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How Do I Hire Innovation Talent? What Are The Telltale Experiences, Skills And Signs Of Innovation Leaders?

Five Guidelines To Ensure Success In Hiring Your Next Innovation Leader

So you know you need to build a more innovative team — maybe you have just let someone go who just was incapable of change and thinking “outside the box,” or maybe you are lucky enough to have been granted additional headcount. Either way, the mandate is clear that you, your team, your company need to become more innovative. Great. Wonderful. So what do you do next? How can you separate the weeds from the chaff in the stack of résumés in front of you? How can you identify the “innovators” from the “innobluffers”? Here are five guidelines as you begin your recruiting process:

1) Ensure that the job description uses key terms that innovators will find attractive (and alienate the play-it-safe status quoers): Smart applicants will tailor their résumés to use your keywords, so this is no panacea. But if you carefully insert some of the more polarizing elements regarding working in an innovative environment, you may help potential applicants to self-select not to apply. Here are a few that have proven effective:

  • Comfortability with ambiguity — ability to operate with a relatively low level of direction
  • Storytelling — ability to translate complex trends and data into a compelling picture of the future and stand in front of leadership to sell it
  • Demonstrated “smart” risk-taking, courageousness and examples of failures
  • Resourcefulness and proactivity: ability to ascertain what needs to be done versus being told what to do

2) Hire learners, not knowers: “Learner versus knower” is a straightforward concept rooted in the work of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck and expanded upon by great leadership development companies like Axialent and Stagen. It suggests that successful innovation leaders are curious, courageous people who can put the “curse of knowledge” aside and open up to alternate points of view. You can get a gauge of this in an interview with a prospect. How curious are they? How much research did they do on your company, the employees, culture, you? Knowers tend to ask closed-ended questions and will generally lack curiosity. When asked about previous challenges, they will often look outside themselves for fault. Conversely, learners will tend to ask more open-ended questions, be truly curious, and take responsibility for setbacks by looking within first.

3) Hire creators, not victims: Another great framework for understanding mindsets correlated with innovation is that of the “victim” versus the “creator” as popularized by David Emerald in his great book “The Power of TED.” The victim mentality is easy to understand: individuals who lack the ability to take accountability for their own role in the events of their life. Listen for the language of blame and complaint. “There was nothing I could do” is the catch phrase of the victim. Prospects with the creator mindset take the opposite approach: viewing past challenges and failures philosophically, sharing their part in the outcomes and taking responsibility and, ultimately, focusing on what they learned.

4) Hire a balance of “(Ring)leaders” and “Idea Monkeys”: Some people are naturally wired to generate ideas, to think laterally and “diverge.” At their best, these are the people in the room who are never daunted, always seeking opportunity and believe there “must be a way.” At their worst, they are disruptive, change the topic constantly, and have trouble actually getting to action planning, and may even view it with disdain. On the opposite extreme are “(Ring)leaders”: individuals with a natural capacity to think ahead, plan, and think of the obstacles and milestones required to take an idea from concept to execution. At their best, they can forge a path to get things done and hold individuals who are responsible accountable to follow through on their tasks. At their worst, they can come across as “knowers” and naysayers, constantly judging any idea and seeking its flaws and why it can’t be done. In innovation work, it is essential to: A) have a balance of both mindsets, and B) ensure that both archetypes work together in a respectful way. Getting a team overbalanced in one direction or the other is a recipe for failure.

5) Ask behavioral interview questions to recruit for demonstrated innovation mindset and the associated experience. Here are eight mindsets and related experiences to seek out in your interviews. Good luck!

Mindset Experience
Customer focused — high empathy with customer segments Demonstrated ability and examples of solving for true customer needs
Strategic mindset — patterns thinker Demonstrated ability to see patterns and make connections between diverse sets of data
Creative — thinks outside the box Demonstrated ability to generate new ideas
Comfortable with ambiguity Demonstrated ability to operate with a relatively low level of direction (low “role clarity”)
Storyteller — narrative maker Demonstrated ability to translate complex trends and data into a compelling picture of the future
(Smart) risk-taker Examples of courageous risk-taking and examples of failures
Analytical and insightful with research/data Demonstrated ability to work with consumer research
People and leadership focused Demonstrated ability to enroll, form, lead and inspire cross-functional teams

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