A conversation with Janet Sernack, CEO of ImagineNation

This is part of my series on thought leaders in the innovation space. Check out the other articles here.

There’s a difference between doing innovation projects and being innovative. The latter requires a holistic approach that involves a reimagining of how we learn, listen, and live in the present to create a future of abundance. For Janet Sernack, the path toward that future started in Israel working with StartupNation where she discovered an intense curiosity about the cultural drivers of innovation. Now the founder and CEO of ImagineNation, Janet has spent her career researching, analyzing, and modeling the entrepreneurial spirit. I talked to Janet about her path to innovation coaching and the personal transformations she experienced along the way.

Janet Sernack, CEO of ImagineNation.
Janet Sernack, CEO of ImagineNation.

Unleashing Passionate Potential

Innovation can be scary. With a laser focus on the bottom line, the disruptive constants of change and experimentation are often enough to give any company a healthy dose of commitment phobia. Janet has learned that, to overcome short term thinking and fully invest in innovation, companies must shift their focus from the bottom line to unleashing the potential and collective genius of their most valuable assets: people.

“Innovation is a tough gig. It’s an emotional, or visceral, and cognitive rollercoaster, so you’re not going to stay in the game unless there’s a really solid foundation.”

As the lifespan of the average company gets shorter, Janet believes that companies seeking sustainability have to make long term investments in creating a culture where failure and the creative energy that has driven the startup movement are embraced as learning opportunities. In exchange for investing in people, companies become the beneficiaries of innovative solutions that carry them into the future. But how do you convince people to disrupt the status quo and embark upon a journey that is full of the discomfort required for growth? The lessons from her own personal failures have taught Janet that it boils down to a matter of pull vs push. Rather than pushing teams toward a painful change she focuses on pulling them toward the benefits waiting for them at the finish line by keeping mission and values at the forefront of each engagement.

“Innovation is a tough gig. It’s an emotional, or visceral, and cognitive rollercoaster, so you’re not going to stay in the game unless there’s a really solid foundation.”

Janet Sernack, CEO of ImagineNation.
Janet at work
Janet at work.

Deep Learning

Janet has discovered that a solid foundation for innovation relies on the capacity for deep learning. Deep learning, a concept she encountered exploring the work of Peter Senge, happens at the level of needs, and values, and beliefs and focuses on how people are thinking and feeling — their mindset. The capacity for deep learning is supported by what Clayton Christensen refers to in The Innovator’s Dilemma as the discovery skillset. Mastering this skillset allows an individual or organization to approach innovation work with curiosity, mindfulness, deep attention, and intention.

The discovery skillset in conjunction with compassion, connectedness, and courage form the basic tenets of Janet’s approach to transformation that enables teams to identify the threats that face their business and develop the awareness to realize new opportunities for innovation.

The most common thing that trips people up in the path to deep learning is winning the war for attention. In order to truly hear and consider a new idea, Janet coaches teams to develop a deep sense of presence and to re-learn how to pay attention by listening to new ideas from a place of possibility. Instead of being drawn into one’s inner dialogue or listening for the purpose of evaluation, team’s seeking to take control of their attention listen with generosity and focus on asking thoughtful questions.

The Four Levels of Listening

2 people in conversation
Janet teaches her students about the Four Levels of Listening.

Being generous when considering the ideas of others isn’t always a style of listening people are accustomed to in day to day conversation. To aid teams in developing deeper listening skills, Janet teaches a concept in her Coaching for Innovators program called the Four Levels of Listening.

Level one: Listening to evaluate and pass some kind of judgment on whether the information is right or wrong, smart or stupid, creative or useless. For many people this is the default mode of listening.

Level two: Listening to confirm what someone is saying in order to debate a point at a deeper level, or come up with an opposing idea.

Level three: Deep empathic listening that requires presence and emotional connectedness with the goal of meaningful conversation. This type of listening is aspirational, especially in politics, which requires an open dialogue.

Level four: Generative listening that builds on the presence and connectedness of level three and creates what Janet calls a collective holding space. The goal of level four is to identify a “crack” or opening that leads to the possibility for a new idea to emerge.

“The presupposition is that all those possibilities are out there in the world, 24/7. But most of the time, we don’t pay attention to them, and we’re not listening for them.” Level four is the realm of the breakthrough, the inflection point, the paradigm shift that unleashes the human potential that fuels innovation.

Culture Transformation

Mastering the discovery skillset, listening at deeper levels, unlocking human potential — all of the above speaks to a larger need for a culture shift. At its basic level, culture spawns from a common understanding and a common language. Janet has found the first step toward a lasting culture shift is to build in readiness and receptivity to change and create an emotional charge around innovation in the organization. That starts with taking the fuzziness out of innovation by defining it within the specific context of an organization.

Large working office
Man on computer

Once innovation is defined, Janet helps organizations uncover data about their ability to adapt and grow in line with their financial goals using the OGI, Organizational Growth Indicator. Created by Dr. Bret Richards, the OGI is an organizational diagnostic tool that evaluates an organization’s ability to drive growth, create value, and adapt to change by identifying the prevailing mindsets and leadership styles that support or inhibit innovation efforts. By demystifying the notion of mindset, the OGI provides tangible ways to transform organizational culture by pinpointing the learning or process interventions that need to take place for a successful shift.

The goal of intervention is to build a culture that embraces experimentation and failure by creating a safe space for learning. In order to achieve this goal Janet has found that top level leadership engagement is a critical component. That begins with an upfront acknowledgement among leadership teams that a transformation of this magnitude requires a commitment of two to three years. In order to demonstrate that commitment, leaders serve as sponsors and role models for the transformation which provides a public endorsement for the shift and an example for employees at all levels to model.


“At the core of any transformation process, is an open mind, an open heart, and an open will to the possibility of something different or better.”

Janet has found that achieving the connectedness and presence required for deep learning, generative listening, and a supportive culture is best facilitated by a practice in mindfulness. “In a way, we’re teaching innovation as a consciousness process.”

Picture of the word mindfulness
Hands and tea on desk

A self-proclaimed serial meditator, Janet has discovered that meditation allows her to be deeply connected to the present and simultaneously detached from the emotionally disruptive process of coaching organizations through cultural transformation.

She has attended a number of courses and retreats hosted by the Brahma Kumaris who believe meditative states can be achieved while one is engaged in everyday life and have the power to transform thinking patterns and actions. Considering the mindset shifts required to truly embrace innovation, it’s easy to see how a holistic approach that incorporates mindfulness and meditation can help teams and leaders to challenge their habits and explore new paths of learning.

If you want to read my other articles about innovation experts and practitioners, please check them all out here.