Last week I started planning my 20th leadership+innovation program for “high-potentials” in financial services. I’ve worked with about a thousand people on 200 teams to deliver “projects” that will make their businesses more competitive and create opportunities for themselves. Through these years I’ve seen teams pursue ideas innovative enough to launch new businesses and I’ve seen teams pursue ideas barely distinguishable from business-as-usual. I’ve seen weak ideas get shaped into something the firm really needed, and I’ve seen exciting, potentially disruptive ideas go nowhere because no one saw how it fit into their product area. But no matter the outcome of the team projects, these three things get confirmed every time.
1. “Innovation” makes a great focus for everything you need to learn about business.
The program began with a simple question to a group of executive education students after a series of lectures from a leading business school professor: How could this change your job? Their innovative responses to that challenge begged to be made real, and that led us to help them to think creatively and strategically, to listen to customers, to build business cases, to secure buy-in, and ultimately to persist enough to make something new happen. Taking an idea to fruition (or as far as you can go) teaches you about how the business really works, how high level decisions get made, and peels back the Wizard-of-Oz curtain of management. That focus on learning through innovation consistently pays returns in growth: top or bottom line, professional and personal.
2. Giving the participant the freedom to choose is critical.
There is always grumbling amongst participants when they learn that they need to find a project. In large organizations in which there is so much that needs to get done to execute the ideas of others, it’s difficult to make the case for giving junior employees that kind of freedom and risking “wasting” resources. But owning the responsibility for finding something worth doing makes it much likelier you will stick with it, you will strive to make it work, and you will excite others about it as well. It’s become a truism – do what you are passionate about because you’ll do it better. We can read about entrepreneurs doing this but you don’t learn it until you attempt it yourself. I’ve been fortunate enough to have as clients senior leaders who see the value in providing that opportunity. They know that it lets future leaders see what they will need to do and prove whether they can and will step up.
3. In the end, it’s about the relationships.
I’ve seen teams that took only a day to start working together like a well-oiled machine and I’ve seen teams that managed to avoid all being on the same call until the final days. But in 20 sets of end-of program evaluations, participants consistently report that “building my network” is the most important thing they take away. Between the members of the team, between the coach and the participants, and between the participants and their senior managers – the relationships more than anything, are what last and what make possible the next innovations and the next steps in careers.