Having worked with small family businesses, larger SME’s and some of the largest businesses in the UK, what keeps being evident is that the old adage that people work for people is still very true.
Whatever the size of the business, whether they have manufactured a product, provided a service or sold an experience, the successful leaders of the businesses I have worked with have shared more in common than their business size or product might suggest. In fact when someone asked me recently whether I had any experience in the finance sector, rather than talk to the about the FDs I had coached, or finance teams I had trained in leadership, I paused and asked:
“That is an interesting question. It makes me curious about whether you think leaders in your business need different personal qualities to leaders in other sectors or functions?”
We ended up having a really interesting discussion along the same lines. That whilst particular jobs or sectors might attract a person with particular characteristics or skills, a good leader was a good leader. The skills and qualities needed transcend sector and size of business.
So when I was asked to talk recently at a conference for businesses of all different shapes, sizes and sectors on “How to Lead Innovation”, this conversation was very much in my mind.
The group I presented to had already met on a number of occasions. They had found that 3 words kept coming up when talking about what qualities were needed to take an innovative product or service to market.
The words were: Resilience. Tenacity. Creativity.
This was a great place to start. I began by agreeing about the importance of these qualities. And by suggesting that innovative places to work both need to attract people with these qualities, but that they also need to continue to grow and develop those qualities over time.
In a fast paced environment with lots of pressure to innovate the qualities need to be nurtured and fed back upon so that they remain strengths. I have seen resilient, tenacious and creative people stubbornly hanging onto yesterday’s idea that wasn’t working, for all they were worth. Tomorrow’s creative idea is after all “so last year”. Tenacity without feedback can easily turn into stubborn blinkeredness. Resilience in the face of failure is admirable – but what if you are really missing what people are telling you about why your idea won’t work because you are only selectively listening?
I added an example of my own. Seeing failure as feedback to help you get it right. I visited Dyson a few years ago to give them some advice on embedding learning from employee engagement surveys. I was struck by how much they talked about failure. It was one of their values. Fail. It really made me think about the sort of tightrope you have to walk as a leader to make failure OK but still ensure you are making enough money to survive. The key for me to turn failure into a learning opportunity is feedback. Asking questions to ensure people are becoming wiser and even more open minded, resilient, creative and tenacious from their failures. Ensuring people remain positive by digging underneath their responses to check whether they really are OK that their product has just crashed again. Making sure that people aren’t being over confident about an idea that has had it’s day or will simply not pay for itself soon enough.
So the list of things I spoke about became Resilience. Tenacity. Creativity. Feedback.
We spoke about how to develop those qualities in yourself and how to grow them in other people. I had 3 point plan which was simple but I think all I could do in 15 minutes!
1) Appreciate people are different.
We all have different wiring and express our “tenacity” and “creativity” in different ways. Some people might adore a brainstorm. Others might need to lock themselves away and speak to no one in order to come up with their best ideas. Find ways to let people make the most effective use of their brain. Your way might work brilliantly for you – it is therefore natural that you will want to share “what worked well for me in the past was…”Consider whether it will work equally well for them.
Remember, your way of organising yourself or your thoughts may simply not suit someone else’s wiring.
2) Play to individual and group strengths.
It’s a build on the point above. Don’t expect the person who wants to lock themselves away for 3 days to come up with ideas to necessarily be brillliant presenting them to a group at a conference. Or the person who loves brainstorming to necessarily be the best choice to take those ideas away and put them into a project plan with milestones. There are jobs that need to be done and processes that need to be followed. But delegate them to people who have the personal qualities as well as the skills that the job needs.
Expecting people who are technically brilliant at something to be equally as good at leading a team to do the same job to that same standards, may not give you the exceptional result you hoped for… Train them to lead.
3) Learn to lead innovative people
The reason that you recruited someone can be the reason they drive you crazy as well – every strength has a relevant opposite or inevitable flip side. Finding a way to lead people and feedback to them about how their “flip sides” are impacting the people around them is tough. People who are creative can be difficult to pin down. People who are resilient can find it difficult to admit vulnerability. People who are tenacious can be rude and stubborn. All of these “flip-sides” need addressing – but research continually shows that if all we feedback to people is what they are not doing well – things that they find difficult – they will underperform. It’s tough, but what I call “top right conversations” can help. These are conversations when you project both approachability and authority as a leader. And are seen as someone who is provide feedback for learning – not to criticise.
Having a good degree of warmth and rapport so that someone can open up to you when things go wrong, is as important as been seen as strong and authoritative enough to help them to fix it.
I have recently written an article on this balance between creating trust and creating challenge – it is easy to say and really hard to actually do. You can read it here. http://www.itsnotbloodyrocketscience.com/
Many of the great leaders who I have worked with say they think that this might just be “the secret” to their success. However, it’s not a secret. It is really well researched common sense that is rooted in our palaeolithic brains! (See the work of Amy Cuddy at Harvard or Deborah Gruenfeld from Stanford for a much robust scientific studies than mine!)
It is hard but try it. It might just be the secret to unlocking profitable innovation from your people. If so, thinking about how well you balance trust and challenge is worth your very precious time.
We can help if you need it. Our websites at teabreaktraining.com and profitablyengaged.com tell you more.
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