Thought Leadership

6 Ways to Encourage Innovative Thinking and Drive Organizational Success

Brad MacAfee will be presenting a professional development session on “Innovation in Leadership” on Monday, Oct. 9 at PRSA’s 2017 International Conference in Boston.

The year was 1992. I had just landed my first agency job in my chosen field of communications and I couldn’t wait to begin advising colleagues and clients to make a real impact. But as you can guess, despite my wide-eyed enthusiasm and countless ideas, my thoughts weren’t fully received in the ways I had hoped. There were challenges: limited client visibility and minimal access to leadership.

As a recent college grad, I soon discovered that tenure on the job was valued more than disruptive thinking. I had to pay my dues before I could express my opinions. I was expected to support implementation instead of originating ideas.

This era in the workplace was just before Harvard Business Review popularized the “service-profit chain,” a concept that recognizes causal relationships between employee satisfaction, customer loyalty, and business profitability and growth. The service-profit chain model would go on to inform my ideal of how organizations should operate to achieve success on every level.

Now, as CEO of Porter Novelli, those early days in communications continue to inform me. Today, I oversee a worldwide network of communications experts. I have the great honor of working closely with extraordinary business leaders every day. And what I’ve come to realize is that it’s not my job to come up with all of the great ideas. Rather, one of the best ways I can lead is by fostering an environment where great ideas can happen anywhere and can come from anyone.

Here are six principles I embrace to encourage innovative thinking and drive organizational success:

1. Embrace the service-profit chain.

I encourage leaders to learn more about the service-profit chain. As the creators of the service-profit chain note: “Leaders who understand the service-profit chain develop and maintain a corporate culture centered on service to customers and fellow employees. They display a willingness and ability to listen.”

When leaders nurture their teams by investing time recognizing and developing staff members, our people respond in kind with greater levels of engagement. Together, we create a culture that inspires and retains top talent, builds long-lasting client relationships and achieves strong financial results.

2. Commit to growing your people.

As more companies pursue a culture and learning environment that inspires personal and professional growth, there is an increase in educational and training benefits, and emphasis on the pursuit of personal goals. Instead of discouraging off-the-clock passion projects, innovative leaders encourage their employees to explore creative endeavors that add dimension and richness to their lives. Whether it’s organizing a rally, aiding natural disaster recovery efforts, training for a marathon, or participating in the arts, when individuals’ broader interests are recognized, we find that staff members are more satisfied and engaged overall.

3. Drive diversity throughout the organization.

At Porter Novelli, we view diversity as both a moral imperative and a business imperative. Recognizing that organizations perform better on nearly every measure when they embrace diversity, we seek to integrate diversity and inclusion into all that we do — hiring and retention, culture, development, services and more.

I encourage leaders to think about diversity and inclusion as more than HR programs and begin integrating diverse teams and diverse thinking into every level and aspect of the organization to drive innovation and create the best campaigns and programs for clients.

4. Foster a culture of risk-taking.

It takes courage to ask, “What if” when coming up with new business lines or solutions to client challenges. Leaders who foster curiosity, and encourage failure as a way to learn and refine skills, develop teams with the confidence to go outside their job duties to propose new ideas. A leader committed to staff development encourages people to challenge their limits and comfort zones.

Since all skills, crafts and abilities atrophy without exercise, it’s essential for people to maintain a high level of engagement in their work. Risks should be seen as opportunities to build skills that will inform and improve existing abilities.

5. Pursue victory.

Everyone loves winning. Instilling a desire to excel and be your best means striving for more — more challenges and improving on existing strengths. It’s important to define what winning looks like for your organization with clear methods for tracking success.

Porter Novelli is not the largest global agency in terms of financial or employee size. Our goal is not to be the biggest. It is to become the most passionately recommended agency in the world. We track this through employee surveys, best-place-to-work awards, client surveys and industry accolades. Sure, winning is important from a financial perspective, but, perhaps more important, it gives agencies the opportunity to work with new brands and on new campaigns. It creates opportunities to hire new staff, which simultaneously helps a culture flourish with more diverse thinking and experience.

6. Do well by doing good.

Finally, the Porter Novelli cultural heritage embraces Jack Porter and Bill Novelli’s original intention for creating an agency around the notion that we can “do well by doing good.” I love that our focus on driving purposeful action through engagement and influence helps organizations make an impact. The work we do leaves a mark on society through campaigns focused on obesity, human rights, consumer rights, chronic diseases, hunger, diversity and civil rights. We help organizations bring innovations to the market, which help create a new and better world. We fundamentally believe this enriches the career experience for our team members.

Driving innovation and motivating teams to make an impact is the first step to cultivating proud company ambassadors. By listening, mentoring and engaging with the people who deliver our brand experience, we teach them to take the same care with clients as we do with them. I encourage leaders at all levels to remember what it was like to be bursting with ideas and eager to make an impact. We serve our organizations well when we create environments that allow innovate thinkers to contribute and thrive.

Brad MacAfee is CEO and senior partner at Porter Novelli.

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Brad MacAfee

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