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Innovative Leadership in Three Steps

Innovative Leadership in Three Steps

In 2006, 50% of mobile phones globally had the word Nokia emblazoned on the front. Then all of a sudden, in January 2007, Steve Jobs walked onto a stage and pulled an iPhone out of his pocket and the world was forever changed.

Nokia's market share plummeted down from its reigning glory to a meager 3% by 2013. At a time when innovative companies were changing daily life around the globe, there were many that failed to meet the mark.

For those of us that remember the Friday night fun of going in to your local Blockbuster, browsing the aisles for the latest release and picking up a supersized plastic bucket of popcorn, it seems totally unbelievable that a company that had seemingly gotten it so right, who was so entrenched in popular culture, failed so drastically to adjust to the evolving digital age around them. For those that don't remember the walks down dusty aisles of DVDs, Blockbuster are the guys that declined to buy Netflix for $50 million in 2000.

Companies like these were built on fixed models of pattern searching, staying in the familiar and resting on the premise of "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." This is the antithesis of innovative leadership and now more than ever before, in these extraordinary times of COVID-19 and beyond, global businesses are being pushed far out of their comfort zones. Those that are prepared to innovate now and pivot to capture dormant market share are able to capitalize in a big way.

Up until April 2020, the largest live audience of a concert had been 225,000 people. By April 23rd that number was 12.3 million when American rapper Travis Scott partnered with popular gaming company Fortnite to perform a live Virtual Reality concert to players and fans globally.

We have seen luxury perfume brands like LVMH pivot to supply France's need for hand sanitizer to niche food brands partner with restaurant suppliers to meet the ever-increasing demand for food delivery. There isn't just an opportunity to innovate right now - it's a necessity for global businesses to try to maintain their market share in a virtual, fragmented, and socially distanced world.

Craig Fenton, Head of Strategy at Google UKI, shared his three principles of innovative leadership:

Change your game.

Innovative leaders understand that change has to happen all the time in a business, because it's happening all the time outside of the business.

Fenton says:

When you are on top of your game, you change your game.

Companies need to have relentless restlessness to reinvent themselves. Pattern-matching only on what is working right now is the recipe for failure in the future.

[Related: Innovation Defined: 3 Keys to Future Proofing Your Business]


Create an environment where your people are compelled by hijinks, with a sense of freedom, excitement, and reward. Play in the workplace creates corporate imagination and in turn encourages innovation.

The crux of innovation is risk, so if you don't try anything new, you won't ever know if it'll work or not. Fenton says that at Google they see playfulness as a tool by approaching "serious things playfully and playful things seriously."

[Related: Eight Common Reasons Small Businesses Fail]

Ask the audience.

Look up and look out. Innovative leaders experiment with courageous ideas and get real-time feedback. Reading signals and integrating in real time is what consumers are looking for. Innovative leaders and companies need to respond in an agile and timely way to keep their consumers engaged.

Innovative leaders ask for feedback, foster playful organizations, and go beyond pattern-matching on proven success. The memory of my very first phone - a Nokia flip phone, of course (it was the 90s, after all) - will now serve as a reminder of how important continual innovation is, especially when you're at the top of your game.

[Related: How the Pandemic Can Teach Us to Shape a Better Future]


Upasna Bhadhal is the founder of Career Collective - a talent and culture consultancy that helps global businesses build diverse cultures. She consults companies on inclusion and diversity and facilitates the hiring of senior executives. She also advises start-ups and scale-ups on business development, capital raising, and talent strategy. She is the Chair for the Allbright Motherhood Works network, is on the London Leadership Committee for Ellevate Network, and is an ambassador for the Investment Industry focused Diversity project.

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