Innovation : Entrepreneurs on the Inside

Albert A. Vicere is executive education professor of strategic leadership at Penn State's Smeal College of Business, and president of Vicere Associates, Inc., a leadership consulting firm with clients around the globe. He is one of the country's top leadership coaches, and is the author/editor of several books including Leadership By Design, The Many Facets of Leadership and more than 80 articles on leadership development and organizational effectiveness.

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Innovation and entrepreneurship are vital to any organization. But bureaucracy and closed-mindedness can instantly stifle the innovative spirit, especially in large established firms. Many experts have proposed techniques for addressing this problem, with mixed success. But if we’re serious about spurring innovation, I suggest we start with leadership. 

In his highly acclaimed bestseller, “Good to Great,” Jim Collins suggests that high performing companies have leaders who are absolutely intolerant of anything less than top performance, yet they also understand how to bring out the innovative spirit in their people. I think he’s on to something.

The great leaders I’ve met, those with a knack for building organizations where both performance and innovation thrive, see themselves as champions of innovation. They know that entrepreneurial people need leaders to share ideas with, to help translate those ideas into action, to acknowledge successes and put failures into perspective. 

Great leaders do all those of things by being open and supportive, but also by being demanding and goal-directed. As the saying goes, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll probably end up somewhere else.” Great leaders make no bones about the organization’s goals, or about their belief in the abilities of its people to achieve them.

What else do they do ?

They recognize that innovation and entrepreneurship are the essential counter-balances to efficiency and productivity. Sure they demand top performance, but they also relentlessly strive to keep their organizations from standing still. They look for new ideas, new products, and new processes. And they know they can’t develop them without experimenting, playing out hunches, shaking up the system.

They model the mindset. Intel Chairman Andy Grove is a good example. He places incredible value on creativity, entrepreneurship, and peak performance. He believes in his people. He coaches them, prods them, and helps them fulfill their potential. He knows that his role is to make decisions and provide general direction, but he also understands that his people are eager to demonstrate their competence.

They get genuinely excited about ideas. They realize that innovation demands experimentation and they show their enthusiasm for ideas, before and after they are tested. They’re willing to test, on a small scale, any idea that seems to have merit. If the idea pans out, that’s great; on to the next stage. If it doesn’t, then they go back to the drawing board. 

They build pride. Collins calls it “Level 5 Leadership”—a style that makes every employee feel like they own the place. When these leaders like something, they acknowledge the people who developed the idea; when they don’t like something, they criticize the development, not the people who worked on it. They make their people feel appreciated, successful, and determined to achieve.

They appreciate mistakes. Fletcher Byrom, respected business leader and former head of Koppers Corporation, once said that to be successful you need to make some mistakes. Great leaders know that innovation and entrepreneurship can only thrive in an open environment, one where it’s OK to occasionally experiment without fear of reprisal.

They encourage individuality. Everything is up for discussion, and every idea has merit. 3M CEO Jim McNerney understands this. He has overseen a complete overhaul of the company. Yet, he has preserved the venerated 3M innovative spirit. He acknowledged the importance of retaining that spirit his first day on the job and has stuck to that commitment with astounding success.

That’s because great leaders know that each of us, deep down, has a terrific idea we’d like to try, a feeling that we can do something better than anyone else. We just need an opportunity to let it out without fear. Once we do, it’s like a fountain— the entrepreneurial spirit starts to bubble up. And that’s what makes it all worthwhile.


© Copyright © 2004 Albert Vicere

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