A leader is someone who holds a high degree of influence within an organization.

These individuals become leaders after proving that they can create a vision and lead a team to it’s realization. In large enterprises, this requires a strong executional mindset.

Companies don’t grow to become large enterprises without systems and processes working at scale, backed by the executional prowess provided by strong leadership.

But to be an amazing innovation leader requires a different mindset and set of skills.

Innovation leaders must understand the difference between mentoring and managing. They must be able to flawlessly make the style shift between searching and executing in order to lead innovation within their organizations.

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Introduction to Leadership Development

What is Leadership Development with regard to Lean Innovation?

The phrase “leadership development” can mean different things to different people.

Traditional leadership development is about creating competence in leaders to hire and manage employees, be decisive, take ownership of decisions, and drive company culture.

When spoken with regard to Lean Innovation, leadership development does not only focus on traditional execution objectives. Instead, it focuses on the development of a mentoring (not managing) mindset required to lead an innovation team to success.

One of the reasons that organizations have difficulty creating growth through their innovation efforts is that they are not developing leaders that can both manage and mentor.

However, innovative companies understand this fallacy. They recruit and develop leaders in both of these contexts because they understand the value in having leaders who can not only make great decisions based on years of experience and mounds of data, but who can also empower a team to make good decisions on behalf of the company in the face of uncertainty.  

Understanding Mentor and Manager Mindsets

What it means

One way to look at it would be to imagine a computer with two separate operating systems. You have one operating system that is focused on one way of functioning and then there’s an additional operating system that provides a different way of functioning. Same hardware, but different operating system.

Another way to look at it might be to say that mentors ask questions, and managers give answers. Mentors are primarily there to guide, protect and empower, while managers primarily optimize, execute, and direct.   

Search and Execution

In situations where experience and data are present, leaders are working within the known. We refer to this as “execution” mode, and is typically the best time for a leader to use their management mindset and associated skills.

They are not dealing with uncertainty and therefore can focus on holding teams accountable for flawless execution. In these situations, leaders are tasked with optimizing for efficiency and they have historical evidence to help to make decisions based on.

On the flip side, in a situation where there is little to no data or experience present, leaders are forced to work in the face of uncertainty.

We refer to this as “search mode”.

When leaders are in search mode, they need to shift their mindset to be focused on mentoring rather than managing in order to empower the employees closest to the customer to generate evidence that will answer their most important questions.

Applying a management mindset when uncertainty is present will often yield fruitless results because the management behavior – making decisions for the team instead of empowering the team to find the answer through empathy work and experimentation – is not backed by evidence from customers.

The goal of shifting into search mode is to create a safe environment where the team identifies the riskiest assumptions and gathers evidence from customers to illuminate the path forward.

What are the skills an amazing innovation leader should possess?

In order to be a truly amazing innovation leader, you need to be able to identify the situations that require a shift between the manager and mentor mindsets, and you need to be able to make the transition effortlessly.

Skills of great innovation leaders include:

  • Protecting the Team from the pressure of reprimand for acting too bold and shields the team from external interference and distractions to keep the team in the learning zone

  • Exploring Bold Ideas – Someone who can encourage teams to experiment with bold ideas rather than incremental or safe solutions

  • Evidence-Based Decision Making – An innovation leader needs to be able to ensure all decisions are made based on evidence (data + insights), and they need to empower their search teams to do the same. This requires a leader who can effectively balance qualitative and quantitative data to make decisions. In the beginning, small sets of data must be used to drive decision-making, but sometimes with small data sets, the numbers and the insights being derived from the work don’t match up. An innovation leader needs to help the team go through those data points to find new patterns and make sure they aren’t missing anything.

  • Understanding When to Inquire Versus Advocate – Knowing when to shift from pushing the team for more information to advocating for a certain idea in order to move the project forward

  • Being One Step Ahead in order to help the team identify and overcome potential roadblocks

  • Gives Teams What They Need to Be Successful – If the team can’t get the right resources, good leaders will use their own political capital to get just enough help for their teams in order to help them learn quickly

  • Being Explicit in notifying the team when they are shifting from mentor to manager and back again is someone who clearly demonstrates control over both sides of the equation

Signs of Weak Innovation Leadership Skills

An unskilled innovation leader may be someone who is still inexperienced at shifting between the manager and mentor state. They might exhibit the following behaviors:

  • Making decisions for the team instead of allowing them the opportunity to gather evidence and test different assumptions

  • Holding team accountable for ROI / business impact metrics in the early stages instead of prioritizing empathy and experimentation to generate evidence.  The more uncertainty in the project, the more negatively this behavior will impact the team

  • Distracting the team with any other type of work not related to their innovation project

  • Not going out of their way to give the team what they need to be successful  

  • Not ensuring that the right cross-functional team members for a self-contained team

  • Advocating that the team only make decisions on large sets of data, (which would be totally appropriate on execution project, but is impossible for an innovation initiative)

Challenges faced when first exploring mentor mindsets

For a leader who has not practiced leading with the mentor mindset, it can be a challenge to make this shift because it will probably feel unnatural at first. However, learning how to flex this new muscle comes with practice. Once a leader has been taught how to incorporate the mentoring mindset and skills, the behavior becomes more natural.

Leaders that have great innovation mentors to support them tend to develop this capability quite rapidly.

While a leader shouldn’t dismiss the management side of their role, they do need to understand the context of a particular project and whether to behave as a mentor or manager within that context.

Final Thoughts: Role Modeling Innovation Leadership

In an organization where having innovation-focused leadership is highly valued, even executive leadership will practice what they preach.

All leaders in the organization should be gaining empathy by interacting with customers themselves, they should be actively mentoring their people, and they should be creating a safe space for innovation within the organization in any way they can in order to drive this behavior deep into their organization.

It’s not just about setting money aside for innovation initiatives.

The executive team has to lead in this different manner and show that they not only support this mindset, but that they understand it and know when to use it as well.

Have questions about innovation leadership? Watch a replay of my recent “Ask Me Anything” virtual event where I answered several questions from the audience about leadership development. Click below to access: