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INNOVATE

The Misunderstood Art of Leading an Innovative Culture

Purpose is not what a group does. It's why they do it. In her new book, Harvard Business School professor Linda Hill explains how your company can become purpose-driven--and why it matters.
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Linda Hill, the Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, is a champion of leadership through empowerment. Her work often focuses on leaders who've excelled by enabling others to do the doing.

In other words, if you seek professorial wisdom stressing vocal displays of assertiveness are not necessarily leadership, Hill is the professor for you. Her work on Nelson Mandela's leadership style highlights her research-based beliefs that in the business world, too, there are countless benefits to viewing leadership as a collective activity. So do her insights on the stealth leaders within organizations--those unheralded members of the rank-in-file who take charge of key initiatives.

Hill's latest book, Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation, makes a fascinating argument that Hill has made before: Namely, that to lead innovation, you should not view leadership as a take-charge, bull-by-the-horn-grabbing activity.

Instead, your job should be to create, populate, and inspire a flexible ecosystem, in which employees feel comfortable proposing radical ideas and challenging long-held corporate beliefs.

Find the Strengths of Your Culture

Coauthored with Greg Brandeau, Emily Truelove, and Kent Lineback, the book draws on examples from large entities such as Volkswagen, Google, eBay, and Pixar. Many of its key takeaways, however, are replicable for smaller organizations. Especially smaller organizations who are looking to manage through change and foster more innovative cultures.

For example, there's a change-management myth that tends to inflate the roles of leaders. The myth generally involves an uber-leader imported from another company, arriving and making wholesale changes which produce demonstrable wins in the first 100 days.

But that type of top-down approach isn't the best way to motivate employees to do what innovation requires. The best way, note Hill and her coauthors, is to tap into emotions those employees already feel.

Those emotions could be lie in a product's quality, or in the overall role a company plays on the world's stage.

Regardless of what those emotions are, the most important thing a leader can do--early on in a change-management initiative--is discover where those emotions and pride-points lie.

How VW Unified its Brand

An example of a leader who performed this "discovery" research is Luca de Meo, who became CMO of VW Group in 2010. De Meo was tasked with unifying VW's branding. At the time, VW's branding differed from market to market, largely because decisions were historically decentralized--determined by local markets, rather than headquarters in Wolfsburg.  

Here's a short list of things de Meo did in the service of this emotional-discovery process: 

  • He learned German, to better communicate with his team and immerse himself in company history.
  • He set up 30-minute meetings with everyone on his staff. He listened as nearly 100 of them described their jobs to him in detail. 
  • He traveled all over the world (154 countries, 24 time zones) for face-to-face meetings with management teams in global markets.

In his travels, he got a firsthand sense of the problems he needed to fix. But he also learned about the many cultural strengths imbued in VW's employees. There were two big points of pride: One was about the company's nuts-and-bolts product engineering, and one was about the importance of the auto industry to society as a whole. 

Fully Using People's Talents

Using what he learned, de Meo was able to make his branding goals less of a top-down initiative and more of a community-based desire, built around a mutual sense of purpose. He did this in two ways: (1) He directly involved employees in the creation of a centralized brand; (2) he tied the importance of creating a centralized brand to the pride-points of engineering and the auto industry.

Specifically, he did this by organizing a massive three-day off-site devoted to brainstorming about the brand. Instead of PowerPoint presentations, the off-site--held at a Frank Gehry-designed building in Berlin--was more like a design lab, filled with prototyping, testing, and most of all, discussing and arguing.

De Meo recalled it as "artwork everywhere, loud rock music signaling transitions between activities, snapshots showing the history of the automotive industry mixed in with conversations about the future of mobility." 

You can see how this approach would engage employees who were already prideful about their industry and their product. And there was another piece of the engagement too: De Meo's inclusive approach made branding something the entire company was involved in. Employees were creatively collaborating, brainstorming, and participating, rather than responding to just another mandate from "those guys in Wolfsburg."

The Power of Purpose

From Hill's perspective, this is one of de Meo's strengths as a leader: Spurring participation. "Generally, we don't use people's talents as fully as we could," she told me in a recent interview. By contrast, de Meo's approach created a branding effort behind which an historically decentralized company found unity. "He believes you build a brand from the inside out," she observes. 

As for results, they were tangible: "By the time de Meo left VW for Audi, the VW brand had risen in the ranking of all brands worldwide from fifty-fifth to thirty-ninth," note Hill and her coauthors. 

But more than this quantifiable accomplishment, de Meo had proven that real change can occur when you engage your employees on a personal level--and find out why your organization (and its posterity) matters to them. VW became a textbook-worthy case of that easy-to-preach, hard-to-practice principle of purpose-driven, community-centric management.

And that's why de Meo and VW became a key chapter in Collective Genius. "Purpose--not the leader, authority, or power--is what creates and animates a community," conclude Hill and her coauthors at the end of the de Meo chapter. "It is what makes people wiling to do the hard tasks of innovation together and work through the inevitable conflict and tension."

Last updated: Jun 4, 2014




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