Leadership in Innovation: What Makes a Great Leader?

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Leadership in Innovation: What Makes a Great Leader?

Many of our clients grapple with the issue of leadership in innovation. Given the competitive climate with which many of these businesses are situated, this makes sense. Innovating is difficult, and it requires a strong sense of leadership in the corporate structure. This can not only increase productivity, but it can also boost the speed at which your products hit the market. (For more on fast-tracking products to market, see any one of a number of Rob Beachy’s blogs).

We like to say that when it comes to leadership in innovation, the key elements are somewhat akin (albeit with slight alterations and adjustments) to the qualities needed in the leadership of a start-up company. Why? Think about it: both are starting from scratch, and both are attempting to make something out of nothing. In a recent article from Forbes, the business publication listed their top ten qualities that every start-up leader needs to have: honesty, the ability to delegate, good communication, a sense of humor, confidence, commitment, a positive attitude, creativity, intuition, and the ability to inspire. These are undoubtedly common attributes among all leaders, so we’ve decided to provide a few adjustments and, in classic short-form style, list the top three qualities that leaders in innovation teams must possess.

1. Delegation and Collaboration

Innovation is all about collaboration, but many often underestimate the value of delegation from leadership. True innovation requires teams in which the leaders have placed an enormous amount of trust. Too often creative teams believe that innovation starts from the top—but that’s not always the case. Oftentimes, it’s the people at the top who have been at the company the longest, and longevity can frequently breed a lack of objectivity in recognizing new ideas (i.e. “that’s not how we do it here”). In other words, real innovation necessitates fresh-thinking and novel perspectives, which can often come from the most unexpected of places and people. Once you’ve assembled your team, get out of their way and let them innovate. It’s a process wrought with mistakes and failed ideas, and as a leader, it’s your responsibility to cultivate a positive perception about such an atmosphere. Encourage collaboration, but perhaps even more important, let it be known that failure is an option. It is only through discovering something doesn’t work that we realize what might work.

2. Good Communication

This is key, largely for the precise reason evident in the first quality: failure is somewhat inevitable. How you handle that failure, though, will be the difference between boom and bust. A great innovation leader knows how to inspire his/her team, but he/she also recognizes that constant communication is a must for any endeavor. Your team needs to know when it’s doing something well and when it’s not—and in the case of the latter, it’s your job to provide constructive feedback that can actually improve the shortcomings. Without knowing that something is amiss, how will your team ever know to fix it? But lest you think that communication is only a one-way street, never fear: it requires two-way feedback. Allow your team the opportunity to (perhaps anonymously, in the case of a particularly sensitive grouping of information) provide feedback to you. No matter how much we talk about the generalized qualities of leaders, they’re still just that—generalized. Every team is different, and you need to be attuned to what your specific group of people needs from you.


OK, so we’ve branched out a little from the attributes listed in the Forbes piece, but when you think about it, consistency is the underpinning for all positive qualities—if you oscillate between being good and bad at something, for instance, then you’ll never be great at it. Our version of consistency isn’t far off, except it’s more particularly aligned to your innovation goals and needs: make sure your market rationales are consistent. When it comes to bringing innovation to market (which, let’s be honest, is the whole point), only a certain percentage of your team’s ideas will come to fruition. They need to know why certain ones work, and why certain ones don’t. Too often, innovation leaders rely on intuition instead of established criteria. While this can certainly work, it can also very much backfire. If your team doesn’t know what the criteria are for viable ideas, then it will never truly know how to operate. Come up with a set of checklists (don’t worry, they will be generic), and then be consistent in applying the fundamentals. Your team will appreciate it, and the productivity will increase.

Want to make your innovation team even better? Or curious about moving products through market channels? Shoot Rob Beachy an email at rbeachy@axiomcom.com.

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