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Innovation Assassins: When CEOs Attack

It’s arguable that, by the time a person hits CEO status, their job is no longer to innovate, but motivate. As we’ve mentioned before, a common consequence of expanded leadership is an increased feeling of discord between a person’s positional influence and the tangible work being done by the company. The result can be damaging, leading to disorganization, micromanagement, and subsequently, to the disruption of innovation.

To minimize that dissonance, CEOs (and other managers) have to think a little bit like a teenager’s parents: lead by example, come through when things get rough, but otherwise? Like, lay off.

More Dictating Than Doing: When Leaders Mistake Agenda for Action

Team leaders have to be good at talking. Distilling information into strategy and communicating it to their teams is largely what they’re there for, and an ability to disseminate results is a key part of managing any group or project. But let’s face it — sometimes, the greater the responsibility, the more likely managers will turn to delegation, and the less equipped they become to actually get things done. As agendas trickle down from the top and filter into the task lists of multiple people, concrete needs can become lost if the top tier fails to remain involved. Team members are left holding the checklist while supervisors stick to the mission statement, shifting accountability from captain to crew.

This isn’t to say that managers should shoulder the brunt of creative thinking; that’s why they have troops in the first place. But when individuals end up with incongruent pieces of the same puzzle, they’ll naturally look to a point person for direction. In this case, ‘direction’ is not hands-on control, but the ability to convey outcomes and utilize strengths linearly, all the while remaining flexible and accountable.

Says Thomas D. Kuczmarski of Bloomberg Businessweek, “Any CEO who wants to bring the revenue of innovation to the bottom line has to recognize that it requires a culture that involves every corner of the organization. Making that happen starts at the top.”

Permission to Think, Please?

Ron Chaich, founder and co-CEO of Panera Bread, makes his own case for top-down innovation, saying that, “To gather ideas and learn from them, it’s far more effective to take a grassroots approach and seek out contributions from lots of people.”

That’s all well and good, and many an agile business has proven that collaboration is the golden ticket to encouraging creative thinking and promoting growth from within. For some team leaders, however, the idea of relinquishing control to the team is intimidating because it requires the ability to empower, rather than just employ. It’s scary to risk defeat; but John Harthorne, founder and CEO of MassChallenge, makes an important distinction: “Fear,” he says, “is the little death that shuts down innovation and smothers creativity.”

Eyes Open, Hands Off

Nothing chokes ideas like cynical leaders who call it quits before there’s even been a chance to fail; when your team thinks you’ve lost faith in them, they’ll not only lose faith in you, but the project — or company. Creativity will come to a standstill, and the irony of it all is that the ramifications will land squarely on those at the top.

Message to company leaders: if the point is to prevent bottom-line agendas from crushing innovation, innovators need to be given a reason to keep thinking.    

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