The Missing Link

 The Missing Link

Generative leaders can increase innovative outcomes in three high-value ways.

It’s no secret that the human context of work took on new importance during the pandemic. Almost overnight, priorities for corporate leaders took a sharp turn, and management styles quickly changed to become more about people than just productivity and profits. To navigate through the crises, leaders communicated more often, they embraced flexibility, and soft skills such as empathy and transparency took on supreme importance. Employees had to be trusted to do their jobs whether they were eating breakfast with their nine-year-old or clocking out early some afternoon to care for a loved one.

Though we are no longer in crisis mode, the hard-won lessons of managing employees as humans, not just workers, are on the minds of senior leaders across the nation. It remains to be seen whether these lessons will be fully preserved and assimilated into the new normal. But one thing is certain: People-first practices have proven that what is good for the well-being of employees translates into better outcomes for the business. If leaders can get this right, the pandemic’s legacy for business will not just be about normalizing remote work. The greater legacy will be about unlocking innovation at scale.

The Human Side of Innovation

Leaders have been obsessed with innovation-led growth since the turn of the century as they struggle to remain competitive and stay relevant in a constantly changing world. The pandemic did nothing to abate that urgency. A recent study from BCG revealed 75 percent of CEOs claim that innovation is now one of their top three priorities (10 percentage points over the prior year).

But senior leaders are just beginning to account for the human factors of innovation and to learn how culture-sensitive the process really is. It’s no longer a given that a CEO’s passion will automatically trickle down to the troops. Even as Forbes declared culture as the “secret sauce” for the world’s most innovative companies before the pandemic, only a select few companies, such as technology leaders Google, Apple, and Microsoft, can claim that their culture and employee base have actually become an amplifying force for creative or disruptive new ideas. Most companies report mixed results from their company-wide campaigns. As one leader in a Fortune 50 company recently shared with me, “Building a ‘culture of innovation’ has proven to be a heavier lift than we thought.”

Generative Leaders

For the purposes here, this group of managers includes those who are 1) committed to putting people first, 2) connected to the company’s innovation processes, and 3) know how to “protect the core, but still explore,” i.e., they place a high value on accountability and trust.

How then do we address employee inertia with respect to innovation? The missing link may be human-centered. For too long we have neglected the essential role that the non-executive manager plays in the innovation process. This includes both first- and second-line managers, who are closer to employees and customers where the real work gets done. It is time to raise up and develop a new class of “generative leaders” from this population who can lead in scaling efforts for innovation across teams and divisions more quickly. I will be using the term “generative” to describe these leaders, which is an evolving term used in business today to describe a higher form of leadership that is both proactive and pro-creative and that focuses on advancing the new rather than simply firefighting problems. In promoting innovative thinking, this type of leadership does not involve a distraction from the core functions of an employee’s work, but rather enables a contextual shift in thinking while doing the work.

scaling innovation

We were reminded during the pandemic that empowered managers on the front lines play an extremely important role in keeping culture alive and active as teams navigated complex challenges and new ways of working. Overnight, the norms for employee interactions disappeared (no more personal lunches, meetups, water break chats, etc.), and these managers became the center of team culture, creating a positive climate for the virtual workplace. Successful managers, despite being remote, were able to give employees a new feeling of agency, self-direction, and
creative problem solving—they connected people with goals and then let them decide the best way to meet those goals.

In other words, they were generative leaders, and they proved to us that culture is not about place. It is about connection.

In today’s work-from-anywhere environment, generative leaders are becoming the connecting, enabling force. If they are empowered to do so, they are in a position to create a workplace environment that will unleash a new wave of participation from employees in the innovation process. With targeted training and development, there are three high-value ways generative leaders can increase innovative outcomes across teams.

Connecting people to purpose

One of the most valuable ways to promote innovative thinking is to consistently remind the team why we do what we do. Studies show that employees who feel aligned with the organization’s purpose, mission, and values are far more likely to innovate and contribute. But even more critical than the company’s mission is an understanding of one’s own contribution to that mission, to appreciate where individual work has helped the company or divisional unit reach its goals. In coaching sessions and 1-on-1s with direct reports, generative managers are in an excellent position to check in and confirm whether an employee is feeling connected and to validate their unique contribution. Having a sense of collective ownership also improves an employee’s feelings of well-being and a motivation to help the company grow, which in turn unlocks creative thinking.

Reframing employee relationship to change

Generative managers know that it matters not just what but how employees think. Do they have a mindset to actively seek out change and discover new value? Or do they wait for change to happen to them and then try to adapt around it? Generative managers are in the enviable position to directly shape ways of thinking and nurture change-ready mindsets for employees who are on the most fertile grounds for new product and service ideas.

In today’s work-from-anywhere environment, generative leaders are becoming the connecting, enabling force.

To model the right behaviors, managers do not necessarily need to be creatives or visionaries themselves. They must embody what I call the “creation mindset,” or the ability to see opportunity where others see obstacles. Creation mindset is suspiciously close to an entrepreneurial mindset, but it’s focused not on launching a new venture, but rather a mind shift that enables you to be open to change and design for the future. It embraces critical thinking because it involves a challenge to the status quo.

A bias for status quo can be a beast to overcome. Fear of looking foolish in front of one’s peers, fear of losing control of territory, or loss of status if an idea fails, all can quickly become silent blockers to innovation. These hidden fears have long been overlooked or underestimated by senior leaders and can quickly muzzle an employee with creative ideas, preventing them not only from sharing their unique perspective but from championing the ideas of others, as well. A manager with a direct relationship in the field is in the best position to recognize and address this.

Fostering a safe environment for questioning and experimentation

Front-line generative leaders are in a unique position to nurture and protect psychological safety among teams, without which new ideas are stifled. This coveted work environment, if achieved, is a competitive advantage today and should be guarded as such. The concept was introduced by Amy Edmondson of Harvard years ago and experienced widespread renewal of interest during the pandemic. It is broadly defined as a workplace climate in which people are comfortable expressing and being themselves, and which promotes a free exchange of ideas because no one feels punished for speaking out, even if they disagree.

scaling innovation

In the past, a majority of traditional line managers knew very little about psychological safety or its relationship to innovation. These managers typically received very little training in organizational behavior, if any at all, such as conflict resolution, communication, how to lead with empathy, treating employees as human, etc. They were given no training or exposure in how the creative process works, which is odd because of how strategic innovation is for so many industries and the potential role they could have been playing in it.

Another reason psychological safety is important to innovators is that diversity almost always includes conflict. As teams work through game-changing ideas and as contrarian points of view are presented, a “safe” environment will more likely end in productive disagreements. The magic happens when team members are comfortable enough to say, “Hold on, I would love to challenge that assumption from another angle,” while trusting their teammates to advocate for their own points of view. Generative leaders may occasionally have to step in and help minority voices be heard or assist the team in consensus building amidst a hot debate. But it will not be as someone who has all the answers, but rather someone collecting all points of view.

Employees today don’t want to be managed—or told what to do. They want to be enabled. Good ideas should come from anywhere and from anyone in the organization. But because of legacy mindsets and barriers, employees are not always engaging at their highest levels. If we intend to build agile cultures of innovation, we need to develop a new class of generative leaders who can organically shift the mindset of their employees at the field level to participate at scale.

Jan Ryan

Jan Ryan is a founder of strategic consulting firm 3Hills Group and a faculty member at the University of Texas at Austin. As former executive director of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at UT, her career in both corporate innovation and emerging technologies has spanned over three decades, where she has been a serial entrepreneur, CEO, and tech executive in both new ventures and large, publicly traded enterprises. She is also recognized in Texas for her barrier-breaking work for the rising generation of female leaders.

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