In the desire to be innovative, organisations often focus on the wrong position description, objectives and targets for this role leading them to hire the wrong type of person for the roles. Innovation isn’t something that is done in isolation by the chosen few, nor is the innovation leader the guru of all ideas and new technology. We need to get rid of that thinking. In some instances, we’ll really need to switch the thinking of how we view the innovation leaders in our organisation. The ideas and employees are the heroes of your innovation framework, and your innovation leaders and teams are the guides that will teach and encourage these people from the genesis of an idea to implementation if successful.
The innovation leader inside your organisation is, in effect, an elite coach of the all the people inside your organisation. They know the game, understand the rules, create strategies, tactics and a game plan, but they are not the ones running on to score the goal.
Innovation is a game everyone should be able to play.
Seek out innovation leaders who dare to be different and do the things that others are not willing to do. Find a change agent and risk taker who thrives with a creative environment, healthy conflict, and robust conversations about the ideas that are right for the organisation. These people are born to win, not at all costs, but with integrity, hard work, and dedication to the long-term vision of an innovation culture.
There are seven characteristics that make really successful corporate innovation leaders: Let’s have a look at each of these.
1. Having a deep curiosity for everything that relates to the organisation
These are the people who are curious about everything. You know the ones: they are always asking questions. They want to know about all aspects and machinations of the organisation and industry they work within.
Their inquisitive nature also goes well beyond this because they are open to every idea that comes their way, and they look at it with an open mind. These people are focused on the ideas of the people from within their organisation, not just the ideas they have themselves.
They know they need to look down and into the organisation to find and drag out the genius ideas, not up and towards their leaders for their own benefit.
2. Bold and daring
You want your innovation leaders to be bold and daring, with a real sense of bravado. This is not someone who is easily intimidated, and they are masters of resisting pressure to return to ‘what we’ve always done’. For the right ideas, they will need to know how to structure a discussion to position these ideas with the leadership team for support. They will need to know how to support ad-hoc innovation ideas in the corporate world of budgeting, strategy, and large programs of work. You need someone who can duck and weave through the system to push up against the blockers and advocate for the right ideas.
Great ideas shouldn’t have to wait until the next planning cycle. You need someone who can diplomatically challenge the status quo. Innovation is never on time, and it doesn’t fit into budgeting and resource allocation timetables.
3. Have a compelling vision to build a culture people want to be a part of
Your people are the lifeblood of innovation. A great innovation leader humanises the process by putting people at the centre of everything.
Your innovation team and your innovation leaders need to stand for more than the values behind innovation. This is more than just doing something fun and creating new ideas. This is about building the innovation culture of the organisation and creating the space for people to think differently and explore their ideas. This is about building a space where everyone is equal. A safe space. One with psychological safety so people can talk about their ideas without fear of ridicule.
Being optimistic, collaborative, and emotionally intelligent are key attributes you need to look for to build the vision of innovation and establish the culture throughout your organisation. Your innovation leader will not be afraid of failure, rather their fear is in never trying. This needs to be cultivated in their team and throughout the organisation.
4. Coaching people like a team of elite athletes
This isn’t about your innovation team or your innovation leader pursuing their own personal goals and personal ideas. It’s also not about bringing in an ex-head of a start-up and giving them the remit of putting together an in-house start-up. This shouldn’t be an entrepreneur-in-residence program where your employees observe the work of someone else. This is about guiding and teaching people to get their hands dirty in the innovation process.
Your innovation leader must have a desire to teach, support, and guide their colleagues on the journey of innovation. They are not there to take credit. They’re not there to be seen as the hero. As an innovation coach they need to bring out the best in people through seeing their untapped potential.
Like all coaches of great champions, you want your innovation leader to challenge and demand a lot of your employees and how they engage in innovation, to push them to their limits to accelerate their rate of learning and develop their skills to develop and implement winning ideas. As I said earlier, this is not an extracurricular activity that they only tap into for innovation, but rather something they can utilise in all aspects of their work.
The problem with coaching teams is the same problem a coach of a track athlete has. As an audience, we generally only remember the last sprint to the finish line. We don’t see the hours of strength training, running drills, and gut-wrenching training that happens for years before a race.
Innovation and organisations are multi-dimensional constructs that require bespoke ‘training’ schedules to suit the team. This will never be a one-size-fits-all approach. A good innovation leader works with people to develop, enhance, and grow their skills so by the time they get to the last sprint, they are strong, prepared, and fit to deliver.
5. A problem solver
Intuition, logic, and the love of seeing a problem as a great thinking challenge will be required to push boundaries. Your innovation leader needs to take your employees through the whole lifecycle of innovation, and all the ups and downs, failures, setbacks, and successes. Solving problems and unblocking processes in the business will be part of their day-to-day, so this person needs to thrive on looking at things from a different perspective, and not get frustrated and flustered. You want someone who can drive hard and really push (diplomatically, of course) and then get back in the ring and do it again the next day.
This is not a brutish, stubborn person who runs roughshod over the people around them to ensure the success of their ideas. Quite the opposite; you want someone with exceptional interpersonal and communication skills to work with all members of the organisation to bring people together, share information, and come up with trusted solutions. Problem solving is a team sport, and this person needs to be a team player.
6. Transparent and a driver of continuous open lines of communication
This is where it can get a little tough. If you want your innovation culture to thrive, you need a leader who operates with a methodology of full disclosure with their teams, profound honesty, and continuous open lines of communication. They really need to walk their talk on this one, because without transparency, little whispers that you can’t control will occur over different projects and ideas, and before you know it some backchanneling and politicking will occur to erode an idea.
By building trust, openness, and a culture of inclusivity in all forms of innovation, anxiety will be reduced and collaboration will be easier to achieve. Trust begets trust. This person needs to lead by example and commit to being an open leader, and encourage others to follow their lead.
Transparency and trusting relationships developed throughout the organisation will extend to the innovation projects being worked on. Easy access to information and ideas in development will encourage collaboration and support throughout the lifecycle of an idea. You want to open up the pathways to information and wisdom that otherwise may not have been accessible because it’s in the heads of people who work in the organisation.
When trust and transparency are in place and working, your innovation leader has developed a safe space for detractors of an idea to discuss the reasons why they think it may not work. These open, honest, and hard conversations are extremely valuable, and are important to the development and possible success of ideas. We can sometimes learn more from the reasons why people think something won’t work than the heady reasons why we love an idea.
Collaboration is more than just happy high fives in a multi-disciplinary team; it’s working through barriers, problems, and negative feedback to ensure an idea is robust. And if something isn’t going to work, it’s better to know this sooner rather than later. In my experience, a detractor who is listened to and really heard can become one of the biggest advocates for your innovation culture because it shows them you’re in it to provide value and not just tick boxes and deliver mindless projects.
7. A Tribe Builder
‘Growing a tribe’ is bit of an entrepreneurial buzz term, but whether you call it your tribe, community, or internal network, it’s an integral part of building an innovation culture. This is part of building an inclusive community to support the growth and development of innovation throughout the organisation.
Your innovation leader needs to know and love the tribe that they build. That might sound a bit woo-woo, but it’s this community that will grow the new culture and create positive change. It will start small, with a group of self-selecting individuals who either want to learn more about innovation or feel they have a lot to give to the community. It’s then about how they nurture and attract people to the tribe until it becomes part of the pulse of the organisation.
This is one of the elements I rarely see inside organisations, and it’s not through a lack of trying. The problem is a lack of authenticity.
If you don’t have these fundamental traits of good innovation leaders, you won’t succeed. And you must allow them to guide, coach, and build an inclusive community for your organisation.
Ideas and employees are the heroes of your innovation framework, and your innovation leaders are their guides. It’s crucial to have the right people in these roles to develop skills, confidence, and the right attributes in your people. The emotional intelligence and leadership skills of your innovation leaders will drive how people participate in your innovation program.