Young leaders must not just throw up ideas, they must develop them
Young Executives feel that despite the bombast at town hall meetings, leaders do not demonstrate the emotional entanglement with innovation to drive innovation. They quote how a “great” suggestion did not get implemented or how due promotion or recognition did not follow in some case. They seem to expect their leader to behave like a hungry lion, which should “leap and grab meatballs of innovation” with alacrity. The leadership view, on the other hand, is that young folks must show innovation stamina. They must not just throw up ideas; they must develop the ideas in detail, subject their proposal to challenge and review, and, above all, must demonstrate a personal commitment to persist with the idea.
As a result most companies have a plethora of innovative ideas in the pipeline. The absence of innovation stamina relegates these ideas to PowerPoint presentations that are permanently awaiting execution. This creates a negative spiral in the organisation.
In the earlier InnoColumns there was emphasis on innovation culture: about organisational atmosphere and attitudes and the kind of visible leadership attributes that suggest emotional entanglement with innovation. Stories within an organisation often tell a lot about culture because they demonstrate the right-brained facet compared to the left-brained survey data.
Here is one such incident dating back 50 years, scooped out of the archives of a company which has existed for over a century and continues to flourish today.
In 1960, India was not seen as technologically savvy, the country could barely feed its population competently; innovation was rarely discussed among business people or economists. The top leaders of a large engineering company were in despair because they found that the equipment at a new and expensive plant exhibited, as the archival documents state, “several shortcomings – there was double
handling of materials, the operation of the plant was slow and time-consuming, and the plant could not deliver its rated output.” The production and engineering department were at loggerheads. The top management accorded high priority to solving the problem and the chief engineer was tasked to resolve this major crisis. Such a situation arises these days as well. Typically, the task force leader would nominate a crack team to solve the problem.
In this case, the records show that “one person who interested himself was a young assistant engineer in the project department.” Let us call him Mr YE, standing for young engineer. What does it mean to say he interested himself? Did he not wait to be nominated to the team? How could he be successful within such a traditional and hierarchical organisation? However, he did not seem bothered about having a mandate, reporting structure and resources. He moonlighted in his spare time.
Mr YE, as subsequently recorded by Mr CE (chief engineer), “gave considerable thought to the matter and evolved a proposal.” Almost, all on his own. The records show that the seniors in the operating and engineering departments were taken aback and were initially dismissive. Thanks to the support of Mr CE, as the archives reveal, “The various aspects of the proposal were thoroughly studied with all concerned, and it was finally decided to adopt it. The financial savings were computed and found to be significant.”
The internationally-reputed German company, Demag, was the equipment supplier. The German engineers reviewed the innovative solution at the highest level and endorsed the proposal. They forthwith undertook to manufacture the required new parts in Germany.
A whole year later, a memo was sent by Mr CE to the company’s top leadership recommending Mr YE for a modest reward, the nature of which “we leave to the senior management.” Mr YE was noted as an innovator, but not decorated with a new office, designation or big salary increase.
Mr YE carried on as an assistant engineer. Two years later, he sought study leave (without pay) to work at a German rolling mill company and to acquire a Diploma of Imperial College (DIC), London – now hold your breath, at his own expense. He must have been crazy to be quite so committed. Upon completion of his DIC, he was commended once again by Mr CE as “the first employee of our company to acquire such a high qualification. With his attainments, a lucrative position in the UK or Germany was within his reach… but he elected to return to his company in India to re-assume his modest position in ample testimony of his loyalty and sincerity.” Mr CE ended his letter with a suggestion that Mr YE be considered for a higher salary band, but still within the assistant engineer role. The suggestion was accepted.
Just to narrate the ending, in due course, Mr YE and Mr CE advanced significantly. Mr CE rose to be Director of Technical Services and Mr YE went on to be a Director of Tata Sons. Syamal Gupta (now 79) and K P Mahalingam (now 91) are YE and CE respectively, and the company is Tata Steel.
This may sound like a fairy tale, but it is not: any leader can emulate these within his or her unit or department. This is not a story about the individuals or the organisation. There are at least four lessons. First, that a company needs unstoppable youngsters as innovators; second, that these unstoppable innovators must not merely be prolific in idea generation, but must have the innovation stamina, or the follow-through skills of advocacy and persistence; third, that innovators should not seek instant gratification as a reward, as the Bhagavad Gita says; fourth and last, the leaders of a company must be so emotionally entangled with innovation and young people’s aspirations that they do the job for which they are really paid, which is to groom younger people.