CEO of Intrinio – a disruptive financial data platform, former programmer, and DaaS pioneer.
Most of us don’t want to admit it, but the most impressive moments in a leader’s career are often the direct result of subconscious habits. Who you are at your core finds its way into your leadership style, and it directly influences your team.
A few weeks ago, my chief sales officer casually let me know that our customer success manager had developed and is implementing “risk management” for our top accounts. It stopped me dead in my tracks.
Here was a manager who surprised me; she did the research, took the initiative, developed a plan and implemented a bleeding-edge process without being asked to. Reflecting, I realized that this was primarily the result of the culture I’d built, the example I’d set and the reinforcement I’d given in response to those who pushed the envelope.
It’s critical that finance leaders develop a self-sufficient, self-motivated, forward-thinking team of innovators. In fact, given the technological transformation of our industry, it could be the difference between obsolescence and survival. Make no mistake — I’m not just talking about your engineers. Cross-team innovation is the key to remaining competitive.
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Unfortunately, the traditional tenets of financial institutions are not well suited for this type of workforce. Historically, we reward safety, compliance, regulation and conservatism. The reality? Risk and challenging the status quo build lasting companies.
Below are five ways you can start building a company that fosters innovation at every level.
Work Continued Education Into Your Culture
Employees with a mandate to take their skills to the next level come up with great ideas, and learning as they work changes them. Don’t just encourage them to grow — demand it. You could offer educational courses as a benefit, but any self-starter can find what they need on the internet. Find mentors for the employees you think are ready to take it to the next level. An outside, experienced ear can open up new worlds for your team.
Encourage ‘Challenging Others’ Regardless Of Rank
It takes time to build a culture of trust and fearlessness, but there’s no better time to start than now. Nailing this will require that you have senior team members with minimal ego; they have to take feedback and ideas from their subordinates. Repeatedly ask for feedback from all team members until they actually start giving it. Reward those who dare to speak up. Sometimes an engineer has the best marketing idea, and a salesperson might notice a problem before the CTO.
Make Failure OK
As your team starts to collaborate and innovate, there will absolutely be failures. This is a natural and necessary part of the process. Don’t panic; don’t punish; don’t let them wallow. Talk about the lessons learned, and throw the team right back on the saddle. The idea is to get all departments hungry for knowledge and eager to experiment together. They can only do this if they feel safe telling the boss, “This didn’t work. Here’s why. This is what we learned. We’re going to try this next.”
Reinforce Daring Behavior
Practicing gratitude should be a daily part of your leadership cadence. As a leader, you have the powerful opportunity to reinforce behavior that will lead to innovation. Shout out to the troublemakers. Praise the employees who challenge their managers. It takes guts to speak up, challenge authority and bring risky ideas forward. Small shoutouts and acknowledgment have a big impact on morale. If you shine a light on those leading the charge, everyone will follow suit.
Lead By Example
Cross-team innovation starts at the top. If you can lead the shift toward a matrix, dotted-line or helix organizational structure, you’ll find that collaboration comes easy. The more you question assumptions and challenge your team, the more they will speak up and bring ideas forward. A lack of trust means nobody can be vulnerable. Fear of conflict leads to artificial harmony. These are recipes for stagnation, but the good news is you are in control of setting the tone. Remember to listen — you have something to learn from every single member of your team.
These five practices will help turn your team into an innovation machine, but when was the last time you thought about your own role? How do your daily habits need to change to take things to the next level? Are you practicing what you preach? Leadership is an evolution, and great leaders reflect regularly on how they can personally contribute to a more innovative culture.
If you’re able to get these recommendations into practice, you’ll stand out in an industry that favors tradition, hierarchy, bureaucracy and playing it safe. I can promise you that your employees will start to surprise you, and those small moments will be some of the most rewarding experiences of your career.