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We think of leaders as being towards the top of most organizational structures, but leadership is a behavior, not a job title. If entrepreneurs can tap into the leadership potential of their team — including those in entry-level positions — there’s a tremendous opportunity for innovation. Being open to creativity from everyone helps you drive employee engagement, increase productivity, boost retention and discover all sorts of brilliant ideas. In addition, engaging team members from all levels of the company helps employees become well-rounded valuable assets to the organization and to your clients.
Here are a few simple steps you can take to improve leadership throughout your organization.
- Create space for innovation—and follow through
You don’t have to be running a cutting-edge tech company to care about innovation. Even local “traditional” businesses should be looking to foster internal creativity.
David Urbanik, COO of the Connecticut law firm Halloran Sage, says his firm places great emphasis on internal innovation. “A crucial first step is to foster a culture where everyone feels comfortable bringing forward ideas. This goes much deeper than a suggestion box to management. There has to be follow through as well to empower anyone with an idea to own it.”
Setting aside time for people in the organization who aren’t normally tasked with improving it to focus on innovation is essential. Urbanik is a believer in challenging those who are typically busy doing their jobs to take a break, sit down, and brainstorm about how to improve the company. He asks them to make a business-focused case for their ideas. If their argument is convincing and they have a plan, they’re given a free shot to try it out.
“Halloran Sage staffers have formed a group for this very purpose called the Inclusive Innovators, or I² for short. What started with a few of the firm’s motivated paralegals and assistants has expanded to more than a dozen participants,” Urbanik explains. “I² independently created a firm-wide database of knowledge sets and experience which enabled a better system of staff support for attorneys when their normal direct support person is out of the office or the workload is extra heavy.”
Not only is this improving operations and efficiency, it is rewarding for those involved in the creative process. “I’ve never been more excited about my job,” says Carmen Rodriguez, a legal secretary who has worked at Halloran Sage for 23 years. “There’s a refreshing sense that everyone is contributing to innovation and the long-term success of the firm.”
Urbanik adds that 2018 has been a very good year for employee retention at the firm, something he credits in part to I² as well as the company’s support for good ideas from any source..,
- Leadership snowballs if you let it
By default, leaders often limit input on decisions about how the company is run to the top of the organization chart, according to David Louden, partner and co-founder of Fathom. The consultancy practices “future design” to help clients including Halloran Sage and Kaman Corporation be more purposeful about how they use internal creativity to evolve.
“One of the first hurdles we face in fostering change is helping executives see the benefits of widening the circle of people who have a say in that future,” says Louden. “It’s somewhat uncomfortable for people at the top at first, but when everyone who has an idea or wants to have a voice is given that chance, amazing things happen.”
According to Louden, the results cannot be easily predicted, because that’s the very nature of what you’re trying to capture — the unexpected and wonderful creativity and energy of your team. Taking that leap was difficult at first for Ben Berkowitz, CEO of SeeClickFix, a technology platform used by over 300 municipalities to receive and manage 311 requests and real world data such as potholes and downed trees.
“When we were launching the company and growing it to a sustainable size,” says Berkowitz, “I wanted everyone to be laser-focused — to keep their blinders on and stay in their lane. As we grew, I had to make a conscious decision to stop pushing back on people who wanted to expand their input beyond their job description. I decided to lean into it instead of thwarting their creativity.”
Berkowitz’s shift to supporting initiative wherever it appears helped SeeClickFix in diverse ways, from a group that formed an independent “green team” to optimize recycling and composting in the office, to a customer support staff member who built a dashboard system to make his department more efficient.
- Keep the ball rolling
Building on these successes, SeeClickFix held a company-wide idea exchange in autumn 2018. Every employee was invited to present ideas and then vote on those they felt the company should pursue. Several innovations from this event are now part of the product road map and slated for development in 2019, but Berkowitz says the greatest benefit was the effect it had on his team. “I got a ton of feedback about how much everyone enjoyed collaborating with each other and having the chance to contribute at a really high level,” he says. “People have already been asking when we’re doing another one.”
Urbanik notes that when you open the doors to innovation the results can be remarkable. “This is something I have seen in private, public, and nonprofit organizations, and I am no longer amazed by contributions from receptionists or the most junior of staffers,” he says. “Not everybody wants to be a leader, but everybody in every position can be one. It’s our job as executives to create conditions where those who work in our organizations can emerge as leaders of innovation.”
January 31, 2019 at 10:28AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs