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Susan Stern on Creating a Culture of Innovation and Ideation

September 1, 2015

Susan Stern
Susan Stern

Susan Stern is president of the newly rebranded Stern Strategy Group, (previously Stern + Associates) which is celebrating its 30th anniversary.

She and I spoke about leadership and the lessons she’s learned throughout her career.

What do you believe are the most effective ways for leaders to communicate with their followers?

First, it’s to communicate honestly and frequently, with humor and positivity as often as possible, and to do so from the heart. Strong leaders must inspire by example. So they must be the kind of leader that he or she would want to follow: voicing appreciation and respect for everyone’s contributions, putting everything into context so everyone understands why decisions are made, comprehending the different personalities of your followers and modifying your communications accordingly.

He or she should incorporate questioning more regularly into discussions, probing through inquiries that get to the heart of the matter. Questions like “Why do you suppose you’re reacting that way?” or “How does this idea resonate with you?” rather than saying “Here’s how we have to do it here,” allow people to reach their own decisions.

And remember, face-to-face interactions trump email any day of the week and twice on Sunday!

What is the leader’s role and responsibility in fostering idea generation throughout the team?

The leader sets the tone. It’s about creating a culture of innovation. A leader must be sure that group members understand why idea generation is critical to a strategy, to your clients, to your publics and to your constituents, and then be able to motivate the team to collaborate to create solutions. This is where understanding personalities, and the different approaches people take to generate ideas, is so critical. Leaders must consider and experiment with different idea generation processes and techniques. 

Leaders of other leaders must help them see how important it is to get the contributions of the shy folks, and work with containing some of the egos of those who dominate or interfere. There are no stupid ideas in a session—anything you say can be the kernel, the spark for something else.

Sometimes during a session, the leader must pull a participant aside and say “You don’t realize that you’re dominating,” or “When you disagree with someone else’s idea, your body language looks like you’re not honoring their point of view.”

How do the most effective leaders make the most difficult decisions?

I’ve thought about the decisions I’ve made in three decades of running the business and, no question, the hardest one is to lay off people. I’ve only had to do so twice, and it can be a heartbreaker.

But in those situations, a leader must control his emotions, spend a lot of time with herself, focus on the facts surrounding the issue and brainstorm for possible options. Those are critical pieces of the process.

And of course, it’s essential to always confer with one’s trusted internal and external advisers whose experience is relevant to the topic. It’s important that those advisers don’t view solutions through their experiences and lenses, but are instead gifted at considering all the options and the implications, short-term, long-term and everything in between.

Remember that data isn’t everything. Listen to your instincts, and factor them into your decision-making process.

Some say that leadership equals communications, and vice versa. What’s your take on that?

They go closely hand-in-hand, but it depends on the caliber of the leader first. Our world has seen far too many political and business leaders who were great communicators, but were undone by unethical behavior or lack of integrity. Good leaders build their companies and teams around the highest principles. Those who want to lead must tap into their highest selves, communicate explicit values, and then surround themselves with people who accept those values and want to drive the organization forward.

If a leader doesn’t embody the values of right vs. wrong and doesn’t lead with dignity even if they communicate well, then that game can’t go on forever.   

What’s the most important leadership lesson you ever learned from someone to whom you reported? 

My strongest leadership lesson came from observing things I didn’t like or respect. It was one of my first jobs, when I was in my twenties. I had one of the bossiest of bosses. Never a please or a thank you. My opinion was never considered. I was never given an opportunity to try my hand at much beyond the copier machine. 

Five or six years later, I founded my own business. Shortly thereafter, I realized we needed some entry-level staffers. I was determined not to have the kind of culture I had experienced when I was starting out. I worked with my senior team to provide the entry-level professionals with assignments and opportunities beyond the entry level, to let them sit in on client calls and attend idea generation and strategy meetings. In the three decades since, we’ve worked hard to foster a culture where curiosity and learning are encouraged. 

Over the years, clients have often told me they’re so impressed with our ability to spot and develop young people and their talent. I think that’s been one of my greatest leadership strengths. Some of our folks move on and ultimately became corporate clients. Others have made a career with us and are now at the senior level.

And this is all from the lessons I learned from that first job about how not to be a leader!

Ken Jacobs

Ken Jacobs is principal of Jacobs Consulting & Executive Coaching. Visit his website (www.jacobscomm.com) and contact him by email (ken@jacobscomm.com) or Twitter (@KensViews).

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