Modern leadership styles and innovation: The boss doesn’t always know best!

Simon HillBlog

For many modern businesses, the concept of the boss is somewhat outdated. I am the ‘boss’ at Wazoku, in that I co-founded the company and that ultimately the buck stops with me. But that’s about the only similarity with the traditional role of boss.

At Wazoku we have a seven-strong executive and management team, which is collectively responsible for the major decisions the company makes. As the CEO, I don’t have a desk. I don’t have an office. I’m approachable. All these things help to create a culture that people buy into and such a flat structure is fundamentally important to what we are and what we are trying to achieve.

But not all businesses are run in this way and leadership comes in many different forms. Let’s explore the nature of modern leadership in business, look at how extending crowdsourcing beyond the executive teams impacts a business and how this all ties into building and fostering a culture of innovation.

The nature of modern leadership

While the days of autocratic leaders, unapproachable and with a ‘do as I say’ attitude are not exactly over, they are hopefully on the way out. Business has changed and continues to change, and what was acceptable decades ago is not necessarily still relevant in today’s business climate.

Of course, leaders still need to be inspirational and employees still need to know that someone has their back and that there is a safety net for them should they require one. But business has become infinitely more collaborative over the past decade or so. The old adage of ‘many heads are better than one’ has proved to be accurate and highly applicable to modern business.

Collaboration has a significant impact on productivity. This was highlighted in a recent study by the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) and Rob Cross, Edward A. Madden Professor of Global Business at Babson College, in the US. The research with more than 1,100 companies, many of which claimed to have open and collaborative cultures, found that organisations that promoted collaborative working were five times as likely to be high performing.

A good leader in modern business must facilitate this collaboration and create a fear-free culture in which employees are encouraged to work together, building on each other’s ideas and projects, and be rewarded for doing so.

Flat(ter) structure vs hierarchy structure

The more traditional leadership style, the hierarchy structure that places the boss at the top and has a number of different levels of power or authority, is how most organisations have approached leadership. Many successful companies have operated such a model, and continue to do so today, but it’s also not a model that fits particularly well with the more collaborative approach to business that is emerging.

Direction comes from the top, and while there will be an element of people responding to that direction with their own input, it’s not a structure that lends itself to discussion and collaboration.

The flat(ter) structure is increasingly gaining traction. I am using the (ter) as I don’t believe in a truly flat structure, but do think we have created too many layers and need to think about the operating org structure and hierarchy in a totally different way. Flattening the organisation and developing new operating models for more effective ways of working is an approach favoured by many start-ups, and although it is harder (change is an anathema) for bigger firms to follow suit, it is becoming more common for them to do so too. Flat structures allow for more cross-functional, collaborative approaches to working, with a project mentality underpinned by lean methodologies and an agile mindset. This enables faster decision-making and engages employees in the relevant processes early and meaningfully.

The executive team and enhancing innovation

Flat structures need to have an executive team that plays an important role in the day-to-day operations of a business. They provide the strategic direction, steer process and help to build the right culture to encourage innovation and collaboration. Extending innovation beyond that team is arguably how executives can make its greatest contribution and have a lasting impact.

A McKinsey report from 2017, Creating an Innovation Culture, spoke of the need for ‘innovation parenting’. This involves ensuring people are fully aware of, and have accountability for the ‘organisation’s objectives, key focus areas, core capabilities, and commitments to stakeholders’, and then giving them the freedom to get on with their job in support of this.

Encouraging collaboration and providing opportunities for people to interact and engage with others within the business that interest and excite them, is a pivotal way of enhancing innovation. It allows team members to build relationships across the organisational eco-system and gain a better understanding of how everything knits together.

A strong example of this is our work with British insurance firm, Aviva. As part of its Customer Cup, Aviva was able to engage more than 35,000 employees across 18 markets around the world in developing ideas to improve its customers’ experience – truly impactful innovation.

So, does the boss always know best?

The old model of the boss setting the agenda for the rest of the organisation is starting to look and feel very dated. Good ideas and innovation can come from anywhere and anyone within a business and creating the right environment to encourage this is an integral part of modern leadership.

If you are interested in learning more about how a flat structure works in practice at Wazoku, or to see how we might be able to help your business encourage innovation, please get in touch with us here.

Simon Hill, Founder and CEO, Wazoku
Simon Hill

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