Fortune 'Most Admired' companies make innovation a priority

October 20, 2013: 9:48 PM ET

Execs from companies on Fortune's annual list of World's Most Admired companies explain how they stay ahead of rivals.

By Stephanie N. Mehta, deputy managing editor

IBM CEO Ginni Rometty

IBM CEO Ginni Rometty

FORTUNE -- Many of the perennials on Fortune's annual World's Most Admired list (companies such as IBM, Disney, and Apple) are trumpeting their willingness to embrace change as part of their strategies for staying ahead -- and maintaining their "admired" status.

At Fortune's recent Most Powerful Women Summit last week, executives from some of the country's top companies offered their perspectives on their businesses' competitive advantages. Almost all the leaders from World's Most Admired Companies (WMAC) spoke about technological and business-model innovation. "When I think of IBM, I don't define it by a product," said IBM (IBM) CEO Ginni Rometty.  (IBM is No. 6 on the 2013 WMAC list), said at the conference. "And I think that's one of the reasons that it's 102 years old. If you think of yourself as a product, you'll miss the trends, you'll miss the shifts. And you'll miss dangerous ones, like business models."

Rometty's view was echoed by Anne Sweeney, co-chair of Disney Media Networks and president of Disney/ABC Television Group. (Parent company Disney (DIS) ranks No. 9 this year.) During a discussion about growth and innovation, Sweeney spoke about Disney's embrace of social media as a tool for promoting and soliciting feedback about its programming, even though "going social" means the corporation has to relinquish control; Disney can start a conversation, but it can't retreat or shut it down if consumers verbalize unhappiness. "[Communities] want to interact with you," Sweeney said. "You can't hold everything back if you expect to have a relationship."

MORE: More coverage from the Most Powerful Women Summit

These comments come as data collection for Fortune's 32nd WMAC ranking is underway. Fortune, in conjunction with The Hay Group, is in the process of surveying some 15,000 executives, directors, and analysts to solicit their views on about 700 companies in 59 industry groups from 27 different countries. To arrive at our 2014 overall Most Admired Companies ranking, the Hay Group is asking survey respondents to select the 10 companies they admired most, from a list made up of the companies that ranked in the top 25% in the prior year's survey.

Of course, talk of innovation isn't limited to companies that rank high on the overall WMAC list -- or even those who score well in their industry groups. Yahoo (YHOO) CEO Marissa Mayer spoke at the Fortune conference about myriad technological and cultural changes she'd made during her year at the Internet company -- ranging from acquisitions such as Tumblr to making smartphones available to all employees -- as part of her effort to remake Yahoo into a more mobile-centric company. She's also revamping some "non-core" aspects of the business, such as the quarterly analysts earnings call, which Yahoo does as a video call. "We wanted to try this," Mayer explained. "It was something new. But I overall think that the analyst questions were better and more topical on point." We'll soon find out of analysts agree and help Yahoo return to the WMAC list. (It last earned a spot in the industry rankings in 2010.)

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