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How leadership can drive innovation

Innovation should be part of a company's core strategy, not just an exercise or a dream.

4 min read


How leadership can drive innovation

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Lead Change is a leadership media destination with a unique editorial focus on driving change within organizations, teams, and individuals. Lead Change, a division of Weaving Influence, publishes twice monthly with SmartBrief. Today’s post is by Richard Seaman.

For any business, the transition from the early, founder-led days to a full-scale, sustainable operation represents a moment of extreme risk. Innovation, normally driven by the founder, is no longer a given, but a quality that must be defined and institutionalized with the full commitment of the CEO. This is where many businesses fail.

For an organization to create a lasting legacy, the spirit of innovation must be a significant part of its DNA and, moreover, must continue to permeate the culture of the organization. Innovation cannot be simply an exercise in curiosity. Innovation must be a strategic driver in the business that creates new products and services for the company to move the company forward.

Innovation is not the result of a commonly defined function, but it can be shepherded by creative business processes implemented in the company by leadership. 

Here are three ways leaders can drive innovation in their organization.

1. Strategic planning uncovers opportunities

Strategic planning is the framework that allows an organization to communicate, get creative, unearth ideas and grow. It is not enough to simply invest in research and development — these two alone run the risk of supporting only the existing business. Instead, a company’s spirit for innovation needs to evolve as does the world around it. Leaders and employees must be willing to take risks and to try new things.

Annual strategic planning sessions are the perfect setting for conversations of growth and imagining. By getting everyone in one room talking together, we uncover opportunities that might otherwise remain hidden. 

2. Benchmark other companies to learn more about your own

Another important exercise leadership in any company can undertake in pursuit of institutionalizing innovation is benchmarking other successful organizations. Like any change initiative, benchmarking “best in class” companies is an important contributor to success. 

For example, if a company wants to initiate lean Six Sigma in its organization, many companies that have successfully accomplished this process-improvement initiative are willing to share their success. With innovation, however, it is far more difficult to utilize benchmarking. With innovation, no two companies use the same process.

While the initial act of benchmarking is important, it is far more important to understand what works well for these companies and then assess and evaluate which attributes make sense in your own organization. This, then, becomes your “secret sauce.”

3. Codify your company’s secret sauce

Once you have developed measurable strategic objectives and you have a greater understanding of what enhances innovation and new business development in your organization, you’ll want to codify your “secret sauce” so that the culture of innovation lives on. 

At Milliken & Co., the secret sauce was the founder’s words, penciled on the walls, that articulated the company’s innovative culture. At Seaman Corp., it was a graphic that expressed our technology platforms as a ribbon of DNA — every product we make can be linked to its own unique Seaman-company DNA ribbon.

Building a culture of innovation requires serious and deliberate commitment. For innovation to become institutionalized in a growing business, leadership from the CEO is imperative. Without that visible leadership at the top that drives the creative work done in research and development to real market opportunities and push the company ever onward, innovation will lose its strategic priority and simply become an exercise in curiosity.


Richard Seaman is the chairman of Seaman Corp., where he served as CEO from 1976 to 2015. Under his leadership, Seaman grew from $10 million in annual sales today. He was named an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year in Family Business. Seaman is an avid skier and sailor, and he lives with his wife in Wooster, Ohio.

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