The dos and don'ts of innovation shared by 10 global leaders

What makes us follow, or even idolize, “innovative” leaders?

Is it because they can brilliantly and lucidly articulate their vision and passion? Is it their relentless drive and commitment? Is it that these dashing people seem to effortlessly run hugely successful empires? Or, do we just want to be in their shoes because we covet their charmed lives?
Well, speculating all day long isn’t going to help.

So, what makes them tick?

Perhaps, XBInsight’s analysis of almost 5,000 leaders from various industries will point us in the right direction. The management consulting firm found that compared to noninnovative leaders, innovative leaders manage risk better, demonstrate more curiosity, lead courageously, seize opportunities better, and maintain a strategic business purpose.

In this post, we’ll give you some irrefutable proof of leadership traits that can come from popular CXOs and a few “surprise” sources.

Challenge the status quo

Co-owner of Koch Industries and one of the top ten billionaires in the world according to Forbes, Charles Koch believes that you should “embrace change, challenge the status quo, and drive creative destruction.” Easily the first lesson in the innovation handbook, asking “why” and “what-if” will set the ball rolling. Changing your mindset and creating solutions from the ground up while balancing competing commitments are essential to foster innovation. Employees and leaders are often unwilling to be responsible or accountable and accept risk and failure as being part of every business. True leaders do not endorse behaviors or values that encourage the workforce to do everything they way always have. (Read an interesting paper on Status Quo Bias in Decision Making here.) Don’t be comfortable with the way things are; think of the bigger picture and find ways to do things better. This mantra certainly worked for Jeff Bezos and Amazon!

Think fast, move faster

In a meeting in 2013, IBM CEO Virginia Rometty gave her workers quite a talking to, telling them to move fast and respond to customers faster to combat poor revenues. The ability to anticipate change and spot trends faster than your competitors will help you stay ahead. You need to create an environment that can adapt, experiment, and respond to be the first to market to survive in this age of rapid technological advancements. However, both first movers and fast followers come with their own rewards and snags. Read how IMAX’s Richard Gelfond used this strategy to do more than just survive.

Put fences around people and you get sheep

You can laugh but you certainly can’t discount what William L. McKnight, a former CEO of 3M company said when he took it from bankruptcy to a truly innovative company. Give people some room to think and see the magic they can create. Delegate responsibility and encourage ownership of initiatives to start the process of innovation, no matter how small. You can’t expect superior accomplishments when you continually create constraints and punish experimentation. For example, Yelp is happy to stand behind employees keen to try out new ideas. Support expansive thinking and create an open environment.

Create distinct spaces for your creativity

Undoubtedly one of world’s most talented poets, Maya Angelou didn’t even have a desk she was partial to while weaving her wonderful lines. She preferred nondescript hotel rooms, away from home, to get her creative juices flowing. Companies such as the construction company Mirvac has separate spaces designated for innovation where people from diverse teams collaborate for projects and workshops, thereby accelerating transformation. The kitchen in Intel’s Innovation Open Lab in Ireland is full of whiteboards “so people can improvise and create prototypes in real time.”

I just can’t keep my finger out of any pies

You may not have expected to see David Bowie on this list, eh? A musician who has created music that is timeless, Bowie, who passed away last year, constantly reinvented his image and his music. He stayed relevant, improvised, and acted on his inherently curious nature to learn and thrive. A constant challenge that companies face is to stay relevant through innovation. Appropriate and timely innovation can propel your business like nothing else in the face of competition and disruptive markets. Think of what happened to Radio Shack and Circuit City—they failed to recognize market shifts and missed the proverbial boat.

Innovation almost always is not successful the first time out

Who knows this better than Clayton Christensen, the world's foremost authority on disruptive innovation? Having the confidence to keep trying even when your first excited attempt at innovation has failed is a trait the great leaders share. They tried different avenues by redesigning the product/process until they found commercial success. Companies now recognize that developing and managing a long-term innovation strategy is important for survival. Go here to read about LEGO’s story, when innovation nearly bankrupted the company until the company rebuilt itself.

No task is too menial

If there’s a man who dares to dream like none other, it is Elon Musk, founder of Tesla and SpaceX. These leaders are looked up to because they led by example. “You've got to do all sorts of jobs and tasks that you might not wish to do, that are not intrinsically interesting to you. You've got to be prepared to do whatever it takes, work whatever hours. No task is too menial. I think, that's the right attitude for CEO of a startup.” Especially for aspiring entrepreneurs, getting their hands dirty to get the job done should be a given. To create a culture of innovation, you show them that no task is too small to achieve that competitive edge your company needs.

Listen intently to everyone

Ask questions and you will find your next story in the answers, says Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group. To acquire customer loyalty, find out what customers want, observe the competition, and test the most promising ideas. Also, pay attention to what your employees have to say. Don’t write it off because it goes against time-tested wisdom. (Read about three levels of listening in this article.) For instance, Steve Jobs, the man behind Apple’s phenomenal success, believed that “really great products come from melding two points of view—the technology point of view and the customer point of view. You need both.”

The only way to win is as a team

Widely regarded as the greatest football player of all time, Brazilian sportsman Pelé was right on the money when he said this. Innovation doesn’t happen overnight and it certainly doesn’t qualify as a solitary pursuit. Innovation is often called a team sport because it needs a committed team of diverse talent with different perspectives to make it happen. After all, innovation is all about collaboration and creative abrasion and not working in silos. Top leaders create a community that shares a common sense of purpose and rules of engagement and are motivated to try again and again. (Here’s a good book on the power of Collective Genius.)

Focus your efforts around your core capabilities

Cesare R. Mainardi, CEO of Booz & Company, tells companies to “Identify exactly what your company does uniquely well and build a distinctive innovation strategy around this. Indeed, our advice is to build your overall business strategy around this core capabilities system. When companies achieve this state of coherence, that's when innovation magic happens.” Your chances at succeeding at innovation improve when you can balance investment for core competencies and new businesses for the future. Designing the optimal innovation portfolio depends on a lot of factors and that’s what the popular leaders seem to be getting right.

These insights should help you navigate the complex landscape of innovation with more confidence and competence, fostering a culture of creative thinking and empowerment.

Tell us what lessons you think ought to be in the comments section. 

About the Author

Dhanya Menon
Dhanya Menon is an editor and academic writer. This is her first stint in content marketing, having spent over 5 years in e-learning. Her interests are varied. She likes to lose track of time reading anything from chemistry to Allende, from statistics to Thurber cartoons, from Ruth Rendell to listening to her son's unique take on life.