Growing Innovative Leaders


Any good gardner knows that the right mixture of fertile soil, clean water, fertilizer and sunlight will produce healthy and fast-growing plants.  The same can be said for growing innovative leaders, but in this case it is necessary to cultivate the right mixture of organizational factors, leadership skills and learning opportunities.   In the November issue of Harvard Business Review, Jeffrey Cohn, Jon Katzenbach and Gus Vlak write about the unique conditions that help great companies to find and groom break-through innovators.  The break-through innovator is a catalyst who is able to bring together new ideas with great people to implement changes that lead to business results.  These leaders have a unique skill set that includes strong analytical skills, emotional intelligence, large social networks, charm and the ability to influence and persuade others.

As you can guess, finding people with this kind of diverse skill set is rare.  The authors estimate that perhaps 5% to 10% of high-potential leaders within a company have the necessary skill set:

Most companies do a magnificent job of smothering the creative spark.  Over the past five years we have probed the innovation strategies of 25 organizations in multiple industries and countries.  Our findings are simple and somewhat disturbing, given the acknowledged necessity for innovation: Companies usually develop leaders who replicate rather than innovate.

The trick then is how to identify and develop the maverick innovators at your company.  My friend and colleague, A.J. Chopra identified a set of competencies shared by break-through  innovators in his 1999 book, “Managing the People-Side of Innovation.”

What I have observed when working with clients is that most companies have the raw talent, what they lack is a formal process for developing and grooming the next generation of innovative leaders.  I believe one reason companies resist a formal process is the myth that innovation is something akin to magic – no one knows exactly how it happens, but it just happens.  Nothing could be further form the truth, and Cohn, Katzenback and Vlak write about the necessary ingredients for grooming innovators:

  1. One-on-one Interviews – use role-playing scenarios to identify leaders  with high-potential to become break-through innovators.
  2. Cross-functional Leadership – assign potential break-through innovators to lead cross-functional teams.
  3. Mentoring – couple the break-through innovators with a senior leader who can provide support and guidance.
  4. Peer networks – help the break-through innovators cultivate a fertile environment for sharing and growing ideas within the company.
  5. Position at Innovation Hubs – insert break-through innovators into innovation hubs where they can “better see how existing products, ideas, people or even entire businesses can be recombined in new, value-adding ways.”

I would add a final point that the authors leave out, but I believe is critical to developing future innovators – that is utilizing new technologies.  The innovators of the future will be the leaders who master Web 2.0 tools such as blogs, social networking sites, twitter, and wikis.  In addition, Web 2.0 tools will help innovators leverage all of the other skills such as networking, sharing ideas and collaboration.

As the velocity of information and ideas increases, it is important that break-through innovators position themselves at the “innovation hub” of your company and utilize Web 2.0 tools to generate innovation.  In fact, I suggest that the successful innovators of tomorrow can be found today, within your own company.  One needs to look no further than the most prolific bloggers, online social networkers and wiki-contributors.

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