The three essential traits of successful innovators

5 min read

“If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old.”  – Peter F. Drucker

In the past, it was through great commanders’ examples that leadership principles were implicitly described and taught. “Innovation” was core in their values, as by introducing lasting changes they could leave a sign in the history.

During the cold war, “leaders” were associated to absolutism and this evolved our concept of leadership. Besides, global “recovery and reconstruction” demanded more leaders in business and politics, and the world experienced an industrialization of leadership: theories and methodologies have been developed to define leaders’ traits, beyond their legendary aspects and in most cases, sacrificing innovation potential.

In facts, until the Internet era, political and great industry leaders’ personas were either diplomats or offspring. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and few others? exception that confirmed the rule.

In the last two decades, global competition, new regulations and technologies spikes have kept changing the business and political ecosystem, forcing organizations to continuously sustain and build competitive advantages.

With the last acceleration, only partially due to COVID19, the previous leadership model, who granted growth and prosperity in the past, does no longer pay back and organizations’ directions are changing with unprecedented frequency: it does not come as a surprise that during the last 5 months, 11 large organizations have changed their CEOs.

More than ever, organizations need to inject today innovation into their business model to adapt to changes in a fasterbetter and cheaper way.

Fast-forwarding from current days, odds are that Innovation departments will become the core of the business transformation, as they will forge “linchpins” (product, processes, people) around which the organization will rotate. To make it more complex, these innovation programs or departments will need to spin with an faster pace than the rest of the organization: like pioneers opening new routes, innovators will be always on the move, living in temporary environment building each time their own house and business. New opportunities will elicit and the reward will be worth the effort, but this is not a job for everyone.

While you might get excited by the prospect of inventing the next viral app or work in a colorful google office, there are three key traits you need to have and nurture to successfully innovate in a large organization and you better consider them when planning your next career move..or your exit.

This transformation continuum, requires to add again “innovation” traits when choosing new leaders: there is no other option to avoid creating static and unstable political or business visions (more about in my article “Three forces that shape innovation beyond conflict and change”).

The innovator’s identikit: most wanted profile

Scholars and practitioners have investigated from different patterns (questioning, observing, experimenting, and networking) what skills an innovator would require to succeed. They have all got to to similar conclusions:

Innovation is a combination of both, art and science.

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Photo by Evgeni Tcherkasski on Unsplash

Successful Innovators need to have a mix of technical and behavioral competences that help them to understand and manage complexity, this by leading a pool of resources formally or informally assigned.

Innovators need to have a strong vision about what their team will achieve; their vision needs to be “contagious”. It is by facilitating team members in instancing their vision that successful Innovators elicit in them a stronger sense of affiliation to the project, making all the team participating and articulating a strategy.

Succeeding in a “temporary environment” also requires:

Continuous tuning of responsibility, performance, expectation and goals

Strong communication skills

Intrinsic coherence between words and actions (integrity)

Sincere enthusiasm that leads to optimistic and positive attitude even in crisis

Institutions like the Medici group have engineered frameworks and methodologies to define and to evolve new innovator skills by enabling a proper creative environment around diversity and competence.

Variety is an asset, when coupled to collaboration.

A true collaborative environment elicits innovation. Innovators are specialists brought in a group to solve a difficult or urgent problem. Like in a SWAT, seniority is one aspect of the specialization, nothing more. In an innovation team, each member is “key” bringing openly her expertise, knowing that her contribution will be crucial in a specific moment of the journey.

Scratching the surface, wide network, time management and a good dose of resilience are 3 specific skills and qualities that promote Innovators as persisting “assets” to business change:

1. Flat hierarchy, wide Network

To empower the network, innovators require the ability to choose tasks that can be delegated; Innovation team needs to work under a pure spirit of service, promoting bottom up top down and horizontal delegation, as the power of the team does extend the the network of each member. Each associate needs to have clear what achievements can come outside of the team (from the “network”) and how much and what type of control is needed (problem solving and team building).

The power of a network is in the distributed control, so innovation leaders should not centralize information.

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Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash

Considering the boom of social networks first, the new generation of office communication tools, and now the “new normal”, it is accepted that private and professional networks contribute to create value to organizations. To leverage their relationship to the next level and to create advantages on competitors, Innovators need to have and to promote a positive attitude toward establishing new connections and leveraging old ones. Mostly a natural talent, indeed it is possible to develop it with adequate training.

In other words, the old idea of an “isolated lab”, where ideas are forged until patented, is gone: successful innovators can no longer work in isolation within the team and their creative journey evolve around internal and external factors, not always depending from technical aspects.

Having business boundaries constantly changing, innovative organizations have to count on their “key innovators” to succeed in their programs and as well to represent their core values.

2. Managing time: the right sense of urgency

Working in a “temporary” environment gives a sense of ephemeral decisions and actions that can result in lack of motivation or even loss of control. Moreover, leading a creative initiative is not a “nine to five” activity and in most cases has a pervasive effect on personal life. Therefore, to succeed as a Innovator in planning and prioritizing professional and personal tasks, it is vital to be organized and highly disciplined. Even in this case, specific methodology and experience help to evolve this trait.

Method like SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timely)help to set break down complexity, creatively and measurably.

An Innovation Leader is a “thinking” node, looking for the right equilibrium of her network between conscious goals and intentions and task performance. Understanding them, she can motivate her wider team, establishing achievable participation, competition, and praise and reproof.

3. Resilience, Resilience, Resilience

Making a vision real it is not a simple task. The “extended” team who makes it happen, incrementally emerges as a separate group, generating strong reactions in the enterprise continuum that feels the pressure in adapting itself to the new “world”; this often leads to criticism, misunderstandings and rework activities around priorities that might not be purely “project” related.

Photo by Pierre Châtel-Innocenti on Unsplash

Innovators need to have a “thick skin” to defend their team, ideas and views, to play tactical adjustments to the project. They are not a flag in the wind.

Resilience manifests itself in innovators’ ability to pose questions and develop alternative scenarios when condition changes, this to keep the route to make it happen, always. Under a huge pressure to settling for the most “conservative” alternative, Innovators look for a synthesis that maximize paybacks of the overall strategy (Roger Martin clearly describes this innovator’s ability in his book The Opposable Mind).


Having business boundaries constantly changing, innovative organizations count on a new category of leaders to succeed in their continuous transformation and as well to represent their core values.

These new leaders can generate innovation leveraging their networktimely balancing results against investment and overcoming strong internal and external pressure with resilience. These three skills make them recognized the most wanted profile at all levels.

Organizations will have to embrace huge changes compared to the past in the way they operate, making innovation core in their business model. Cultural, generational, environmental diversity will be the new normal and organization will have to generate the right set up, their “renaissance” to escape from today tower of Babel.

Disclaimer: Views or opinions represented in this article are personal and belong solely to the article writer and do not represent those of people, institutions or organizations that the writer may or may not be associated with in professional or personal capacity, unless explicitly stated.

Flavio Aliberti Flavio Aliberti brings with him a 20-year track record in consulting around business intelligence, change management, strategy, M&A transformation, IT and SOX auditing for high regulated domains, like Insurance, Airlines, Trade Associations, Automotive, and Pharma. He holds an MSc in Space Aeronautic Engineering from the University of Naples and an MSc in Advanced Information Technology and Business Management from the University of Wales.

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