I’m a disaster in the kitchen. Beyond microwave popcorn, you are probably taking serious risks to eat something I have cooked. Curiously, my mother was considered a good cook, so I don’t think there is a gene or DNA sequence that I missed to make me a terrible cook. Instead, I blame my mother’s leadership style in the kitchen. Leaders are not teachers.
Every night, one of my chores was to set the table for dinner. As my mother prepared dinner, she would tell me to watch her cook and she often told me to read the recipe. Occasionally, she would have me help to gather ingredients and hand them to her. “When you are older,” she would say, “then you can try cooking.”
Leaders Mentor, Not Teach
Good leaders are mentors. This means that after a short period of observation (and learning the safety rules), a leader lets the team member try out the tasks. Starting small to minimize risk, leaders switch from doing and explaining (teaching) to watching and counseling. A good mentor allows people to make a few mistakes so they can learn because tactile learning (learning by doing) is the most valuable lesson.
Leaders as mentors can offer advice and share their own stories as learning tools. Yet lecturing and teaching often falls short. Innovation leaders, in particular, need to set boundaries for the team but then let creativity flow. Flexibility is a hallmark of a strong leader.
Too Much Coaching Fails Leadership
Today’s workers are lucky that coaching is a standard practice in most organizations. Many leaders have been trained in the basics of coaching. Unfortunately, many managers tend to overdo it. Constant coaching is more like micromanaging and also hurts the innovation process.
In certain situations, managers have learned that coaching is important but have not necessarily been given the right tools. While coaching involves asking “why” a new product development (NPD) team made certain decisions or “what” the design pathway is, a constant barrage of questions destroys trust and autonomy. Successful innovation leaders understand that a few well-placed why, what , and how questions can better guide and direct the team, ultimately increasing customer satisfaction.
Innovation Leaders Acknowledge Failure
Failure is a part of learning. Teaching – by itself – does not allow someone to learn failure. Watching my mother cook and add a pinch of salt or test baked goods with a toothpick only allowed me to observe her skills. Without adding too much or too little salt to a stew and not finding out for myself what a “clean” toothpick means for bread, I never failed.
Successful innovation leaders tolerate failure as an element of the learning process. Of course, boundaries and constraints must limit the risk and cost of failure, yet mistakes and errors provide hands-on learning that is invaluable for a team. Innovation should be expected to leave a trail of lessons learned to build the inevitable successes.
While I’m still not a good cook by any stretch of the imagination, I cautiously and continually try recipes and new tools to improve my cooking skills. I understand the cost of failing in the kitchen is learning – and pizza delivery for dinner. Without trying my own hand at adding spices to a soup or baking a birthday cake, I could never improve and learn new skills.
Likewise, great innovation leaders go beyond teaching and learning. Being a mentor to serve as a guide and to govern the NPD process makes innovation leaders approachable and builds team skills internally. Coaching your team includes a few well-intentioned “what” and “why” questions, but not peppering them with advice (pun intended).
Build Your Innovation Leadership Skills
To be a successful innovation leader, you must allow your team members to learn by doing and accept failure. Join me for 20 Days of Innovation in 2020 to grow and develop as an innovation leader. Starting on 6 January 2020, you will receive a short daily email tip, tool, or technique for 20 days. You’ll learn about applying strategy for more success with time-to-market and how to improve your NPD processes. It’s free! Register here for 20 Days of Innovation in 2020.
I am passionate about innovation and inspired by writing, teaching, and coaching. I tackle life with an infusion of rigor, zeal, and faith. It brings me great joy to help you build innovation leadership. I am an experienced innovation professional with a thirst for lifelong learning. My degrees are in Chemical Engineering (BS and PhD) and in Computer and Information Decision Making (MBA). My credentials include PE (State of Louisiana), NPDP, PMP®, and CPEM, and I am a DiSC® certified facilitator. Contact Teresa Jurgens-Kowal at [email protected] or area code 281 + phone 280-8717 for more information on coaching for entrepreneurs and innovators.