How to develop innovation skills in your leadership team

They have the power to create innovative organisations, but most senior leaders struggle to develop innovation skills. And this is a real problem for business.
February 7, 2023
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Senior leaders

We know that senior leaders have the power and influence to make significant changes in organisations. They hold the budgets. They make decisions. They get things moving. Innovation either flourishes or fails because of them.

They also play an important role as influencers because the behaviours they display will be copied by colleagues. If senior people show innovative behaviour, colleagues are more likely to behave in a similar way. Those colleagues will know what is expected of them, that the company values innovative behaviour. It will inspire them to do things differently.

So for innovation to happen in any organisation you need the top leaders to be showing the way in innovative behaviour.

That’s easier said than done, however. Does there come a point in a leaders’s life when they feel they have learned everything they need to learn? Leaders have egos that can get in the way. Innovation training programmes won’t cut it for people who feel training shows up their inadequacies.

Consider that the average CEO on the Harvard Business Review’s list of the 100 Best-Performing CEOs is 58. Pair that with research which suggests creativity peaks at about age 40 or 45 and then enters a slow decline.

If you have spent 30 years in a company and you have done so well that it got you into a leadership position, you are not likely to enjoy being questioned on your mindset and toolbox even though it might be fair to do so.

Fixed & Growth Mindsets

Mindset can certainly get in the way. Psychology professor Carol Dweck refers to two types of mindset – fixed and growth. Those with fixed mindsets believe their basic qualities are fixed traits and that talent alone creates success—without effort.

Many senior leaders have fixed mindsets and think they’re at their peak – that they couldn’t possibly develop any more. Or at least that’s the image they want to project.

If you have a growth mindset you believe you can develop skills and expertise through dedication and hard work. You love learning, tend to be more resilient and believe you can achieve great things.

The most successful business leaders display a growth mindset. They’re constantly learning and looking for opportunities to do things differently and to develop themselves.

They also tend to be inherently curious about everything they see. They take inspiration from similar businesses or look laterally at businesses that aren’t necessarily related to them but can offer useful insights. If they travel, they will look at how organisations operate in different cultures and environments.

Senior executives need to get curious and embrace this growth mindset. By doing so they will start to model innovation behaviours that will be picked up by colleagues at all levels of the organisation.

Four Ways to Develop Leaders' Innovation Skills

Here are some suggestions for how to develop innovation skills in a senior team:

  • If you are in an innovation team or you’re in the HR or R&D team, start to flag up innovations that will interest senior executives or make them look good. Think about how the innovation will help the company and help them join the dots so that you link an insight to an opportunity.
  • Encourage senior leaders to network with peers – people they respect and see as credible - in order to see what is happening in other companies. If a junior team wanted their boss to be more innovative, they could point out that at competitor X, their senior people do this or their senior people go to that networking event.
  • Be sensitive about how you talk about innovation so it doesn’t threaten senior people. Talk about the potential of innovation and highlight the benefits that could arise as a result of it. Look for evidence. Share case studies of how others are benefiting from innovation.
  • And finally, accept this is not going to happen overnight. You need to plant the idea well in advance and keep providing fresh impetus and inspiration.


Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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