How can leaders drive innovation in product-led companies? In episode #16 of our CPO Rising Series with Renee Niemi, Grainger CPO Brian Walker speaks on driving innovation in product-led companies. He discusses using data to deeply understand customers and create personalized experiences. Brian also covers strategies for digital transformation, emerging technologies, talent acquisition and evaluating investments. Learn how Grainger leveraged insights to power growth, the importance of cross-functional partnerships, and tips for navigating make-vs-buy decisions and accountability models.
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- Having experience across different functions like operations gives a CPO credibility and the ability to speak different languages within the business.
- Storytelling is important for communicating large-scale changes and building trust during transformations.
- Understanding customer contexts deeply through data and insights allows for more personalized experiences.
- Build internally what creates competitive advantage; consider purchasing common systems.
- Evaluate investments based on progress to milestones and value rather than direct P&L impact.
- Adapt accountability models depending on how direct teams’ work is to revenue.
- Emerging technologies like AI/ML will change the focus to data modeling and enhanced experiences.
- Chatbots and language models may fundamentally change discovery and definition processes.
- Staying customer-centric through principles like “start with the customer” guides culture.
- Focusing on information advantages through data can propel long term growth and differentiation.
- Resilient businesses serve necessary repair/maintenance needs in downturns.
- Use talent market shifts to accelerate hiring against strategic needs.
- Acquisitions may accelerate roadmaps if capabilities are contextually relevant.
- Fundamentals of product management will remain but fluency in emerging tech is key.
- Build tools internally first to instantiate new operational models.
- Partner closely across functions to understand needs and reimagine together.
- Governance helps evaluate investments and ensure teams are right-sized over time.
- Dual accountability models apply for internal and customer-facing product teams.
- Data-driven segmentation allows for personalized, high-value customer experiences.
- A mix of build, buy, partner is required when driving innovation.
About the speaker
Brian Walker is the Chief Product Officer of W.W. Grainger, Inc., a $15.2 billion leading broad line distributor with operations primarily in North America, Japan and the United Kingdom. In this role, Brian leads the prioritization of Grainger’s technology investments including Grainger’s digital platforms, mobile solutions and the industry leading Grainger.com. Brian has held many roles of increasing responsibility at Grainger. Most recently, Brian served in technology innovation capacities including Vice President, Digital Architecture and Operations and President of Gamut.com. Prior to that, while headquartered in London, England, he served as Vice President of Strategy and Marketing for Grainger’s Online Business with operations in Canada, Germany, Japan, South Korea, the United Kingdom and the United States. Brian has also led teams responsible for corporate strategy, merchandising and pricing for the Grainger U.S. Business. He joined Grainger in September 2006 as Purchasing Manager. Prior to joining Grainger, Brian led teams in warehousing, logistics, supply chain and sales operations at McMaster-Carr Supply Company. Brian holds a bachelor’s degree in Economics from Wesleyan University, a master’s degree in Applied Statistics from DePaul University, and an MBA from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. Brian serves on the Board of Trustees of the Illinois Institute of Technology, the Board Chair Executive Council and is on the Board of Advisors for IIT’s Institute of Design. He has served as a founding board member for Wesleyan’s Quantitative Analysis Center and is a current member of Wesleyan’s President’s Council. Brian also is a Lecturer at Carnegie Mellon University for their CIO and CDigitalO programs. For more information, visit invest.grainger.com.