Dear New Managers: Here’s the Style That Drives Innovation

Article main image
Dec 12, 2014

Making the leap into management can be an exciting and challenging time.

Switching roles from contributor to leader can be a confusing proposition. You’ve done so great with your job that now you’ve been asked to stop doing it, and instead, to start using a different set of skills to supervise a team of people.

The knee-jerk reaction to the added responsibilities and altogether new situation might be to get out in front of your new team, take on more of the work that you’re already comfortable with, and set up processes designed to your habits and personality.

After all, that’s what got you the new promotion, right?

Unfortunately, in many cases this may have a negative impact on your team — most notably, doing more work suited for your direct reports and forcing your team to adjust to your style may actually stifle their ability to innovate.

Harnessing your team’s collective genius

This is best explained by a theory popularized by Harvard Business School professor Linda Hill, who coined the idea of leading from behind. Building off of a famous quote from Nelson Mandela, Hill explains how the best way to harness a company’s “collective genius” is with leaders that operate as shepherds guiding a flock.

Essentially, once a leader has created the vision and determined the direction for their team, guidance and support are their best contributions for driving growth and encouraging employees to improve upon the existing way of doing business.

A main point to Hill’s theory is that innovation in today’s business world is increasingly coming from collaborative teams, rather than the sole champion innovator. Great ideas can come from anywhere in a company, and fostering an environment in which anyone can innovate is an important part of a high performance culture.

Leverage unique experience

On the other side of the spectrum from leading from behind, a leader thinks up the idea, designs the execution plan, and then directs their team to execute by staying in their narrow lane. Employees don’t make many decisions and follow their leader toward the stated goal.

In this scenario, employees aren’t permitted to leverage their unique experience and personal perspectives to the advantage of the company. These can be valuable resources as you look to drive growth.

Collections of small innovations

The best ideas are often collections of small innovations.

Think of a big idea like the iPod. The big idea is a handheld music player, but it is made possible through a number of smaller innovations such as the scroll wheel and single action button, plus the operating system, not to mention the electronic hardware itself. Coming up with the best product depended on teams of individuals thinking up original ideas for even the smallest details.

Creating an environment like that which fosters the type of employees that voice their opinions and collaborate to create original solutions requires leaders that empower.

The truth is that the strongest ideas are those that stand the test of debate. Ideas that are challenged and enhanced by a team of individuals have a better chance of success than new ideas created by from an outspoken leader and delivered as an edict.

Driving a change in mindset

Ultimately, becoming a manager of an innovative team might start with a change in mindset. While managers may typically measure their success through their own achievements, a push for innovation requires a manager that wants to be measured through the success of their team.

If you can be happy with driving achievement from behind the scenes, this leadership style might be for you, and the good news is that companies may now be looking for leaders like you.

Whether you’re a new manager or a long-time leader, how do you foster the collective genius on your team?

This originally appeared on the blog.