I have known many CEOs and CMOs over my long career. Yet, few of them created innovative cultures. Many tried. Some failed to comprehend the definition of the word itself; others lacked the vital leadership traits to inspire creativity and implement great ideas. Those who were adept at driving innovation and sustaining it over the long haul had one thing in common: they were hard-headed.

Their tough-mindedness came from an unshakable belief that innovation is critical to corporate survival, and that without powerful and constant change, innovation would be elusive. These trailblazers were innovative leaders, but surprisingly some of them weren’t creative, themselves. That didn’t matter because they were good a recognizing great ideas and welcoming change. No change, no innovation.

So, how do unshakable leaders create change and how to they sustain the innovation outcome?

    1. They unsettle the organization. There’s a host of companies that get things done, control performance, spot problems and deliver their budgets. But the structures, the processes and the people that keep things ticking along can snuff good ideas and block movement through the system. Innovative leaders appreciate that there is a difference between what’s needed to run a business and what’s needed to foster creativity. This ethic prevents excessive layering from killing ideas before they reach the top.
    2. They’re hardheaded about strategy.  Leaders who embrace innovation have a pretty clear idea of the kind of competitive edge they’re seeking. They’ve thought hard about what’s practical and what’s not. So the approach is not wishy-washy, but focused and driven. When this methodology brings results, employees become disciples of the strategy and the culture that facilitates execution.
    3. They make innovation a priority in the “walk” as well as the “talk.” When executive teams demonstrate innovative thinking and practices, the rest of the organization is clear on direction. This facilitates coherent cross-functional teamwork and an innovative modus operandi that encourages diverse viewpoints.
    4. They take note of what’s already going on with a view to balancing creative thinking with the discipline of assessing solutions and their implementation. The best backdrop for spurring innovation is knowledge – knowing the business cold. Good ideas often flow from the process of looking at customers, competitors, and the business as a whole.
    5. They appreciate that not many ideas work the first time, so they’re prepared to praise failure, move on, or try again until the company gets it right. From there, innovative leaders marshal resources behind a few winners and then execute like the offense of a championship NFL football team.

Innovative leaders are a special breed. They aren’t as interested in “minding the store” as they are about “opening new stores.” Nor are they shy to admit to controlling strategic direction, influencing the culture, and monitoring the process and practice that unleashes business’s most elusive success factor.

About John R. Bell

John R. Bell is a retired consumer packaged goods CEO, a former global strategy consultant, and the author of Do Less Better. The Power of Strategic Sacrifice in a Complex World. A prolific blogger, John’s musings on strategy, leadership, and branding appear in several online journals including Fortune and Forbes.

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