Nilofer Merchant

Nilofer Merchant

Former Tech Executive | Bestselling Author

Nilofer Merchant is a renowned business strategist and innovator on a mission to reinvent work so that it actually works. A bestselling author, TED mainstage speaker, and recipient of the “Future Thinker” Award from Thinkers 50, Merchant says few companies will survive unless they understand what she calls “onlyness” — the experience, talent, perspective, and purpose lying untapped in the workforce. Through her impactful talks, she reveals new ways of connecting our ideas to the world, and empowers leaders to unlock the vast source of innovation too often overlooked in their own people.

During her 25 years in technology, Merchant personally launched more than 100 products, netting $18 billion in sales. She helped launch the first Internet Server at Apple, grew division performance at Autodesk by 50 per cent, and created product and pricing strategies for Adobe that grew the company from $2 billion to $5 billion. In 2009-2010, she waged a competitive battle with Microsoft and triumphed, saving Symantec’s Anti-Virus $2.1B annual business. Her experience as an operating leader is why boards and CEOs of IBM, JP Morgan, and Walmart seek her advice.

Merchant is also the bestselling author of three books — The New How, The New Rules for Creating Value in the Social Era, and her latest book The Power of Onlyness: Make Your Wild Ideas Might Enough to Dent the World. She was named one of the top 25 smartest women on Twitter by Fast Company, and is regularly quoted or published in the media, including top outlets such as Harvard Business Review, Financial Times, TIME Magazine, Fast Company, and The Wall Street Journal.

Called a “visionary” by CNBC, Merchant’s TedTalk “Got a Meeting? Take a Walk” ranks in the top 10 per cent in the world. She’s been invited to hundreds of leadership events by prestigious organizations including Google, Gartner, and GE and has headlined alongside Malcolm Gladwell, Simon Sinek, Arianna Huffington, and other inspirational individuals.

An MBA graduate of Santa Clara University and Applied Economics at the University of San Francisco, Merchant has taught strategy, management and leadership at Stanford University and Santa Clara University, and guest-lectured at Yale. She has also served on corporate boards for Nasdaq-traded and private companies, as well as on public governance boards, and was a Fellow for the Prosperity Institute out of Rotman in Canada.

Onlyness: Make Your Ideas Powerful Enough to Dent the World

Innovation depends on fresh takes, new perspectives, and breakthrough ideas. If you’re a startup founder, entrepreneur, or just someone who wants to put a dent in the world, you know that all forward progress — whether in business, or society — is born of new ideas.

But most of us “cover” our wildest ideas — choosing to fit in and belong to the mainstream — even if it means denying ourselves and our desire to share our unique voice with the world. What might our world look like and what problems could we solve if any “wild idea,” regardless of its source, had an equal chance?

Into this context, business innovator Nilofer Merchant offers a way forward: Onlyness. Onlyness unlocks the capacity in each of us, all of us. Historically, when people were told their ideas are too weird, too wild, or simply “too much”, they tended to give up; not because they wanted to, but because when one has to choose between activating an idea and belonging to a community, belonging wins.

Every. Darn. Time.

Until, now, that is. In today’s world, you can easily find those who share the same purpose as you, who are equally passionate, motivated, and mobilized. Now you can belong to your weird and wild ideas, and to a community of like-minded individuals.

This is THE POWER OF ONLYNESS — that an idea, born of the spot in which ONLY you stand, can scale by connectedNESS, to become mighty enough to dent the world. Companies of all sizes that harness this power will out-innovate the market. Moreover, this is how each and every one of us turns the change we want into reality.

Through inspirational stories, from her book, The Power of Onlyness, Merchant illuminates what’s now possible.

Hiring Well is the Key to Success

Hiring well is the key to success, but are we ruling people out instead of ruling them in? Most of us don’t realize that we’re actually letting 75% of available talent just walk out our door because we’re asking them the wrong questions.

By focusing on capability over experience, Nilofer Merchant addresses the talent gap and shows leaders how to build teams that can both define the right questions for growth and discover new answers so that companies can continue to innovate and achieve their goals.

Innovation at the Speed of Trust

In the modern workplace, individuals create more value by their initiative, ideas, and driving change without needing specific direction. Every one of us know that this set of empowered behaviors creates the necessary speed and flexibility to outcompete, outmaneuver, and win in the marketplace.

But, what does that really mean in terms of how we lead our modern workforce?

The answer: trust.

Today’s innovation is metered and measured by the speed of trust. Relationships are to the Social Era, what efficiency was to the Industrial Era. And we all remember what relationships are built on, don’t we? Trust. Trust will be the throttle for how big our ideas (and our impact) can become. Crucially, trust allows individuals and companies to take the needed risks that lead to better innovation, especially as teams become increasingly distributed. The faster technology moves, the more decentralized decision-making becomes — the more trusting teammates means a real difference for every aspect of success.

Building from stories in Nilofer Merchant’s latest book, The Power of Onlyness, this talk highlights the organizational dilemmas that are completely transformed through trust, so you can apply its key components to your own work.

You’ll learn how to:

  • Use the Trust Equation to evaluate projects for potential pitfalls
  • Act as a Trust Bridge to become a person other people can count on
  • Build trust within your team with just four magic words: “I believe in you.”

Research shows that no one brings their best ideas to work — until they trust that it’s safe to do so. Whether you’re an individual aiming to drive impact, a manager looking to build a more innovative team, or a leader of a large firm wanting to deliver exponential results, trust is the key to these goals.

Managing the Present While Inventing the Future

Background and Context:
Today’s successful leaders have to both manage the present and invent the future. On its surface that seems relatively obvious until you consider what “the present” now looks like — dynamic, every changing, always on, personalized everything, unpredictable, all the content, all the public opinion, all the conversation with minutes to react/respond.

As much as this is true in the consumer marketplace, it holds true in the commercial market places also. Business tenants that once stood still, don’t. “Sustainable advantages” have gone from 40-year time horizons, to 12 years in slow-moving industries and 5 years in fast-moving ones. The rules of creating value in the social era often use a different set of business models and mindsets.

Often, maybe even always, leaders take the standards they have for their current business and use that to measure the new model. This limits growth and innovation. To manage the present, you must optimize for today, and create efficiencies. To invent the future, you must take risks, and be bold. You don’t get to pick one or the other. Yet, to do both, is by definition, a paradox. It takes more than being willing to innovate or having the necessary budget (though these two are, of course, necessary).

One of the most difficult tasks for corporate innovators is to learn how to unlearn the legacy business models and mindsets they have perfected. This modern-day challenge will not go away by itself. Rather we must face into the paradox and resolve it.

Workshop Goals and Outcomes
To develop leaders more able to innovate, we must build the muscle of organizational courage to change that which needs to be changed. To do so, we’ll create a multi-sensory high impact workshop tailored for an executive leadership team. Outcomes include:

  • Shared understanding the cultural norms that limit innovation today.
  • Develop a perspective on how market trends necessitate a change
  • Defining what the organizational leadership needs to ‘unlearn” (1-3 items)
  • Mastering the art of unlearning for (minimum) 1 agreed-upon item.
  • Increase in organizational motivation and overall enthusiasm to change that which needs to be changed.


Workshop Structure:
This workshop kick starts that process of unlearning by explicitly recognizing what metrics, methods, or assumptions are from the past and not necessarily useful for the future. We’ll also use stories, artifacts, and discussions that happen in the moment to build organizational courage and fearlessness. Workshops are a private and safe way for a set of leaders or colleagues to work through things and enact new choices.

Five Phases of Workshop:

  1. Cultural Barriers to Innovation via Artifacts.
  2. Discussion of current culture and leadership.
  3. Social Era Framework & Discussion, “what could it mean for us?”
  4. Developing new Artifacts as representative of cultural shift.
  5. Action Planning.


Identify your Cultural Barriers to Innovation Module 1
  • Participants are asked to bring one artifact (could be an object, picture, story but ideally a physical thing etc…) to describe the current state of innovation at the firm. Humans are hard wired to think in terms of stories, and artifacts make the current culture tangible.
  • Each participant gets to share their artifact, and what it signifies to them. Engagement starts early.
  • Acknowledge/celebrate your current state includes accomplishments, strengths, abilities, passions, and values.

  • Developing shared understanding of “present state”.
  • Making cultural aspects tangible and named. This gives language to facilitate change.
  • Creation of innovation assets because working from a place of strength encourages risk taking to change.
Reflection / Discussion Module 2
  • Pair up with someone they don’t already know.
  • Do a 15-20-minute walk ’n talk around property to reflect on what they learned (what shifted or what they can now name) about the current culture. Introverts can choose to do a solo quiet walk.
  • Come back into group to discuss what — if anything–  they would change to create a culture of innovation.

  • Development of shared effort happens in small group.
  • Commitment level to change starts by explicitly saying what they believe needs to be changed.
  • Start to map change factors into Talent (who), Purpose (why) and Culture (how).
Innovation in the Social Era Module 3
  • Share the role of collaboration within an enterprise, and with the marketplace as central to value creation in the Social Era. Case studies include more established firms such as IBM, Apple, REI, Zappos, but also lesser known companies like Quirky, TED, and Singularity University. <Nilofer Merchant presents content>
  • Discuss the ethos and underlying cultural frameworks that are fueling innovations by others.
  • Identify useful cultural norms that are already used  as well as those that are not used today.


  • Identification of new frameworks and shared language.
  • Development of new options.
Fuel your Innovation Roadmap Module 4
  • New artifact exercise – what is it that will symbolize culture of innovation?
  • Identify what needs to be managed to create change? What metrics, assumptions, beliefs …

o    for personal courage.

o    for organization courage.


  • Shared envisioning / ‘our company ‘ as fearless culture of innovation.
  • Artifact identification as symbols of change. *
  • Identify the frame that resolves paradox of managing current business while inventing the future.

< overnight break recommended>

Action Planning Module 5
  • Discuss any reflections / observations.
  • The dos and don’ts of building trust within the organization, which is key to taking risks, and being vulnerable to change.
    <Trust module is presented by Nilofer Merchant>
  • Identify next steps.


  • Commitment.
  • Understanding of trust constructs that enable organizational courage.