disputed election in 2007. Co-founder Ory Okolloh called for a simple tool to map violence anonymously and hence help to prevent it. Post-crisis, Ushahidi set out to build a product that solves the problems created when digital infrastructure is spotty. Ushahidi’s robust, beautifully designed BRCK wireless network generator isn’t the only sensation, however. Ushahidi has come to represent the people behind a platform that powers the collaboration of Kenyan citizen journalists. The website has 45,000 users in Kenya. Since early 2008, Ushahidi’s efforts have grown from an ad hoc group of volunteers to a focused organization of individuals with a wide span of experience ranging from human rights work to software development, as well as a strong team of volunteer developers primarily in Africa. This ecosystem of innovators has developed seven innovative products and services that are focused on doing good, but are also easily leverageable commercially.

Other Netexplo award winners come from emerging innovation ecosystems, such as the justice crowdsourcing site and app Social Cops from India, or the digital taste generator called the “digital lollipop” from Singapore. The former has a global advisory board, and the latter was developed at the National University of Singapore by Sri Lankan researcher Nimesha Ranasinghe.

What’s the next iteration of the Innovation Center?

Lately, I’ve spent at least some time each morning on a small number of websites that get the juices flowing. and Sandhill.Exchange are two examples of a whole new generation of innovation ecosystems.

Product Hunt is a curation of the best new products emerging every day. It helps you discover the latest mobile apps, websites and technology products that are in early stages, and the magic in the system lies in the insights that the founders of these startups get from functional and industry experts who are invited to be contributors in the system.

These are the types of innovation ecosystem disrupters and platforms that allow a lone Icelandic innovator to dream global thoughts. Maybe Silicon Valley and Silicon Alley should consider how companies and individuals the world over are using the tools these firms have developed in past decades to create a network of innovation that is sensitive to the inspiration and innovation happening across the globe. Open up your minds and purses, I say. More importantly, don’t keep trying to get these amazing enterprises to come to you — find a way to get to them.

Originally by Roopa Unnikrishnan, Source: Nov 20, 2014, Knowledge@Wharton


As the job market improves, it’s tempting to jump at the next best offer. But career coaches say don’t jump before considering some important factors.

“We work on a series of assumptions at work and at home,” said the career coach.

Before making any dramatic changes, focus on what you are doing, what you want to change and what the best way is to change that, said Roopa Unnikrishnan, career consultant with Center10 Consulting.

“Be ready to make the jump by looking at the options out there and the capabilities you have been building over the last few years,” says the career coach.

Unnikrishnan says there are a few important steps to consider before taking a leap.

Evaluate your situation

Before you do anything, you need to dig deep and understand your situation and why you want to switch jobs, said Unnikrishnan. Ask yourself whether your lack of fulfillment in the situation you are in or the lack of motivation from yourself to make the most of the opportunities presented by the role you’re in, said Unnikrishnan. “Be thoughtful about your current situation.” You don’t want to leave opportunities on the table. In digging deep, if it turns out it’s time for you to leave, you have your motivations and goals clearly thought out for when you speak to a potential employer, she said. It will be a more thoughtful story, where you have learned, delivered, can do more, says the career coach. Figure out what you are passionate about. “When push comes to shove, it helps to be convinced about the product or service you are providing or interested in.”

Assess your capabilities and passion

Next, ask yourself if you have the capabilities and passion to stay and grow in your work at your current job, says Unnikrishnan. Capabilities are divided into emotional and technical. Emotional capabilities are about working with people. Technical skills are about being able to do the core of what you want to do. “It can’t just be about a job on LinkedIn that has your search terms in it,” said Unnikrishnan. “What you want to do is it start from a core of “what am I here to do on this planet.” When looking at a position, think about whether the job could be done better, faster and maybe even cease to exist at some point. “With every move, you are making some bets,” said the career coach. “You are going in wanting to believe it will work out, but put on a skeptical hat” before you take it.

Be like a panther

Third, Unnikrishnan says visualize yourself as a panther. It’s about watching and waiting, she said. Once you have realized what you’re passionate about and what your goals are, stalk the trends and gather information, she says. It’s impossible to know everything out there, but look at trends around you that pertain to your career, she says. Whether you are talking to people, reading the papers, walking down the street, it’s about recognizing trends. For example, if you can’t go to industry conferences, look up the agenda and look at the topics of discussion for trend ideas in your space, says Unnikrishnan. “But don’t expect it to happen in a moment. This is about 25 things happening over time, that will [lead to] your light bulb moment,” said Unnikrishnan. Once you start seeing trends that could affect your career, ask the question: Why is this relevant? Why could this be relevant? Says Unnikrishnan.

Start the job hunt

Once you have done all of this, then you can hunt, said Unnikrishnan. Pretend you have been offered the job and think about what a week in that position would look like, she said. Consider what the routine of your day will look like so when you go into an interview, you can ask the questions that you need to, said Unnikrishnan. Don’t just focus on achieving a bunch of goals, think about how it all will work together. Imagine what your life will be like and if you’ll like it. “If you like to do things fast, maybe a start-up is the right place for you,” she said.

The last step is to “live it,” says Unnikrishnan. Network, meet up with people in the industry to gather more information, she says. And don’t just ask them to tell you about it, have them walk you through it so you get it, adds the career coach. Start living in the space before you start actually looking for a job in that space, said Unnikrishnan. For example, if you are interested in a chief innovation role, look up the top five chief innovators on LinkedIn and talk to them . You must build a relationship with them before you can ask them to spend the time with you, said Unnikrishnan. “You can really test and be ready in a much more meaningful way for your new role.”

Mentioned: Roopa Unnikrishnan, Source: Oct 28, 2014, Market Watch

Visionaries wind up looking silly at times. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
Visionaries wind up looking silly at times. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

I had the chance to sit down with Malcolm Gladwell just before he went on to speak about David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants during the World Business Forum “Provocateurs” conference. It was easy to slip into a casual, free-wheeling chat, and we touched upon everything from success and socialization to the infamous 10,000-hour rule.

Below is an excerpt of the conversation, edited for clarity:

Q: A lot of your writing talks about how to succeed—in your mind, what is critical for success overall?

MG: Capabilities—if you want to be a basketball player you need to be tall. And of course, desire and passion… except if you’re a lawyer, where theres probably no overlap between desire and success.

Q: What makes you successful, in your mind?  

MG: Not sure if it makes me stand out. What I try to do—try to be—is unafraid of making a fool of myself. Often I will often say something that later I consider wrong. I don’t mind changing my mind. The older I get, the more I’ve come to understand that the only way of pursuing valuable things and saying valuable things is if you lose your fear of standing corrected. Especially as a writer. I’m not making fiscal policy for the United States where an error is catastrophic. I’m provoking people to think. An appropriate mindset to have if that is your job, is to be unafraid. It’s about trying an argument out in front of intelligent people. There’s a 40% chance I’ll be wrong, but that’s OK. That’s the mindset you need to have.

Q: Let’s talk about fear. What is the most powerful weapon against fear? 

MG: The most powerful weapon against fear is forgiveness. If you are part of a community or a context or a world that is comfortable with the idea that people are sometimes fearful, sometimes make terrible decisions, and sometimes don’t do what they are supposed to do—and you continue to support them—then it becomes a lot easier to overcome fear. The key to overcoming fears is your understanding of what happens after you have done or not done something—and if you know that what happens next is that you will continue to be supported, that makes it easier to do the right thing. I think of things not in terms of the individual but of what surrounds the individual.

Q: In David and Goliath, you explore the idea of the advantage of disadvantage. How can you create strategic disadvantage deliberately?

MG: Part of this is making people comfortable with their imperfections. I am constantly hearing about a person seen inside organizations as being disruptive, but is nonetheless highly valuable to the organization. My sense is, if you are inside the organization and you’re discomforted by this person, get over it. It should be fine. Not every relationship has to be smooth sailing. Part of what makes a lot of people good at what they do are their flaws, their compensations for their flaws. My favorite example was a person I used to work with, a great investigative reporter in the Washington Post—one of the greatest of his generation. He was also exceedingly difficult to work with. They drummed him out, but they didn’t realize that you can’t get this great investigative reporting without the obnoxious personality.

The people around the weirdos have to be patient. It’s all a matter of how that’s framed. To think about my example: had the editor stood up and said, “Look we need him. Come to me if things are really difficult, but he’s not going anywhere.” If that conversation took place, it makes it easier. In David and Goliath, I talk about [Dr. Emil J.] Freireich, this tempestuous, difficult, impossible man. He had a boss at the National Institutes of Health who made it possible for all this great work to be done battling leukemia—he knew his job was to harbor and protect obnoxious and brilliant people. He woke up in the morning knowing it was his job to protect the brilliant people from the people they drive crazy.

Q. And what happens in schools—how does this reflect on what happens there?

MG: When it comes to children, it gets more complicated. You’re trying to socialize them, and educate them. With adults, we’ve kind of given up socialization. I worry sometimes that we have gone too far in the direction of socialization. Skilled teachers and principals try to find the right balance. We promote socialization over independent mindedness. I am the millionth person in my generation to object to the way competition is handled in schools today. It’s a really healthy thing to have winners and losers. You learn more when you deal with the real consequences of a loss than if you pretend there is no loss.

Q: Tell us about the 10,000 hour rule.

MG: People have consistently misinterpreted it. It’s not about sports—it’s about cognitively complex disciplines… and running and basketball are not cognitively complex disciplines. It’s not an either/or situation—10,000 hours cannot substitute for talent. If you are doing something complicated, how much time do you have to spend—the minimum amount of time necessary to express your innate talent? Even the most talented surgeon in the world cannot do amazing brain surgery at 21—what the rule tells us is that it takes a long time. Once you understand how long it is, then you understand the idea of patience in organizations, and the importance of organizational support for talent development. Talent development is a hugely critical element of any successful organization.

The correct response to a world that is growing more complex is to delay specialization, not to advance it. People think, because it takes so long to be good at something and jobs are so complex, I need to specialize earlier. No. Start later. The fact that skill levels in sports is rising means you should start practicing one sport later, not earlier. Because the question of fit is more important than ever. You can’t tell if you’re good at something at five, you can at 12. Play seven different of sports between five and 12. Same is true of education and careers. Slow down a little—learn your larger set of skills and then you can hone in and specialize once you have that broad set of capabilities and know where your fit and passion lie.

Originally by: Roopa Unnikrishnan, Source: Oct 23, 2014, Quartz

Robots can be more loving than this. (Reuters/Stringer)


Hollywood loves to hate on artificial intelligence. Plot 1 is an all-out dystopian nightmare. Plot 2 seduces until the fragile fantasy of happiness shatters as the heroic protagonist realizes that it’s rotten to the core. See Plot 1.

The New York Times’ Jayson Greene tries to explain what’s behind this generally dismal vision. Referencing Arthur C. Clark’s essay, “The Hazards of Prophecy,” which posits that it’s the failure of imagination and the failure of nerve that results in fatalistic views, Greene writes that we fail to envision a hopeful future because we imagine the worst. Beware the Terminator, Hal, NS-54s and Preston—all about power and control. The assumption seems to be that artificial intelligence will drive to our base, ruthless instincts.
But then there’s Star Wars. Humanity comes in the form of C3PO and R2D2—and Chroon-Tan B.


In 2005, Chroon-Tan B made an appearance in the public consciousness as the midwife robot in Star Wars III; Revenge of the Sith. She, because she definitely sounded like a she, crooned softly as she gently cradled the newborn twins Leia and Luke, as their mother was unceremoniously and traumatically despatched to film heaven. It was an odd little gentle interlude before the gory scenes that followed as dad Anakin was despatched limb by limb to his Darth future.

Imagine my surprise earlier this week when I found an iteration of Chroon-Tan on AngelList, the site to invest in early-stage startups. BabyBe was clearly a device created by engineers who understand the role of mothers (rather, the need for mothers) in the lives of preemie children.

Take a look here for what BabyBe does—its tag line is “soft Robotics for neonatal healthcare.”

The product is a brilliant use of data, sensors, and new materials that make the preemie child and mother’s experience so much more fulfilling, and I suspect ensures better outcomes for the life of the child. It consists of three modules:

  1. A Bionic mattress whose skin-like gel surface takes on the temperature and gentle shapes of the mother.
  2. The mother “turtle” that rests on the mother and captures her breathing rhythms and heartbeats.
  3. A control module that makes the connection between the turtle and mattress.

Here is a robot that has the wellbeing of mother and child squarely in mind and design. Rather than imagining the worst like Hollywood does, BabyBe’s creators imagined the best—they have FDA approval for their materials, they work not only with maternal data, but maternal feelings, they prioritize not only the child’s vitals but her emotional well-being.

There are takeaways about the future of artificial intelligence here but also on innovation overall:

  • There are opportunities all around you. Hospital care has prioritized diagnostics and surgical innovation, but this is all about patient engagement and emotional wellbeing.
  • Nothing should be considered sacred. The mother-preemie space has evolved, but mostly in mechanical ways that work towards infection prevention with walls and transparent dividers and carefully monitored, limited skin-to-skin interactions. By asking some key questions—what if the mother could be channeled, for example—BabyBe has established a whole new paradigm.
  • Stay open to the relevance of innovations out there. The BabyBe is a wonderful amalgam of cutting edge materials (the gel), mechanics (sensors), robotics (variable movements in the supple mattress) and psychology (the emotional interplay of shape and human emotion.)
  • Be bold. I can’t imagine that positing a whole new interface between mother and child was an easy argument to make but the company has done it, and crafted a robotic solution that is customer centric as well as deeply advanced.

Someday down the road, I could see a version BabyBe 2.0 or version 20.0 that is more like Chroon-Tan in an ability to preserve and save lives in whole new places. Imagine opening up your Fedex box, popping out a mini Chroon-BabyBe, and having your baby in your remote Indian village. Dare to dream.

Originally by: Roopa Unnikrishnan, Source: Sep 25, 2014, Quartz

Solopreneur. An inelegant word, addressing an elegant and increasingly pertinent value-creating part of our economy. The dictionaries definition is “an entrepreneur who works alone, with contractors, yet is fully responsible for running the business.” That rang true to my almost two years running Center10. Globally, a growing number of professionals have taken the path of establishing their own enterprises, often small enterprises that tap into powerful networks and deliver specialized services to those who need that support.

The richest element of my entrepreneurial experience has been the vibrant network of partners who have been part of my journey. They have been my cheering squad, advisors, quasi-employees, and above all, my always dependable partners.

Networks Rule: My Linkedin Contacts Map

Of course, there have been partnership hiccups along the way, but those have been few and far between. I realized, as I reflected, that the network that has swung into effect have been decades in the making. Over 15 years, they have advised me when I was moving into a leadership role with a global team, when I was making the decision to move organizations, and of course, when I was setting up my new firm, and making decisions around structure, logo, firm name, client strategy, offering…everything.

All this to say, whether you are contemplating setting off on your own, or growing within a large organization, invest in building a vibrant network. It will stand you in good stead.

Some rules for building a strong network:

  • Be relationship-oriented, not transactional: Some of the professional relationships that have continued to be powerful accelerants to Center10 include people who I first met more than fifteen years as I started my career in the US. People who understand your evolution can be great touch-stones when you are weighing options, charting bold moves or trying to build out a new service line. The benefit of such relationships are that you have worked together through multiple variations of roles and dynamics – as equals, sometimes a client to them, sometimes vice versa, other times as collaborators. The outcome is genuine reciprocity and a long view in a relationship. It’s not about the latest billable minute, it’s about the next brainstorm that can benefit either or both of you equally.
    Collaborative Problem Solving At Work
    • Alan Culler (pictured here) shared an office with me 15 years ago when we were part of the scrappy start-up called Katzenbach Partners LLC which went on to be a significant consulting firm – he spent hours mentoring me during those first crucial year of consulting. He was also the first one to hire me as a collaborator when I first hung up my shingle, and now, for the past year, he has been part of my consulting teams.
  • Build on Shared Values: While diversity is key to a powerful network, at the core of each relationship should be shared values. They come into play when you are are trying to get things done together fast, or when you face a tricky situation and a tough call needs to be made.
    • A couple of weeks ago, a client asked if I could be in Europe the next day for strategic interviews (in a B2B situation). In principle, I find such high-stakes interviews with senior third party executives are best done with a partner. My team member was out of town, but I quickly packed, and called Brigitte Lippmann who was a couple of hours from the client location. We had worked together 10 years ago, and she, like I, believes in the need for strategy and organizational issues to be thought of in parallel, she is deeply client-focused, and will always help a friend. An hour into our discussion, she had changed her holiday plans, made reservations for us in Europe, spent the three hours I had before the flight getting up to speed on the interviews and showed up and was a huge asset in the interviews. Our shared values around life, professionalism and organizational impact, all made that kind of turn-key collaboration possible.
  • Respect the expertise around you: Instead of staffing up, I have leveraged experts who have themselves created excellent practices and tool-kits.
    • Between my financial planner, Stacy, who helped me get to a high level of confidence around my finance, my accountant Padma, lawyer, book keeper Sharon, my web advisor Ajit of Solminds, my editor Susanna …the list goes on. In selecting them, I have chosen driven professionals who are in touch with the latest developments, are consultative (not prescriptive), and like an iterative approach to problem-solving. In essence, people who know that the better solution may be ahead, but lets get things done in the meantime…and keep the discussion going. Very relationship-based, not transactional. They tend to know where my business is headed, my hopes and fears – and I, in turn, know theirs.
    • Joy, or another take on the “airport test”: It helps to actually enjoy each others company, since unlike collaborations mandated by corporate roles, network-based efforts are fueled by people choosing to spend time working together.
    • I was ambiguous about the “airport test”, a term used sometimes in interviewing, which basically served to describe candidate fit and general sociability. My skepticism is that such a test might drive homogeneity. But if you consciously choose to network with a diverse group,  the test is truly one where you wouldn’t mind “being stuck in an airport with the person if all the flights are cancelled.” The best example, in my case, was when Alan and I missed our flights coming back from a client offsite, because he and I were discussing the futures of our children and his grandchildren, politics, economy, etc.
  • Be generous: I have been the recipient of generosity from a series of people – clients, ex-clients, ex-bosses, friends, and sometimes, folks I may just have met in passing at a conference or via an email introduction. I think I’d hit’s word limit if I was to try listing them all. In return, I try to give of my time, and my rolodex. It’s just a better way of being in the world.

And, as with all good criteria…the opposites features have helped me recognize the people I am careful about letting in my network. If they are transactional, lack any sense of reciprocity, do not provide a sense of their expertise, don’t share your values and are just plain cheap with their support…stay away from them!!

Originally by Roopa Unnikrishnan, Source: May 30, 2014, Official Blog of Center10 Consulting

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  • Establishing an Innovative Culture OR Encouraging Appropriate Experimentation and Risk-Taking to drive Innovation: This workshop hones in on underlying assumptions of businesses, helps workshop participants challenge those assumptions, and drive to a culture of Innovation at the team and division-level. The goal is to help leaders learn how to drive a “speak up” program to ensure people can express opportunities and perceived opportunities for change. Help individuals learn how to prioritize innovation when it is based on valid insights, design and develop transformational ideas, even when they fly against conventional wisdom and “how we do things here”. Teach Managers the 8 behaviors of leaders that drive innovative problem-solving
  • Pride as a critical retention lever. Based on the research of Jon Katzenbach and team, this workshop reviews the Five Levers of Pride and engagement, and how you can identify pride-builders in your organization to build pride-building programs. This interactive workshop receives significant positive feedback from business leaders and HR partners, since it provides practical step-by-step guides to identify your company’s Pride Levers and a toolkit for launching your own pride builder program
  • Strategic Workforce Planning: Roopa’s significant experience from strategy and innovation roles in multiple organizations around identifying strategic opportunities, setting agenda, establishing company-wide innovation tools, culture and driving selected strategic projects. Roopa has real experience translating vision and strategy into action structural change, team building and re-alignment, and change program development. The workshop provides a step-by-step approach for honing in on specific strategic priorities, and driving to appropriate organizational strategies to address these short, medium and long-term priorities.


As Founder of Center10 Consulting LLC which is focused on Innovation, Strategy, Talent and Organizational Change, Unnikrishan is writing the official blog of the company.

In her spare time, Unnikrishnan blogs about food at She describes the blog as a working mom’s food adventures in and out of the kitchen.

“Roopa is a great strategic thought partner, and was part of my journey as I set out my goals and transitioned to my new role at a new company. I recommend Roopa for anyone who is going through transitions and is looking for guidance (and more formal coaching).”

– Coaching Client

“Roopa’s great skill is in synthesizing information from many sources and from many points of view in real time and drawing out the key strategic message and purpose. Not only is she a great strategist who always brings a unique perspective to a business challenge, but she is an engaging facilitator. She never holds herself above her associates, and works in the trenches as comfortably as when she’s leading a team.”

– Citi Colleague