Building a company culture that embraces innovation and encourages networking relies heavily on supportive leadership from the top of the organization. A shortage of such leadership from the top presents a major challenge to corporate innovation teams leader.
It is very difficult to operate in an environment where the top executives don’t get innovation or – perhaps even worse – do understand it but are unwilling to fully embrace it because it means going against the board of director’s focus on short-term financial goals.
What can you do to thrive in such an environment? Based on my experiences, here are some methods to apply:
Challenge and stretch the mindset of the top executives. Innovation is a holistic activity that needs to be understood and embraced by everyone from the top to the bottom. For this reason, your innovation training initiatives should include top executives. In addition to building their knowledge of how innovation actually works, this will also help create a common language around innovation.
One simple way to gauge the level of a company’s culture and efforts towards innovation is to look at the people who attend internal events that are related to innovation and maybe even corporate transformation. If the event has been publicized to the whole company and all business areas – not just those who are supposed to care about innovation and corporate transformation – you can simply look at the diversity of the participants. The more diverse the attendance – both in terms of business areas and in terms of people from all levels – the stronger the culture is. So when you set up training efforts and work to create the common language, make sure you reach out to and impacts everyone, including senior executives.
Help your top executives understand – and buy into – that the innovation strategy should be tightly linked to the overall strategy. This is a way to make them commit personally to innovation through the overall corporate strategy in which they already hold strong vested interests. The key is to create a roadmap for the executives to see the path from the corporate strategy to the innovation strategy. How can innovation efforts become a tool for them to reach the overall corporate goals? How can innovation help the individual executives achieve their own personal goals that they have related to the overall corporate strategy? Any time you’re doing a presentation, be sure to include this roadmap as a reminder of why you’re doing what you’re doing.
Also in this context, understand the power of peer pressure, even at the executive level. Whenever possible, make major decisions in a group setting. When leaders commit to providing resources and support in front of their peers, it’s easier to hold them accountable if they later try to renege on their commitments.
Understand what really matters to the top executives and especially the CEO. Is the CEO more focused on the bottom line (streamline processes, cut costs and such) or the top line (grow sales)? Make sure you initiate innovation projects on areas having preference of the top executives and get support from key people having influence on this preference. If you can find ways to get top executives personally committed to innovation efforts because they match with what really matters to them, you can make good long-term progress by getting even small wins in areas that matter to your top executives. This and some of the other suggestions below can help you win the backing needed to move into other – and bigger – innovation initiatives later.
Leverage the power of corporate communications. If you have to really educate your top executives on innovation, you should invest heavily in building strong working relationships with your corporate communication department. Make sure they understand what you’re doing and its importance to the company. This will help generate stories – both internally and externally - that can create a perception that the company is making strides in innovation while still keeping people aware that there is ample room to improve. This perception can help when you need to ask for resources and support.
At best, your HR team plays an important role here as well as they should be in charge of making the executives as well as the managers and employees ready for corporate transformation and innovation.
Do not start too many initiatives. Most leaders of corporate transformation and innovation teams are highly driven people who thrive on change and are capable of keeping many balls in the air at the same time. But many senior executives do not share these traits; they prefer that things not change and aren’t interested in taking on anything new. Thus, while you’re tempted to start a flurry of initiatives, it is better to narrow your focus rather than going in many directions at once.
• Get some small wins. Achieving some small successes can help convince top executives that you understand the need for the short-term results they value. This will build confidence in your overall program and give you credibility for going after larger innovation goals.
The bottom line here is that CEOs and other senior executives cannot hide from innovation. They might not fully understand it, but they can’t hide. They must take responsibility, and this starts with them realizing that they need to be educated. They must broaden their views and perspectives. Without such an effort on their part, it will be difficult for them to lead a strong and agile company that is ready for new challenges and opportunities.
Stefan is an acclaimed author, keynote speaker, advisor and entrepreneur. He is a global thought leader on leadership in general and corporate innovation management in particular, he travels around the world to interact with executives and corporate innovation teams who want to take their innovation capabilities and efforts to the next level. The Silicon Valley mindset is key for this to happen. This mindset is rooted in one word: impact. By leveraging new technologies, talent, strong ecosystems, agile leadership, and ingenious approaches to business, Silicon Valley impacts entire industries in ways that shape the world. For a company to thrive—or even survive—in the next decade, its leaders will need to understand the Silicon Valley mindset and be able to put it to work. He helps executives on this through his Silicon Valley Fast Track venture. Stefan completed his entrepreneurial background in A.P. Møller Shipping School and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — Sloan School of Management. For more information about the Silicon Valley Fast Track, please visit: www.siliconvalleyft.com.