Creativity is central to business leadership. Though every business can benefit from repeatable practices that are designed to ensure consistency, a creative leader also finds value in questioning the standard operating procedures that he or she senses are simply "the way we've always done it around here" traditions that may not make sense for the actual customers that your business is serving.
You can find high-profile examples of creative leadership in every industry, from the upenders of status quo who gave birth to the Industrial Revolution to the transformational personal technology innovators of our era like Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.
But I'm going to argue that you can learn just as much from the lower-profile but just as creative business leaders who are helping their companies to thrive every day.
In this category, meet Max Zanardi, the general manager of the towering and elegant Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Istanbul. Zanardi, being unmistakably (and improbably) Italian, talks in an animated fashion and makes frequent use of hand gestures (none of them rude, at least not in the course of our conversation). Zanardi has been creatively leading his employees in Istanbul to redefine the luxury experience, to provide the kind of authentic, unusual, highly localized kind of luxury experience that today's customers are looking for.
"Money can buy you a bucket of caviar, if you're the kind of customer who chooses to spend your money that way," says Zanardi. "But it can't buy you the luxury of having a tomato on your plate 15 minutes after it was on the vine." Zanardi's hotel is the only exception I know of to this rule: you can, in fact, you can get such a still-breathing tomato on your plate 15 minutes off the vine at the Istanbul Ritz-Carlton's restaurant, Blu, due to a guest-centered change that the Ritz-Carlton's team, with Zanardi's encouragement, recently made: In the pots on the terrace, just outside the restaurant, Ritz-Carlton employees have traditionally planted decorative flowers every year.
But recently, when it was time yet again to choose the flowering varieties to plant, Zanardi asked, "Why do we always plant flowers? How about vegetables? What about herbs?" The result of his question has been the conversion of the terrace garden to a feature herbs, and, most spectacularly, heirloom tomatoes. "We have received more goodwill and guest excitement from this than from just about anything we've ever done. It speaks to people's ideas of authentic luxury in our time."
Not that a leader who represents an organization like Ritz-Carlton can simply throw out the rulebook. The essential, repeatable nature of the Ritz-Carlton hotel experience is based in part on the three thousand (you read that number right) standards that the brand has developed over the years, for everything from how to slice a lime to the use of Asprey toiletries in the baths.
It is these thousands of standards that provide the basis for the experience that guests feel they can count on: They won't be put off by encountering, say, Neutrogena by their sink when they find themselves in a different Ritz-Carlton from the one they usually frequent. But maintaining the standards and creating the new kind of authentic luxury that travelers are looking for in 2015 can work together.
All the mix needs is the addition of creativity: guest-centered creativity. According to Zanardi, "On the one hand, to become a great company that delivers consistent, reliable service, an organization needs to standardize processes. But on the other, a great organization is aware that guests are changing all the time-and that we need to keep up with them as we serve their emotional needs, both personal and social."
A second example, one that I discovered for myself at Zanardi's hotel, is the highly unusual hotel business center. There's very little to clue you in that this even is a business center other than the fact that a few of the bar-style tables are augmented by spiffy Mac computers. The environment looks more like a pool hall and speakeasy, one that's complete with a wall-to-wall view of the Bosphorus, the river that flows through downtown Istanbul, dividing Europe from Asia.
Says Zanardi: "A few years ago-before computer technology and the Cloud changed everything-if you were running a hotel business center, what customers would 'grade' you on is whether you had staples in the stapler, and supplies in the drawer like paper and envelopes that they might need. And as long as it was fully stocked, people were grudgingly content using a basic business center in a hotel as needed.
"But look at an average hotel business center today. I think it has the highest concentration of misery in the entire city! Now it's totally uncool to be in a business center. Nobody wants to be there; it's the worst, loneliest place of every hotel. I hated it-and at our hotel, we shut it down. We made, instead, what you see here, what we call a living room, right here on the lobby level, with a pool table and one of the best views in the city.
"Our thinking was, if you were at home and deciding where to put a stationary computer, where would you put it? You'd put it in a nice, central but quiet room where you can see outside. Maybe you would have a beer with your email-or here, you can have a custom-made martini prepared by your own bartender."
For myself, I'm not big on martinis, but I did intersperse my routine catch-up computer work with several leisurely games of pool with my ten year old, bathed in the light that was afforded by the wall-to-wall overlook of the river and city. Which indeed felt better than trudging down an obscure hallway to the dreaded "center of business misery" that used to be the hallmark of a modern hotel.
While Zanardi's issues and solutions are specific to the hotel setting in which he operates, I find a similar outlook useful in almost any business situation. In business, we are all constricted by the standard practices of our organizations-and for good reason; we would serve our customers poorly by haphazardly reinventing (and thus likely mis-inventing) what has already been buttoned down effectively, safely, and efficiently. But that's not all there is to keeping an organization running and growing. Not even close.