1. The introduction of something new
  2. A new idea, method, or device

from Merriam-Webster

Over my career, I have long been viewed as someone who can drive transformational change and innovation in organizations. I did this as a VP for a large fortune 500 company and as a coach and consultant for over 100 CEOs and key executives. When I took on the role of CEO for Crestcom, the path forward for the company was very clear to me. Looking back on the past two years of being a CEO, I’ve learned some very important lessons about innovation from a CEO’s perspective that I did not fully consider in the beginning.

1. Innovation must involve everyone

There are two general schools of thought when it comes to organizational innovation: 1) create an innovation sub-group that is more focused on innovation than operations, typically out of about 10% of employees. 2) involve and engage everyone in innovation.

I have worked with both, and I now strongly believe in the latter. The main reason being that the people who are responsible for the operational roles assigned to them are truly the best people to innovated their own processes. I have found that encouraging and developing people to think innovatively is far more effective than trying to get innovative thinkers to understand operational processes to such a degree that they can make logical contributions to innovative improvements. This team is solving a problem for a reason- they are the ones who feel the pain of the problem. This does put more pressure on the CEO and managers to fill the role of the coach, particularly if the culture has long been one of complacency. It is not always the easiest or fastest route, but it is the most effective. Specific roles on the team must be assigned such as disrupter, researcher, facilitator, and project manager to ensure the team is bringing in new ideas and making progress. I think one thing that CEOs tend to overlook is that innovative thinkers don’t necessarily need to have the technological know-how to bring their ideas to life. They just have to be able to think in terms of process improvement and critical problem-solving. Once the idea has been born, then you can bring in a group of people to help make the project a reality. The key element is ownership. This team owns the idea and they will ensure it is successful.  

This also provides everyone in the company the opportunity to grow both personally and professionally. Encouraging employees at every level to think critically to overcome challenges and seize new opportunities provides each individual the opportunity to grow, to learn, and to feel that unique sense of pride when they see something they have created come to life and succeed. It also serves to infuse innovation in your company culture, motivating everyone to innovate more and engaging your workforce in creating more opportunities for themselves as well as your organization. The overall result is a more engaged, satisfied, and productive team working toward driving greater results for the company.

2. Innovation requires change management

I thought I knew a thing or two about change management. After all, I’d spent years working on strategic planning, start-ups, transformational leadership and the like. But the role of the change manager as a CEO is very different from how I had experienced it before, both in previous roles as an executive and an outside consultant.

As Harry Truman so famously liked to point out: The buck stops here.

When you are the CEO, you are ultimately responsible for the result and consequences of all of those decisions. Particularly when the consequences are bad. Leaders can delegate tasks, but they cannot delegate responsibility.

You also have many, many… MANY more stakeholders to work with as the CEO. This presents both wonderful opportunities, as well as great challenges. I have always been a believer in the power of shared experiences and gaining different perspectives. It becomes more difficult when you have so many conflicting variables and opinions that it is tempting to take the easier (short term) route and stop moving forward. It is important to remember that it is simply impossible to please everyone. You must make decisions based on the best information you have available and move forward.

Everyone talks about communication and trust when they talk about change management. These are so important for all leaders and managers to continually build and improve on. When you are the CEO, you have to walk a fine line between what you should communicate, particularly in tough financial times. Building the trust and credibility to make your communications effective takes time, and sometimes hard work. Breaking it takes almost no time at all! Throughout it all, always remember to stay true to your core values, remain trustworthy, and be open in your communication to nurture a culture in which change management can be effective.

3. Not all great innovations are big

When many of us think about innovation, we think about Steve Jobs and the iPhone, or Elon Musk and SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. We don’t usually think about all the little innovations that happen every day that make our lives just a little easier, or work just a bit more efficient.

Some, if not most, people in your organization are making these little innovations every day. Or they are learning from others’ innovations and applying them to your company’s processes and operations. This type of innovative thinking is, in many ways, far more important to the success of your business than holding out for that one big one. Think about how you can recognize and reward even the little innovations that happen on your team, and how you can encourage these to be shared so that everyone can benefit from them.

What is a small innovation in your team you can recognize today?

4. Innovation is key to growth

They say that creativity is thought and innovation is action. There are many leaders in the world that have great ideas but cannot seem to bring those ideas to life.

When I became CEO of Crestcom, the leadership team had done very little for years to innovate processes, programs, or products to stay ahead of market and industry trends. Given our competitive and innovative industry, we had to move fast to execute key changes to our curriculum and technology.  We have succeeded in meeting and exceeding many of our growth strategy milestones. We have accomplished this through innovative thinking, hard work, many hours and lots of coffee, and (sometimes) by sheer will. When I look back at all that we have accomplished so far, it fills me with a great sense of pride in my team and in the whole Crestcom community for how we have pulled together to effect some significant changes.  

If you need to grow your business, you need to be able to model innovation as a CEO. You must role model vulnerability, self-awareness, urgency and have a calming attitude of we will solve this together when something does not go right. You have to work alongside your team, taking the risks and the challenges of innovation right along with them. Without it, your company is doomed to resign itself to the slow decline of mediocrity.