A landmark Australian study on workplace leadership notes that ‘effective leadership is associated with superior innovation outcomes’ and (more cautiously) that ‘research evidence supports the proposition that innovation is associated with higher performance’. The SAL Report (Gahan et al. 2016) also tells us that ‘integration is the most statistically significant attribute of high-performing workplaces. Integration describes the ability to ‘combine individual knowledge into new organisational capabilities’. This sounds like innovation to me!
The authors propose that incremental innovation (aka continuous improvement) impacts primarily on short-term performance and that the effects of radical innovation are more visible in long-term performance.
My colleague Glenn Ball has written about the characteristics of high-performance culture and the role of leadership and we’ve talked elsewhere about innovation culture. It seems clear to me that the same ingredients for high-level performance are also conducive to innovation: setting clear expectations; recognising and rewarding effort; and giving people the abilities, motivation and opportunities to do a great job.
So here are my 5 ways to lead high-performance and innovation
1. Focus on leadership not leaders
This is about developing a leadership culture and going beyond the cult of the individual leader. It’s about shared values, and an enhanced sense of ‘how we do things around here’. Why don't we make authenticity emblematic of the culture, not just the mark of a ‘heroic individual’? (Gahan et al. 2016, p.9).
Developing a pervasive leadership ethos is partly created through branding, in the sense of understanding the organisational identity and ‘what we stand for’ and feeling proud of it. This way people want to be part of the brand and want to do their best, collaborating, working in teams and engaging in discretionary effort towards performance or innovation.
Leadership in high-performance cultures does not reside only at the top of the organisation. It must emerge from, and cascade down to, those in customer-facing roles. (Reid 2005)
2. Distribute leadership across all levels of management
Several key global reports point to the impact of enhancing leadership at different levels of the organisation (Deloitte 2017, Drotter & Charan 2001, Mercer 2007). We also need to keep in mind that what leadership does is different across executive, middle and frontline management levels.
“At the senior leadership level, the focus is on understanding the link between leadership and organisational performance. At the workplace level, leadership is closely linked to management systems and practices. In contrast, frontline leadership is expected to be associated with employee outcomes such as employee engagement, innovation and intentions to quit.” (Gahan et al., 2016, p.vi)
This quote describes the current state in Australian leadership. What distributed leadership should look like in the future is a different discussion.
3. Evolve towards ongoing performance conversations
In fast moving contexts, annual performance reviews need to be replaced or supplemented with ongoing performance conversations (Deloitte 2017). The ability to conduct these conversations rests on a coaching capability, so I’d see a coaching orientation as essential for the contemporary leader.
4. Empower people to take risks.
People are prepared to generate and test new solutions if they feel safe to do so. The leader’s role is to create that safe space for risk, failure, innovation and stretching towards best performance.
Performance leadership demands that you exercise self-restraint and enable your employees to learn and take intelligent risks so they contribute at their full potential. This means you spend more time listening and asking than speaking and telling. This approach will yield insights, which fuel curiosity, which in turn cultivates knowledge and wisdom. (Reid et al. 2005)
5. Champion diversity in leadership
The makeup of organisations is increasingly diverse - gender, ethnicity, age or abilities. This is true globally. Cultural and global competence are essential elements in the leadership toolkit. There are two important strands here. One is about leaders championing diversity and inclusion in the workplace. The other is about building a more diverse cohort of leaders.
A Mercer Report (2007) talks about ‘Becoming a whole leader in a global world.’ This is a challenge for all leaders - to manage complexity, diversity and uncertainty – in cross cultural and global contexts.
If you’d like to comment or have a chat about these ideas, I’d be happy to connect with you. You’ll find me at Executive Central.