3 Leadership Behaviors to Help Companies Bridge the ‘Innovation Gulf’

Companies’ ability to innovate often comes down not just to having an organization comprised of lots of raw talent but the way leaders behave.
leadership behaviors

Call it the innovation gulf: The difference between how important innovation is to a company and how good they are at it.

Leadership advisory and research firm the Center for Creative Leadership conducted a recent survey of global executives that showed 94 percent said innovation was important. But when asked if their organizations were effective at it, just 14 percent of executives said theirs were.

That yawning chasm between the importance of innovation and the capability to execute on it is a problem for any organization that wants to grow, become more competitive and remain relevant.

Technology and new ideas are driving growth. Companies that are good at it stand to win an outsized share of new profits.

But innovation is challenging, and many of the tried-and-true business leadership practices don’t work as well when applied to innovation. Though day-to-day business is unpredictable, there’s plenty of information to draw on when leading business operations: clear financial metrics, textbooks full of case studies, comparative data from your industry.

Innovation is different. In hindsight, products such as sticky notes, personal computers and smartphones are obvious winners. But at the time, no one could’ve predicted how successful they would be — or even if they’d succeed at all.

Because of the uncertainty and risk, leaders must do more than simply manage those working on innovation projects. They must also provide emotional support, so innovators can pour all their talent and knowledge into their projects.

Based on interviews with dozens of leaders who’ve led multiple successful innovation initiatives, as well as frontline managers who report to them, I’ve identified three crucial innovation leadership behaviors.

While these behaviors are exhibited by operational leaders, they must be the primary focus for innovation leaders. Without these leadership behaviors, innovation teams won’t get the emotional support they need for success.

  1. Demonstrating Trust

Imagine a project where you aren’t sure what the outcome will be, where the most important people in your organization, right up to the corporate boardroom, are watching you and where no one can tell how to be successful.

That’s innovation. Working successfully under those conditions requires confidence. You’ve got to be sure you and your team can do it. That means your boss must demonstrate trust in you, especially when the going gets tough.

That means more than just saying, “I trust you.” Leaders must give their innovation managers and teams autonomy while still providing support — sometimes an encouraging word, sometimes going to bat for them with higher-ups.

  1. Keeping Purpose Front and Center

In addition to confidence, innovators need to stay focused on the “why” of their efforts. Whether innovation is a life-saving drug or a new technology to help frontline workers be more productive, innovators must understand their purpose.

Innovation leaders play a critical role in this. When their teams are buried in the details or simply exhausted, leaders can help refocus and re-energize them by reminding them of why they’re working on the innovation project in the first place.

This sense of purpose, meaning and value is critical as innovators chart new territory. These intrinsic motivators are vital, because innovators must take bigger risks to achieve truly innovative results.

  1. Partnering with the Innovation Team

Leaders serve several roles in ongoing business operations: They coach and mentor managers, provide feedback on performance, set goals and determine strategy. But these all presume that leaders know more than teams they’re responsible for.

When it comes to innovation, that’s simply not the case. Leaders don’t know how to solve the problem or create the product or service the innovators are working on.

Rather, leaders responsible for innovation must be willing to work side-by-side with their innovation teams as true partners. Sometimes, the leader’s outside perspective can contribute to a breakthrough. But more important, the leader’s involvement is a tangible sign of emotional support that can motivate a team of innovators to work through whatever obstacles they face.

Innovation provides no guarantees. Even companies such as Apple and Google, renowned for their breakthrough products and services, have had failures. But those companies and others know how important leadership is to successful innovation. That leadership starts with these three behaviors.

Michael T. Mitchell is a senior faculty member at the Center for Creative Leadership, a leadership advisory and research firm. To comment, email editor@talenteconomy.io.