Cultivating innovation is hard. For many firms, the first step is hiring people with innovative qualities. But once they’re onboard, how do leaders and managers ensure they are managing this kind of innovative talent to get the most out of them?
Based on our work helping Fortune 500 companies, here are five ways leaders can improve the ways they manage their most innovative employees and teams.
Think as an innovator
It’s no secret that a leader’s behaviors are extremely important to what is perceived as acceptable and “the norm,” regardless of the stated values or even strategic direction of an organization. When leaders manage highly innovative people, they have to be willing to stretch and show their innovation colors as well. Innovation isn’t just about big ideas and pure creativity; it’s about listening, empathy, seeing opportunities, taking risks, execution, influence and persuasion.
Model desired behaviors
Leaders should think about the behaviors they want from their team and model them daily. If leaders want their team to think big, they should monitor their reaction when someone shares a wild idea. Don’t immediately jump into evaluation mode. Defer judgment, thank the person for their idea and recognize its potential. Additionally, if leaders want their team members to be better storytellers they should practice and display their own storytelling ability.
If leaders want to harness the innovation energy and passion of their teams, they need to make sure they’re clear in how they’re using their ideas. Involve them early and often, hear their ideas about how they want to be involved in the process as well as their actual input into it.
Make mistakes OK
Innovation is inherently unpredictable and mistakes are part of the learning and progress. When leaders manage highly innovative people they have to create safe spaces and segments of the process for team members to experiment, make mistakes, learn and iterate. Fear of failure is the biggest enemy of innovation.
Pay attention to the team
Leaders have to pay attention to the team dynamics and ensure team members feel safe. Notice if people are dominating the conversation or withdrawing from it. Invite and create channels for everyone to participate to ensure equity in contributions. Be authentic and real with team members and set the tone for everyone to bring their whole selves to work. Innovation comes from the cross-pollination of ideas and experiences, so the richer the points of view the team can draw upon, the higher probability they have to come across a breakthrough.
John Sweeney is owner of Brave New Workshop. Elena Imaretska is the corporate training firm’s vice president of new products, partnerships and sustainability.