- Strong communication skills
- The power of humility
- Courage and risk taking
- Creating a culture of trust
- Thinking outside the box and breaking rules
As an innovation leader, to make the most of interactions with business partners, employees, and clients, you will need to possess a host of critical characteristics, skills, and traits, and inspire productive action – not only during periods of invention and creation, but also in challenging times of uncertainty. Innovation leaders know how to encourage others to act with perseverance, in order to accomplish amazing things and achieve the best possible result. In fact, these characteristics are absolutely essential for developing truly groundbreaking innovations, and encompass applying various management techniques that centre around collaboration and creativity. Successful innovators know that innovation success starts with the conceptualisation of outstanding ideas but also depends on considering current trends. They are also aware that their actions don’t exist in a vacuum and that they can have a significant impact – not only positive, but negative as well. Let’s have a look at some crucial characteristics that make a great innovation leader.
“You need to set a tone at the top that inspires trust – and encourages open and honest two-way communication. So you hear the brutal facts, and you listen to the good news and the bad news – so that, in the spirit of continuous improvement, you can make changes”.Denise Morrison
Strong communication skills
Good communication skills are important for everyone, but even more so for innovation leaders. In fact, strong communication is one of the most important skills an innovation leader can possess. Being able to communicate effectively helps to clearly convey thoughts, ideas, and visions so that goals can be achieved effectively. It involves active listening and giving others the space to express their thoughts and opinions. Master communicators are like translators – they don’t merely listen to understand. They use verbal and non-verbal communication methods to interact with others, and by reading between the lines they can understand more than what is verbally expressed. Innovation leaders who harness the ability to communicate well – whether by conversing, writing, presenting, or facilitating – can translate important data quickly, efficiently, and accurately. They are able to meet employees’ individual needs and enable critical human connections. When team members feel heard and are given the opportunity to communicate openly with their managers and colleagues, the work environment becomes more welcoming and comfortable, leading to increased motivation and enhanced productivity.
One particularly notable example of effective leadership communication is American business executive Denise Morrison, who served as president and CEO of Campbell Soup Company between 2011 and 2018. Her well-known approach to communication in business was to be transparent and authentic. One of her many famous quotes cites authenticity as being key: “What people look for in their leaders is authenticity. You say, ‘I’m not going to ask you to do anything that I’m not going to do myself.’” Another poignant one is this one: “You need to set a tone at the top that inspires trust – and encourages open and honest two-way communication. So you hear the brutal facts, and you listen to the good news and the bad news – so that, in the spirit of continuous improvement, you can make changes”. Focusing on authentic and transparent communication has been a critical element in the transformation of the company. One example is Campbell Soup’s decision to disclose the presence of GMOs in its products and the launch of the website ‘What’s In My Food’, to give consumers information about the ingredients used in the company’s products. And it is widely known that transparency, clarity, and authenticity – which are key components of effective leadership communication – lead to understanding and trust.
“Humility is about minimising the self and maximising the bigger purpose you represent. When you think about humility in that way, it becomes a vital competency in leadership because it takes the focus from the ‘I’ to ‘We.’ Leaders with humility engage us and give us a sense of identity and purpose”.Angela Sebaly, author of ‘The Courageous Leader’
The power of humility
Humility might not immediately come to mind when thinking of great innovation leaders – but it is actually a particularly critical skill. Humble leaders are aware of their strengths as well as their shortcomings and weaknesses. They are open to learning, showing vulnerability, and hearing new ideas. Being humble also means taking criticism in your stride, recognising the importance of the opinions of others, and listening with intent and empathy. Humble leaders understand the value that each and every staff member brings to their business, and are focused on the bigger picture rather than on themselves. All of this goes a long way towards helping cultivate innovation in an organisation and appearing – or rather, being – more approachable to employees. Jon Walden, CTO of robotic process automation software developer Blue Prism, says: “Humility is non-negotiable. A humble leader can support and inspire their team to find meaningful solutions to the challenges their organisation faces”. And according to Angela Sebaly, cofounder and CEO of Personify Leadership and author of ‘The Courageous Leader’, “humility is about minimising the self and maximising the bigger purpose you represent. When you think about humility in that way, it becomes a vital competency in leadership because it takes the focus from the ‘I’ to ‘We.’ Leaders with humility engage us and give us a sense of identity and purpose”.
A company where humility in leadership takes centre stage is Rockwell Automation, leading provider of manufacturing automation, control, and information solutions. According to the company, practising humility is critical to fostering an inclusive work environment. The company’s leadership style is modelled by their intriguing ‘fishbowl’ method for facilitating engagement and encouraging dialogue. During the company’s ‘fishbowl’ gatherings – which are held a couple of times a year and take place at various venues – the leaders and a handful of employees are seated in a circle in the middle of a room, surrounded by a larger group of staff members. Employees are invited to the circle to engage with one another and with their leaders on any topic. During these unstructured and unscripted discussions, leaders show their humility by sharing personal experiences of development and growth, and by divulging that they don’t know all the answers to everything.
“We can all have bold goals, but it is only going to happen if we live our culture, if we teach our culture. It is about a dynamic learning culture.”Satya Nadella, Microsoft CEO and chairman
Courage and risk taking
Transformation, innovation, and progress don’t happen without taking risks. Competent and realistic innovation leaders are willing to take some risks and are able to meticulously study and analyse potential outcomes for the future of the business in order to make sure that the ‘bet’ actually pays off. They are also prepared to deal with any setback that may occur as a result, and understand that risks also serve as unique opportunities to learn more about their sector or field of expertise. Those who lead courageously are able to create sustainable value in various ways – not only for the business itself, but also for its employees, its customers, and sometimes even for the rest of the world.
A great example of a courageous innovation leader who is not afraid to take risks is Microsoft CEO and chairman Satya Nadella. In fact, according to the Glassdoor website, where current and former employees can write anonymous reviews about their work experience at a company, Nadella is listed as one of the ten best CEOs in the world. His courage and bold decision-making is evident from the fearless acquisitions he engineered, such as the LinkedIn acquisition, which enabled Microsoft to leverage the social media components of professional online networks. Nadella does highlight, however: “We can all have bold goals, but it is only going to happen if we live our culture, if we teach our culture. It is about a dynamic learning culture”.
According to the Workforce Institute, 38 per cent of staff members don’t trust their bosses to prioritise employee needs over profit, 68 per cent mentioned that a lack of trust interfered with their daily output, and 24 per cent said they left an employer due to a lack of trust.
Creating a culture of trust
To keep morale high among team members, get the most out of employees in this increasingly competitive environment, and create a culture of trust, leaders need to recognise the importance of building interpersonal and cross-functional relationships based on communication and trust. This entails leading teams in which staff members are embraced, feel that they play an integral part in reaching company goals, and where the focus is steered away from reporting and micro-management. Successful innovation leaders realise that they don’t always have complete control over external circumstances, and know that people will only genuinely commit to their work if they feel inspired and motivated, rather than controlled. And trust needs to be earned. Employees don’t just offer their leaders this. According to a survey by the Workforce Institute, 38 per cent of staff members don’t trust their bosses to prioritise employee needs over profit, 68 per cent mentioned that a lack of trust interfered with their daily output, and 24 per cent said they left an employer due to a lack of trust. In high-trust environments, employees feel confident about suggesting and implementing new ideas, trust that they have their leaders’ support, and know that a failed idea won’t have any negative repercussions. Employees at high-trust companies report 106 per cent more energy, 76 per cent more engagement, 74 per cent less stress, and 13 per cent fewer sick days.
“True innovation starts with rule-breaking, not compliance”.A wise man
Thinking outside the box and breaking rules
A wise man once said: “True innovation starts with rule-breaking, not compliance”. While creativity is an important skill in any role, it is particularly critical for innovation leaders, as they need to come up with innovative solutions and create clarity of purpose, especially when faced with changing and complex scenarios. Creative leaders seek to incorporate non-traditional methods to arrive at new insights and expand their knowledge, which often requires experimenting, improvising, and bending – sometimes even breaking – rules. Of course, this doesn’t include the unethical or dishonest breaking or bending of rules, but purposeful rule-breaking that’s critical for getting ideas and concepts out into the world. Innovative leaders not only initiate original ideas and concepts themselves, they also inspire their employees to do the same. Innovation leaders know that rules mean limits. In an innovative company culture, where company policy enables – even encourages – the challenging and reimagining of set ideas, employees don’t have to worry about bending or breaking rules. All they really have to do is ask how, and get started. And by rewarding their employees for doing so, innovative leaders keep encouraging an even more open, innovative, and supportive work environment.
So, success is rarely the result of following the rules. When you think of Sir Richard Branson – founder of Virgin Group, one of the world’s most recognised and respected brands consisting of more than 40 companies – a number of characteristics and traits come to mind, one of which is rule-breaking. Branson sees rules as flexible guidelines, and encourages his staff to strike a balance between what’s in the best interest of the organisation and what best services the customer. When asked to describe his leadership style, Branson says: “Rule-breaker – because I never learned the rules in the first place. To change the game is at the heart of what Virgin stands for, so the company culture has always been: don’t sweat it: rules were meant to be broken”.
Businesses are continuously challenged in new environments where they can either adapt and innovate, or be left behind in the world of tomorrow. In order for organisations to survive and thrive, they need to be prepared to constantly innovate. And innovation springs from a company culture in which its leaders encourage employees to come up with new ideas, no matter how small, and provide the opportunity, space, and tools for developing them. According to a Forbes survey conducted among 100 innovation leaders, their success lies in actively trying to build and shape organisations for the future. This entails having conversations with people who are very different from them, asking questions, and challenging the status quo. A great innovation leader isn’t afraid to bend or break the rules, and knows how to turn challenges into opportunities. They are not always the ones directly behind innovations, but they know how to recognise a great idea, and – together with their teams – turn it into reality.