Leading Innovation: Shaping, Stimulating, and Supporting (Excerpt from Orchestrating Sustainable Innovation)
3 years, 5 months ago Posted in: Blog 0

Based on over 35 years of experience as a leader and consultant, I believe there’s an effective leadership model for daily operations and for sustainable innovation that works well for leaders, regardless of their experience level. This leadership framework is also very useful for managing the change that inevitably accompanies innovation. Consisting of three distinct and often overlooked intentions, the goal of this model is to shape, stimulate, and support innovation.

Shaping Innovation

To successfully shape innovation, leaders must first look strategically at the external landscape. Leaders must take into consideration market forces that determine the value that their organizations bring to the marketplace. Many problems require delving into root causes. An important habit of mind for shaping innovation is to see the whole system. This practice requires leaders to notice recurring patterns, attractors, and factors that can seem entangled until they detect the connections. Leaders who can see the whole system, and hold opposing ideas without the need to reconcile them, can shift from either/or thinking to choosing several possible solutions and experimenting with a few in a small way.

Leaders also shape innovation by creating structure, taking long-term views, and allowing time and space for creative thinking and idea generation. These three leadership actions significantly enable the collaboration and experimentation that’s necessary to meet future challenges through innovative thinking. Through shaping innovation, leaders encourage ongoing excellence. They must shape the right mindset for others by providing structural, developmental, and social support. And before leaders can accomplish this, they must secure the right resources—including talent with the right skill sets and behaviors.

The Right Talent

Business leaders and orchestra leaders alike are dependent on top performers. In fact, a very critical way in which leaders shape innovation is by bringing in people with the right kind of perspectives and skill sets. When they do this, leaders create balance and build the necessary capabilities. By recruiting the best talent, they can deploy the right people in the right roles at the right time. At the idea generation stage of the innovation process, it’s imperative for leaders to gain the buy-in, sponsorship, and commitment necessary for investing in new ideas and approaches. Managers must continually develop talent at all stages, from idea generation to implementation.

To achieve innovation breakthroughs, leaders must have access to intellectual energy and be capable of divergent thinking. To evaluate their current direction and continually stay ahead of the competition, many leaders today are making changes to existing recruiting profiles. They’re deliberately hiring a broad range of people with varying strengths and personal characteristics such as focus, perseverance, courage, and tenacity—important factors in shaping innovation. Of course, new hiring practices also require leaders to appreciate, recognize, and reward these new skills sets and behaviors.

Historically, a company’s view of an ideal hire was someone who had broad practical experience as well as knowledge of the industry. While in the past that was usually an internal candidate, leaders eventually found themselves limited by hiring only from within, especially when this tended to recycle old ideas and perpetuate the status quo. A common strategy now is to partner with research organizations, universities, and other sources of intellectual energy that can be imported and developed. This practice prompted leaders at progressive companies such as Apple to take another tack. By recruiting individuals from outside the company’s industry, these leaders could rely on new employees to infuse new ideas and also challenge current thinking and established business practices.

Hard and Soft Skills

Another limitation of past hiring practices was the tendency to recruit only people with strong technical skills. Today we see some new trends, the most prominent of which are changes in the admissions policies of medical schools. At one time these schools only accepted applicants with hard science backgrounds, yet when graduates began practicing as physicians, they were often unable to relate effectively to people, including patients.

Knowing this, administrators in medical schools began to accept liberal arts applicants in addition to those with backgrounds in the hard sciences. In fact, today, one school even mandates that once admitted, students must visit art museums to understand what various artists are attempting to communicate through their work. The goal is to produce physicians with both technical and soft skills who can relate to patients’ human conditions as well as their medical issues. How might leaders also apply this practice in the public and private sectors?

Many organizations today are attempting to attract talent with both soft skills and hard skills, such as those taught in STEM education, with its focus on science, technology, engineering, and math. Attracting and recruiting talent must then be followed by intentional onboarding practices and attention to retaining employees with required skill sets and leveraging their abilities and efforts. Leaders, like employees, need both the technical and administrative (hard) skills and emotional and relationship intelligence (soft) skills. One way to ensure that employees learn them is by having them engage in dialogues that stimulate new ways of thinking and operating. When leaders teach employees how to communicate, such as by skillfully and strategically asking questions, listening, and sharing ideas, they promote employees’ abilities to influence through participation in problem-solving and decision-making.

A Culture of Innovation

The way business gets done is heavily influenced by an organization’s culture, which consists of the attitudes, values, and habits expressed through its norms or unwritten rules of behavior. In some cultures, the “crisis du jour” mentality sometimes naturally occurs and is a compelling factor for employees who persist in adhering to familiar ways of working. Skilled leaders counter this by listening, asking questions of themselves and others, and exploring creative ideas. These practices are critical elements in creating a culture of innovation and also in establishing leadership credibility. In fact, one might define a mindset of curiosity as one of the most challenging, yet valuable, aspects of sustainable innovation.

To cogenerate win-win solutions with employees, leaders must, on a daily basis, help create and model constant dialogue around how actions and decisions are matching up to the standards professed in vision and value statements. Since the most skilled leaders “ask” more than “tell,” they model and elevate the ability to ask questions skillfully, and in so doing, strategically build leadership skills in others. To create a culture around innovation, leaders must identify the current practices and behaviors that yield rewards as well as practices that serve as obstacles to innovation. Since people tend to behave according to what’s rewarded, leaders must then identify normative behaviors and ask, “What is the prevailing success model in the organization?”

To sustain an innovative culture, leaders must also focus on the practices that their organizations will need in the future, such as those which connect to the vision and strategy. This type of ongoing examination ensures the behaviors that are necessary to achieve innovation goals and objectives, such as growth plans. It also establishes a common language and clear expectations for practices needed across the organization. If the stated vision and policies are at odds with what gets rewarded through both formal and informal means, employees will do what yields success. Since innovation and change typically require risk taking, it’s reinforcing to show appreciation to people when they experiment and learn from failure. Leaders should also recognize employees when they advocate for something that they believe is important and when they achieve something great in the face of obstacles such as skepticism and resistance.

We all know that the value of new thinking and new behavior is immeasurable, and most innovations result from diverse (heterogeneous) teams. However, human brains are hard-wired to intuit whether another person is a friend or foe, so we tend to favor collaboration with people who we view as being similar to us. Because diversity can run counter to existing cultural norms and create new tensions, leaders must be skilled in change management. Human resources professionals today must work as teams of internal consultants to actively engage leaders in diversity efforts and create cultures that value and embrace diversity.

Trust and Safety

The level of trust is also a potent factor in creating an environment that fosters and sustains innovation. If employees don’t feel safe enough to take risks and experiment with the new behaviors that support organizational goals, then the chances of introducing innovation will be slim to none. When attempting to build trust, leaders must be willing to listen deeply for what may underlie employees’ requests or demands. For example, these might include issues arising from complaints, work commitments that have made work-life balance difficult, and processes experienced as unwieldy. Leaders must help create and model dialogue on a daily basis, and cogenerate win-win solutions with employees.

Risk tolerance is also an essential element that drives innovation. Successful leaders help employees summon courage for new tasks and develop new behaviors or skill sets by tapping into the principles to which they’re most committed. Another way in which leaders help employees build risk tolerance is when they create effective risk management strategies and establish guidelines and guardrails for employees. Creating psychological safety in an organization’s culture makes it easier for employees to raise potential risks and discover mitigation strategies before any possible disasters can occur. Leaders of innovation reinforce risk tolerance by recognizing and rewarding people who exhibit trust, take calculated risks, and demonstrate a willingness to continue innovating.

Stimulating Innovation

Leaders wishing to innovate can initiate conversations that stimulate new thinking. When they do this, they manage the creative energy that helps shape an innovation culture and helps employees see that they’re assets worthy of an investment of time and energy. Sharing new knowledge and facilitating provocative and engaging conversations among team members and across department boundaries are examples of what leaders can do to raise the excitement about what may be possible. What follows are several other ways in which leaders can stimulate innovation.

Meaningful and Inspiring Visions

Just watch the faces of members of an audience when they’re responding to a powerful musical performance to witness how leaders might stimulate their employees to innovate. What we don’t see in a musical performance is how each person is drawing from his or her interpretations based on life experience, memories, preferences, and dreams. Despite that, we know that inspiration is powerful. A shared vision is equally compelling. Why? Because leaders help people offset their fear of change and uncertain futures by jointly creating a picture of a better tomorrow.

Communication of shared visions and values is critical for inspiring high performance at the individual, team, and organizational levels. Two-way communication ensures alignment between employees’ goals and ambitions and strategic agendas. As human beings, we all “make meaning,” and since all meaning is socially constructed, leaders can be a powerful force in creating it. On the whole, leaders want their people to experience a feeling or have a dream because these are what help to overcome fear and what will ultimately endure. We’ve probably all watched leaders stimulate people when speaking passionately about their missions and visions as well as what personally moves them.

Leaders can also encourage employees and other critical stakeholders by helping them see how their unique roles contribute to the organization’s mission and vision. To be sufficiently stimulated to innovate, people benefit from frequent communication about how the work they’re doing connects to a greater good. Then they can relate the importance of their roles in the ways in which their work makes a significant difference. Examples of meaningful activities or outputs might include clear and accurate information for enhanced decision making, help in cures for diseases, or products and services that improve people’s quality of life in general.

Author and educator Jim Kouzes shares that leaders must also be able to show how an innovation itself has value and can be brought about in meaningful ways. In our interview for this book, he said, “People don’t think of life in statistics or metrics.” Kouzes believes that the ways in which leaders communicate with employees reflect the meaning of desired innovations. What employees tell themselves about their roles, responsibilities, and goals concerning certain innovations is of equal importance. When people commit to a shared vision collectively, they often feel a part of something larger than themselves—and that’s what creates synergy.

Italics and Punctuation

Orchestra conductors are no doubt among the most visible leaders, regardless of their sectors or industries. After all, what other leaders stand on podiums so every individual within their sphere of influence can see them? Restricted in their ability to communicate orally, conductors can only convey their intentions through their batons, their hands, their facial expressions and their entire bodies. That means they can only affect others’ behavior nonverbally through signals.

Through only body movements and other nonverbal communications, conductors signal when particular instruments must come into play. They do this while also establishing the mood and timing in the performance. Given the uncertainty associated with experimentation and charting new ground, employees look to leaders for signals and for manifestations of both behavior and mood that indicate whether they’re well supported—or not.

Signals and Other Motivators

Leaders are communicating almost all the time, whether consciously aware or not. This communication occurs when followers interpret nonverbal communication, as well as action or non-action, as signals. Followers also attribute meaning to a leader’s nonverbal messages when they share their perceptions with others. For this reason, effective leaders in almost all environments benefit by consciously giving clear and unambiguous signals. They also provide the necessary vision and structure while still allowing their partners latitude in expression.

Keep in mind that although signals enable leaders to exercise their authority, neither employees nor musicians are likely to tolerate dictatorships today. Neuroscience studies have confirmed that human brains are hardwired to see the lack of autonomy as a threat. People feel safer with the ability to make choices. Consequently, leaders must stimulate with signals that strike the right balance between structure and freedom. How else might they also communicate in actions as well as words?

I’ve seen managers use the “symbolic act” as a clear signal. A Johnson & Johnson executive who I greatly admired employed this strategy when he took on a new leadership role in Corporate Administration. This leader questioned a long-standing unpopular policy that allocated all award travel mileage to the company. By subsequently changing the system to assign award miles back to the traveler, he sent a strong signal. Without words, he showed that he could listen and act in the best interest of hardworking employees who had to travel for work. Leaders like this one engage in symbolic acts when they clearly and thoroughly communicate plans, visions, and goals while simultaneously encouraging people to challenge the status quo and question long-held assumptions. One way that leaders can do this effectively is the way in which they seek out and obtain the answers to questions.

The Power of Inquiry

Most successful innovators would tell us that the innovation journey is often complicated. When stimulating innovation, two habits can help leaders. The first is asking questions that open up new possibilities in thinking. The second is taking multiple perspectives. When leaders try out the point of view of someone whose ideas are usually dismissed, they can learn and bring about value from the diversity of thought. For example, when a question asked inside an old model can only be answered from outside it, a paradigm shift occurs. In the same sense, innovation—in processes, products, or services—can represent a response to a new question or to an old question asked in a new way. That’s why innovative leaders thrive on inquiry.

Innovators often search for new questions and new answers because they know that if they keep asking the same questions, they’ll keep getting the same old answers. To produce a new response, and potentially create a different future than expected, one must ask a new question. The juncture at which a new inquiry opens up a new path often occurs at the very moment that it’s asked. The difference between leaders who are innovative and those who aren’t depends in large part, on the way in which they ask questions of themselves and others. Because of that, no question exists apart from its delivery.

The way in which leaders deliver a query and express their intention can speak louder than any words. Whether they ask questions of themselves or others, leaders’ inquiries can come across as requests, invitations, or missiles. Those who are skilled in the art of questioning deliver questions in a constructive manner rather than as attempts to intimidate, criticize, or show how much they know. Effective leaders operate from their mindset of authentic curiosity. To further clarify, the salient differences between a mindset of curiosity and one that is judgmental include a person’s flexibility, respect for another’s point of view, and ability to operate in a resolution seeking mode. Since a mindset is a coherent set of attitudes, the power of leadership resides in the capacity to observe and choose a particular mindset from which to operate, strengthening the use of natural curiosity while taming a judgmental tendency.

Leaders demonstrate presence, vulnerability, and authenticity when they ask provocative questions and engage with others in a transparent manner predicated on integrity. This conscious choice is a discipline that becomes easier with intention, practice, and reinforcement.

Strategic Communication

Leaders must be skilled at nonverbal, oral, and written communication. Most leaders find it difficult, if not impossible, to stimulate engagement and connection through speeches and one-way communication tools such as PowerPoint presentations. Instead, they rely on strategic narratives, or storytelling, as powerful tools for communicating their authenticity and energy as well as the content of their messages. Stories can also convey leaders’ emotions, help people remember essential ideas, and in other situations, cause them to take action. When establishing the context for messages, leaders can also use stories to incorporate their unique experiences and learnings.

Strategic narratives are also a moving force in creating emotional connections with people, so when leaders speak in authentic ways, they can use a powerful motivating force. In this way, stories can also create meaning. When well communicated, messages can also raise the level of engagement necessary to take on risk and overcome a variety of obstacles. And since storytelling is highly personal, we can all—with some good material and a certain degree of practice—become compelling storytellers.

Two-Way Communication

As powerful as storytelling can be, we know that leaders need to do more than “telling.” They also need to listen. Of course, they shouldn’t feel they’re held hostage to what they hear when they solicit input from others. Effective communicators are respectful of their audiences without feeling bound by them. In other words, they actively listen to what’s being said without feeling the need to agree or take action about suggestions.

To make strategic connections in their communication, leaders must be able to understand and translate their organizations’ missions, visions, and values. They must also communicate them in ways that help their employees carry out goals and strategies, solve problems, and overcome obstacles in the process. For example, when helping employees overcome obstacles, leaders can facilitate conversations with people by using a central idea to open up thinking and solicit ideas for overcoming obstacles. Leaders who do this well find it especially valuable when participants in these conversations also commit to new behaviors that will enable them to translate ideas into actions.

To accomplish this, leaders must provide details about expected deliverables and be explicit and precise about specific roles, tasks, and responsibilities. They also need to ensure that others hear their messages. However, when leaders attempt to stimulate creativity and innovation, they need to do more than communicate compelling visions or engage in two-way communication. Conscious communication that builds trust is vital for building strong partnerships and for leaders to function as sponsors and coaches. Then leaders can inspire and motivate by illustrating what might be possible while continually aligning employees’ goals and ambitions with their organization’s agenda.

Supporting Innovation

Leaders must provide support to their followers through skills and competency assessment and then through developmental efforts that often include coaching and mentoring. They also encourage innovation through their sponsorship of specific initiatives and by recognizing and rewarding their employees’ efforts to achieve agreed-upon targets.


Sponsorship support is vital to an environment of nurturance, and so is validation and praise for work well done. This kind of assistance can mitigate the threat response that many employees experience in the face of change, such as that related to uncertainty, status changes, shifts in relationships, changes in levels of autonomy, and perceptions of what’s fair or unfair.

For example, in the world of music, sponsorship is evident by how conductors respond when people in the audience applaud their efforts at the end of performances. Those who effectively sponsor others share in the applause by turning to their musicians and signaling them to bow. The most successful business leaders use an egalitarian leadership style that’s consistent with the current workforce. These leaders know that without employees, there would be no organizations, and without musicians, no one would hear the music.

Successful leaders of innovation understand how important it is to build and sustain partnerships with their employees and with all other key stakeholders. They also know that sponsoring their efforts and continuing to provide support is just as critical. Sponsorship shouldn’t be viewed as a blank check, however. Leaders must hold people accountable for results by rewarding high performers and also by taking timely corrective action with those who aren’t meeting goals and objectives.

Leadership Assessment and Development

Employee partnerships are essential for generating the proverbial spark that leads to innovation. The entire innovation process—from idea generation to execution—is based on leaders’ commitments to followers, as well as their dedication to evolving themselves as leaders. This process ideally begins with formal and accurate skills assessments and continues with both structured and informal development efforts. As a way to move development beyond classrooms and coaching, leaders frequently assign people to meaningful projects that require the application of newly acquired skills and experience. Applying new skills generates confidence and competence with new practices and habits.

Leaders demonstrate commitment most effectively when they sponsor initiatives that develop employees. Through formal coursework, coaching, and on-the-job training, leaders can strengthen their benches with potential skilled replacements at the same time that they help people close skill and competency gaps. And because research has proven that learning is more powerful when it’s experiential, leadership best practice is to also include special projects, international assignments, volunteer roles on boards, and other developmental initiatives in a potential leader’s development plan.

When leaders create a deep “innovation bench,” they also optimize employee retention. Building and—equally important—sustaining innovation requires an effort to expand capacity. While leaders create a lineup of both current and potential internal candidates, they also develop and support their organization’s innovation potential and capabilities. Here’s a warning about a common mistake that’s easily made when formulating training and development initiatives. Leaders sometimes predicate new projects on the competencies needed to address the existing business—and business as usual—rather than anticipating skills necessary for the future. When leaders look at development as the foundation for both current and emerging competencies, they ensure sufficient preparation of high potentials. And when leaders link skills requirements to both present and future strategies, there’s another benefit: This linkage often becomes aspirational and possesses the power to engage employees as they develop the required skills and experience, based on the direction of the organization.

Change Management

Successful leaders don’t only look inward at their employees and the various functions that need to work together seamlessly for innovation to occur. They continuously look outward, at the always-evolving requirements of the market, converging trends, and new technologies. Changes in the market can lead to innovations and new processes, both internal and external. Because innovation invariably brings about change, leaders must be especially skilled at initiating and managing it. With this in mind, how do successful leaders overcome the fear and resistance that go hand-in-hand with many innovation initiatives?

Effective leaders build and reward flexibility and courage while helping employees manage organizational change. They accept the human impulse to retrench in the face of uncertainty. They’re also intentional about engaging with others and sensitive to their perceptions and emotions. This way of engaging requires self-awareness as well as an understanding of others and their needs. During times of change, leaders with these qualities can be a stabilizing force and anchor for followers.

One way in which leaders can manage change effectively is by making a clear distinction between the predictable and the unpredictable, and communicating that difference to employees. Then it’s easier to determine the optimal response and elicit support for it. In predictable environments, cause and effect can be seen, analyzed, and handled through sound decision-making, expertise, and the application of best practices. However, when the causal relationship is unpredictable, leaders must continually scan, experiment, and learn through trial and error methods. When leaders help employees examine what may be at risk for them personally, and assist them in facing what might be lost by the new reality, they can assess people’s concerns accurately and find options to help them adapt to change.

Another way in which leaders take some of the fear out of change is by involving employees in the change process. That means inviting their thoughts and suggestions and facilitating creative problem solving and decision-making. By encouraging people to suggest changes of their own, no matter how small, leaders can increase people’s risk tolerance. And during times of change, when things are already in flux, it’s a best practice to encourage employees to challenge long-held assumptions and question the status quo. When leaders see all this with an eye to what’s possible for themselves and their stakeholders, they can also create shared visions that illustrate what success might look like for everyone—and then help mobilize people to achieve it.

Culture Transformation

When an existing culture doesn’t support change, leaders must transform it. Change often forces a rethinking about how an organization must operate. In conscious transformational change, leaders intentionally choose to help people develop and function effectively and efficiently. Because every transformational change effort is a pioneering effort, no one can accurately predict the organization’s path—or how long it will take to get where it needs to go—only that it has embarked on a journey that is vital to its survival and growth. The strategic planning process typically requires leaders to proactively seek and incorporate all relevant information from entities and forces that may have an impact on the organization’s ability to succeed. So when planning, leaders should consider the needs and impact of principal subcontractors and suppliers as well as employees and other internal stakeholders.

To effect culture change, leaders must also define, model, and reward new norms and behaviors. Additionally, they must be prepared to address negative behaviors when they emerge, especially those with the potential to dismantle the infrastructure that’s being created to change the organization’s culture. Leaders can prevent some problems by highlighting new and positive behaviors and by showing how they will bring about success in conducting business. To do this, many craft a “leadership ideal”—a model to which others can also aspire. A primary goal might be the empowerment and mobilization of employees. Another might be a sense of urgency. However well intended, many culture transformation efforts can stall due to current agendas that hijack people’s focus on the future, so leaders must engage in ongoing efforts to stay the course.

Regularly revisiting plans and goals is one way of staying on track. However, continual review and examination can be among the toughest disciplines for any organization. If leaders don’t sustain a focus on the future, and what’s needed in the present to get there, constituents can assume that proposed changes are simply part of a temporary initiative that will quickly come and go. Their expectation might even be that everything will then return to normal. Often employees try to “wait out” new initiatives with the hope that they can eventually go back to what was comfortable and familiar, even if it was a way of doing business that they didn’t enjoy very much.

Communication and Change

Culture transformation efforts also demand that leaders tell the truth at all times. That means being very careful not to overstate successes or over-exaggerate problems and obstacles. While negative messages can dampen enthusiasm, positioning everything with a favorable spin can undermine the credibility of leaders and jeopardize an entire culture change effort. In addition to communicating honestly, leaders must also do so frequently. Although it can be difficult to repeat the same messages about commitment to the vision and its connection to the evolving change, unless leaders regularly reiterate that message and give plans keen attention, commitment will wither. Then momentum can slow or come to a complete halt.

Communication in the midst of a culture transformation effort should frequently include simple messages that are consistent with new values and attitudes. It’s also essential that leaders recognize and reward the people who function as champions of change and change agents. Being out in front as they so often are, these employees can feel lonely, and at risk, so they usually need support from leaders who can recognize and appreciate their vulnerable positions.

Exemplary Leadership

In their 2011 book, Credibility: How Leaders Gain and Lose It, Why People Demand It, Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner wrote about a then-new Johnson & Johnson start-up created in the early 1990s called Ortho Biotech Inc. The authors’ particular focus was on the management board’s attempts to shape Ortho Biotech’s culture to support the contributions of its diverse constituencies. One of the many challenges for leaders at this J&J start-up was to convince skeptical physicians of the efficacy of its product and to ensure that insurance companies would add the new drug to their lists of approved medications. I had the privilege of serving on this company’s management board.

In a February 21, 1994 cover article in Fortune magazine, reporters John Huey and Richard Sookdeo also referenced the work of this J&J start-up. Their article, “The New Post-Heroic Leadership,” begins with a Chinese proverb that holds, “Of the best leader, when he is gone, they will say: ‘We did it ourselves.’” This idea represented my thinking and that of my peers when we took on the challenge of building an intentional culture. Huey and Sookdeo also said, “Increasingly, the crucial challenge facing the would-be post-heroic leader is less about how to structure a company than about how to get people who are truly not like you, or even one another, to pull in the same direction…”

During our culture transformation process, we encountered two potential barriers that could have derailed our efforts had we not addressed them early on. One regarded the way in which the parent corporation previously rewarded most managers for facilitating quick action by telling people what to do. In Ortho Biotech’s early days, some managers were still explaining, defending, or attempting to solve problems without listening to employees’ input or ideas. The second potential barrier concerned leaders’ reactions to employees who were demonstrating new behaviors that supported the organization’s desired culture. Because culture changes demand focus and effort, these leaders were concerned that employees might be spending too much time on the culture change process instead of their “real” responsibilities.

For our start-up operation to succeed, we would need to ensure alignment, mutual respect, collaboration, and a balance of creativity and rigor. Since most of Ortho Biotech’s leaders, and many of its employees, had previously worked for the parent company, it would also be necessary to develop a new culture by intention that would force a shift from an organizational culture that people knew and with which they were comfortable. To facilitate that change, we as senior leaders, needed to build a distinctive internal culture with a foundation of common purpose and shared values.

Collaboration and Culture Transformation

To turn insights into new strategies for marketing and selling our product, we would have to reshape our mindsets and practices from the outside in. An external focus meant ensuring the exceptional customer attention that would shape the organization’s strategies. In turn, that meant stimulating the employee population to adopt the right behaviors for excellent customer focus, communication, and collaboration. The development of Ortho Biotech’s culture would require vigilant leadership to champion sustained attention and action in support of our shared vision, values, and desired behaviors. We were committed to providing that, knowing it wouldn’t be easy.

Members of the management board started by recruiting new talent from a variety of sources with a commitment to diversity of race, gender, and experience. We then created a culture change committee by drawing from a cross-section of employees by level and department who would function along with board members. We followed this action with a series of meetings called Adventures in Cultural Enhancement (ACE). Aimed at bringing the employee population closer to our draft vision, these meetings encouraged employees to challenge the vision, experience a feeling of participation, and become aligned in identifying the new behaviors that would support this new culture. ACE helped us successfully keep the organization’s vision front and center, focusing on the long term as the priority.

Organizational Alignment

To ensure alignment with a common set of goals, we posted six priorities for the calendar year inside the elevators in the building, where everyone would see them. Knowing that a creative recognition and rewards system would also be needed to reinforce new behaviors, we designed a peer recognition system that any employee could use to reward desired behaviors in highly visible ways. From the ACE experience, employees volunteered to join affinity groups, whose roles were to research and recommend to the management board ideas and solutions that would positively contribute to the Ortho Biotech culture. Our culture change committee also assigned a management board sponsor to each affinity group, to openly communicate approval, help point out positive progress and benefits, and celebrate results. This support created psychological safety and encouraged employees who were leading the change process to demonstrate new behaviors.

So was Ortho Biotech Inc. successful? Within six years, this J&J start-up grew from 40 employees to 1,000 and achieved profits of over $500 million. What can you learn from this company’s bold leadership and culture change initiatives? Almost any leader can replicate Ortho Biotech Inc.’s efforts since these are not only what’s needed to achieve success in a start-up operation, but also in most organizations of any size and stage of their lifecycle. You can also see from the Ortho Biotech story how successful leaders develop and demonstrate competencies for shaping, stimulating, and supporting innovation. By taking a personal interest in helping others grow, and committing to what’s possible, leaders like the ones at this J&J start-up are who make innovation happen.

Concluding Thoughts

Reflecting on the key takeaways from successful leaders, people in almost any sector and industry must assertively reinvent their games and accomplish this by setting the stage for creativity and innovation. Similar to the way in which orchestra conductors bring forth music, organizational leaders can lift and inspire their followers to elicit new thinking that’s balanced with successful execution. To do that, leaders must identify current needs and anticipate future ones. Then they need to accurately position and continually reposition their organizations for successful outcomes.

The late Anita Roddick, British environmentalist, human rights activist, CEO, and founder of The Body Shop, once said this: “You have to look at leadership through the eyes of the followers, and you have to live the message. What I have learned is that people become motivated when you guide them to the source of their own power and when you make heroes out of employees who personify what you want to see in the organization.”

The thought leaders and practitioners who we interviewed for our book, Orchestrating Sustainable Innovation: A Symphony in Sound Bites, expands on this and other leadership strategies expressed in this section and others. By addressing a broad range of topics, they share their experiences, the results of their research, and their best practices. The book is sold through Amazon in paperback. I also invite you to visit my website and express any thoughts, reactions, and ideas that were prompted by this article.

Andrea Zintz, Ph.D.
President, Strategic Leadership Resources

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