Raising an Inovator

How to Raise an Innovator: Your 3-Step Plan

We all want more risk-takers on our teams. But are you willing to provide the emotional support they need to succeed?

By Michael T. Mitchell, Ph.D.

Leading an organization is a bit like captaining a ship: You set the destination, give orders to the crew who work together to carry them out, and make sure the vessel stays on course.

Sometimes there are surprises along the way, like an unexpected storm or engine problems. But as the skipper, you have a pretty good idea of what will happen, what could happen, and what to do no matter what happens.

This analogy only stretches so far, though. When leaders take a captain approach to innovation, they often find themselves adrift or, even worse, simply sinking out of sight.

Leading innovation, as it turns out, is fundamentally different from leading ongoing business operations, as 82 percent of leaders admitted in a recent Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) survey.

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When we asked these leaders what makes innovation so different, they said it carries a “much higher risk,” it’s more ambiguous, and usually comes with higher visibility within the organization.

When CCL surveyed nearly 500 global leaders, it discovered that 94 percent of executives found innovation to be important, but there was a kicker: Only 14 percent actually thought their organizations were good at it. That’s a big enough gap to not just sink lots of innovation, but maybe even entire companies.

So what, then, is the difference between organizations that consistently innovate and those that don’t? Culture, strategy, budget, and goals all play a part, but the most striking difference is leadership. Innovative organizations have leaders that support innovators. And supporting innovators requires far more than a pat on the back and a hearty go get ’em.

In my research, I’ve interviewed scores of frontline innovators as well as their bosses. I’ve found that successful innovation leadership requires a level of intensity and emotional support that isn’t often seen in operational leadership. That’s because innovation can feel ambiguous and risky to those working on it, and as a result, emotional support is the difference between great innovation leaders and everyone else.

Innovators, who by the very definition are doing something that’s never been done before, often ride an emotional roller coaster. Their work naturally has extreme highs and lows. They can easily feel emotionally drained as they rocket from feeling like they’re on the verge of a major breakthrough, to moments when their hard work and vision seems to have failed.

Sound daunting? Perhaps even a bit scary? Imagine how your innovators feel. They need to take risks and throw all their intelligence, creativity, and energy into the project to succeed—and they need to do it knowing that many in their organization are watching them closely to see whether they succeed or fail. That’s why innovators need their leaders’ emotional support. Without it, they can become emotionally exhausted and struggle to take the kinds of risks that meaningful innovation requires.

So how do you start being more emotionally supportive? Our research indicates you’ll have to show three crucial leadership behaviors to meet your innovators’ needs.

The good news: You already do these things in operational contexts— sometimes. But in innovative environments, you’ll need to ramp them up.

Step #1: Demonstrate Trust in Those You Lead

Innovation requires constant risk taking as the team learns what works and what doesn’t, and explores potential solutions to whatever puzzle it hopes to solve. To take those risks, innovators have to feel confident they’re supported by their leaders.

While saying “I trust you” is a good start, three words alone aren’t enough. You must communicate your trust through your actions: Provide your innovators with autonomy, and allow them to make decisions. Micromanagement is an innovation killer and a major display of lack of trust.

You can also take a coaching approach to providing feedback and support. Ask questions and draw out the innovation team’s ideas about problems and potential solutions. Remember: As a leader, you don’t know the answer either, but this approach demonstrates your faith in your team’s ability to figure it out.

Step #2: Put Purpose Front and Center

Peter Drucker famously observed that knowledge workers, like volunteers, are motivated by understanding and believing in their organization’s mission. Innovators are also knowledge workers, which is why it’s critical to keep their purpose front and center. But it’s not just the mission that matters.

Stops, starts, and changes in approach are inevitable in innovation work. It’s easy for innovators to lose sight of their purpose and the “why” behind a particularly challenging endeavor. So make it your job to fill in that “why”: Will it save money for customers? Make the organization more efficient? Create a competitive advantage that will help the company grow?

Effective leaders regularly communicate why the innovation team is doing what it’s doing. Innovators must understand how their work fits into the bigger organizational and industry context. If they don’t, they may lose focus, motivation, and perhaps even their own confidence in the work.

Step #3: Act as a True Partner with Your Innovation Team

Easier said than done, right? After all, leaders and their employees often see themselves in a hierarchical relationship where the leader has the final authority and often the “right” answer.

But in innovation, leaders don’t know any more than those working on the project. In fact, they probably know less. So you must be willing to partner with your innovators as equals.

That means when the innovation team needs help or gets stuck, you’re willing to sit down and work with the members as peers. Maybe you contribute ideas and energy to an ongoing discussion, or bring a fresh set of eyes to a problem.

So what if you don’t end up contributing anything useful? That’s not the point. Taking an egalitarian approach shows your innovators you have their backs, which helps them feel supported.

The Next Step: Honestly Assess Your Leaders

Effectively leading innovators clearly requires a shift in perspective. Innovation is about examining the unknown, an area in which leaders aren’t any more knowledgeable than those they lead. To see real results, you must give innovators the emotional support they need to commit wholeheartedly to a challenge.

Several elements, notably culture and strategic planning, are critical to an organization’s success at innovation. But leaders magnify and strengthen both of those elements, and empower innovators to explore uncharted territory.

If you want more innovation, look to your leaders first.

Michael T. Mitchell, Ph.D., is a senior faculty member at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), where he advises clients on all aspects of innovation, including innovation leadership. He has over 35 years of business experience across more than 25 industries.