Because business environments are unpredictable and because they can be very different than the past, the future needs innovative leaders who can take full advantage of opportunities and manage challenges that lie around the bend.
The future can wash away the past.
In fact, the more successful a company is, the more its leadership might cling to the past. After all, past actions worked! But unfortunately, conditions and environments — as well as consumer needs and business opportunities — don’t remain the same.
What type of leaders are needed for an innovative future? The Harvard Business Review recently reviewed four types of leaders who are successful in innovation. We highlight two of them here.
A Zeal for Learning
The first is the Learning Zealot. While many successful upper managers are teachers, eager to impart what they’ve learned the Learning Zealot wants to continue to know more and more.
The example here is the chief executive officer of WD-40. Now, as the HBR points out, the company’s product is not a snazzy new tech app. It’s a very basic product that can unstick car locks, remove rust and is beloved of do-it-yourself homeowners and mechanics.
But its chair instituted a “WD-40 Maniac Pledge,” for upper management, a pledge to become a “learning maniac.” The pledge is literal and requires managers to vow that they are responsible both for posing questions and receiving answers, as well as imparting information that other people need to know.
Results? Well, WD-40’s challenge was that it already had strong market penetration when the CEO took the helm. It was already used in 80% of U.S. homes. Under his tenure, however, they exported the product overseas and developed other products.
A Passion for Experimentation
The Eager Experimenter is another type of innovation leader. Innovations often fail. Perhaps they didn’t take into account certain forces in the environment or were too optimistic about consumer acceptance.
To counterbalance necessary failure with success, the Eager Experimenter invests in multiple innovations, experimenting again and again. It increases the chance of one or two succeeding. It also embraces the fact that many will fail.
The example here is Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Bezos’ business strategy has taken his company from an online bookseller, in the 1990s, to a major force in consumer goods, with sales, shipping, advertising, and cutting-edge use of Big Data and its algorithms and voice recognition software.
He has expanded into everything from traditional print journalism, with the purchase of The Washington Post, the capital’s venerable newspaper, to high-end food, with the 2017 acquisition of upscale grocer Whole Foods.
Yes, some of Bezos’ stated innovation plans fail. The company has long touted a dream of delivery packages via drone, for example, which has yet to materialize. The Federal Aviation Administration highly regulates anything that flies in the skies, and drone capacity may simply not be as good as trucks for what Amazon does.
But so many of Bezos’ innovative plans have succeeded that Amazon has changed the face of retail in the United States.
Leadership for the future needs to embrace constant learning and constant experimentation. These two examples of innovative business leadership are proof.