A couple of weeks ago I had a nice coffee meeting with one of the men in charge of innovating in the insurance industry in this country. We discussed the elements that make an innovation succeed in a silo environment and how to make it work.

At the end of the conversation we ended up talking, of course, of the role of top leaders and CEOs in the innovation process. What should they know, how should they behave and which characteristics should they have to inspire and build innovation in a corporate environment?

After an interesting conversation, we ended up with three main characteristics these kind of leaders should have:

  • They must know technology. This doesn’t mean that they have to know how to code or the most intricate laws of physics. However, they should know which technologies apply to their products, services and business models. They should also know what those technologies can do and what they can’t. How much is a real application and how much is hype. Last but not least, how will these technologies evolve and how could they affect the business? Not knowing technology can turn decision makers into easy preys for ruthless consultants or may paralyze their decisions until it may be too late.

Not knowing technology can turn decision makers into easy preys for ruthless consultants

  • They must know basic innovation tools. Every top leader should have gone through a real-world Business Model Canvas. They should know the essence of competitive advantages. They should know how to define the innovation focus areas for their company and how to involve operations in the innovation process. Concepts like network effects and lean startup should be well known, as well as the perils of pushing innovation without a clear purpose.
  • Finally, they must know how to communicate. It is understandable that so many employees lock at the digitalization wave with fear, if not with anger. The message they get every day from the media is that robots and digital technologies will make them quickly expendable.
Is it strange that your employees are skeptical?

A savvy leader will address these issues, talk to the employees and make them understand that without digitalization and innovation, the future of the company they work for may not exist. At the same time a responsible CEO should invest in their employees (they are your most valuable asset, aren’t they?) and give them the opportunity to adapt and learn before it is too late for them. In addition, communication is an extraordinary tool to address the capital market, acquire the best talent, attract the best business partners and make your customers prefer your products. Look at Elon Musk and Tesla, or Jeff Bezos and Amazon. Their companies are borderline financial wrecks, yet their storytelling makes it possible for them to grow, to acquire fresh capital when needed, hold a share price that benefit their investors and make sound partners and acquisitions. 

In my experience, Norwegian leaders, CEOs and board members have still a long way to go in order to become true agents of change and innovation. Day-by-day operations consume vast amounts of energy. However, I will mention again what I wrote a couple of paragraphs above: Without digitalization and innovation, the future of the company you work for may not exist. Probably neither will your job or even your career.

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