How to Lead Innovation: Break the Leadership Development Mold

By Frank Lloyd, Associate Dean, Executive Education

The Chief Learning Officer Business Intelligence Board, of which I’m a member, just published the results of its 2015 Executive Education survey.  The top four skills targeted for executive leadership are Business Acumen, Communication, Strategic Planning, and Leading Innovation.

While business acumen, communication, and strategy have been leadership development staples throughout my 30+ year career in industry and higher education,  interest in leading innovation has been growing among talent and learning leaders over the past five years.  How can executives develop skills in leading innovation?

The answer is a good example of how the paradigm of executive development is shifting.  The old rule of thumb is:

  • 70% of executive development takes place on the job
  • 20% takes place through informal relationships
  • 10% takes place in the classroom.

This is breaking down.  New guidance, pioneered by Dave Ulrich, is:

  • 50% of executive development takes place on the job, including informal relationships
  • 30% takes place in today’s classroom
  • 20% takes place in the community.

These percentages can be debated, but the real message is that learning resources are expanding, and boundaries between them are blurring.

Nowhere is this breakdown more apparent than in innovation.  As an example, at Cox we are tapping instructional university resources outside the business school, in the schools of arts and engineering, to develop innovation leadership skills.  We pair engineering and arts instructors with those from the business school to create and debrief experiences that allow managers to get outside their comfort zones, try something new, reflect on the trial, and quickly try something else that might work better.  In one case, participants are taught a short piece of music (really a rhythmic pattern), and then encouraged to apply improvisation techniques to make it more interesting.  A debrief yields insight into how they can apply what they’ve learned in the workplace.  Disaggregated multi-module instructional delivery permits participants to recreate the experience with their employees and share those workplace outcomes with their peers when their class reconvenes.

In another example, participants practice principles and techniques of human centered design in a workshop setting.  This provides a system and structure to channel innovative thinking in the workplace.  Participants are able to use these human centered design tools with clients and co-workers immediately, with great success.

Is this classroom learning?  On the job learning?  It’s hard to differentiate.  What does music or design have to do with business?  Forward thinking business schools are breaking down boundaries between academic disciplines and between entire colleges to expand learning resources and bring practical innovation leadership tools to executives.

About the author:

Dr. Frank Lloyd, Associate Dean of Executive Education at SMU’s Cox School of Business, leads development and delivery of award-winning executive leadership programs that transform careers and organizations.  With prior work at the Thunderbird School of Global Management and General Motors, Dr. Lloyd has over 30 years global experience in management and organization development.


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