How Leaders Can Foster Innovation (and Learn to Accept Failure)

What is innovation? Is it a strategy? A process?  A goal? Is it something only for the young and entrepreneurial? Is it the responsibility of everyone within an organization?

BAB Full Room

These were questions tackled by the full house of attendees at the recent “Innovation Conference” in New York City sponsored by Witt/Kieffer in conjunction with BritishAmerican Business, a membership organization of leading companies across industries on both sides of the Atlantic. The June 23 meeting (highlights here) focused on how talent and leadership strategies can foster innovation; it featured some of the East Coast’s top talent experts, including those with specialties in recruiting, human resources, diversity and inclusion, and other areas. Representing Witt/Kieffer were senior partners Christine Mackey-Ross and Lucy Leske, as well as Richard Metheny, head of the firm’s Leadership Solutions practice.

Christine Mackey-Ross (with Richard Metheny to her left)

Christine Mackey-Ross (with Richard Metheny to her left)

“I like to think that we all have an innovative spirit,” said Mackey-Ross to the audience. “The question for each organization is: Have we created an environment where it is actually possible to innovate?” Leadership, she noted, must set the tone by not only encouraging creativity and exploration but also by accepting a degree of failure. Employees will not innovate if they fear repercussions.

Innovation must be something encouraged in all generations, stated Metheny. “People get to a point in their lives where they get into a comfortable routine and are encumbered by responsibilities . . . if that’s true, we are all are somewhat dependent on the youth for innovation. But I believe innovators have it in their DNA. So how do we allow it to happen in different phases of our careers? How do organizations foster it in all employees?”

BAB Lucy Panel

Lucy Leske addresses attendees during a panel discussion.

Encouraging diversity is one way, Leske noted, in that it provides a context for innovation. Diversity of individuals and ideas can allow an organization to challenge its standard practices and assumptions, opening the door for new ones. “Rethinking the status quo can be hard and disruptive,” she said. “This is where good leadership comes in, helping people to work through differences in order to uncover better ways of doing things.”

Innovation, Diversity and Leadership

All participants agreed that innovation is elusive, for individuals and organizations. What follows are quotations that capture the essence of the event and shed light on talent, leadership, and innovation.

  • “Innovation is a mindset, not a process . . . as soon as you as you apply process to innovation you destroy it.” – Elmar Mock, innovator and co-inventor, Swatch
  • “If you are not disrupting your business, you are in a position to be disrupted.” – Chris Perry, President, Global Sales, Marketing & Client Solutions, Broadridge Financial Solutions
  • “Talent is your most important tool to enable innovation.” – Camilla Webster, CEO, New York Natives
  • “I don’t think innovation exists without cognitive diversity, cultural diversity, or diversity of style.” – Erica Irish Brown, Global Head of Diversity & Inclusion, Bloomberg LP
  • Members of the Talent and Diversity panel

    Toni Harris Quinerly, Erica Irish Brown, Heather Coleman

    “If you are looking for diversity . . . interview more people. You can’t judge a person just by a resume or you really might miss somebody good.” – Stacey Hadash, Managing Director, Bank of America Merrill Lynch

  • “How are you defining a career at your organization? Are your expectations aligned with what good talent wants? Can you accommodate people who want to make a difference but maybe don’t want to stay long-term?”Suzanne McAndrew, Northeast Leader, Talent & Rewards, Willis Towers Watson
  • “In terms of innovation, keep in mind an appropriate time horizon; are you giving people a sufficient period of time to give them the chance to implement their innovative thinking?” – Heather Coleman, Partner, Sullivan & Cromwell
  • “Make the failure functional; does it go to die or are you studying it and learning from it? If you do, then people can see that the risk and failure are value-added.” – Toni Harris Quinerly, Senior Consultant, YSC

In our continuing focus on leadership and innovation, Witt/Kieffer and its international joint venture, Witt/Kieffer Ccentric, will be hosting another event with BritishAmerican Business on September 21 in London. Find out more about the conference here.

By Paul Thomas, Strategic Communications Leader

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