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Do leaders walk the talk on innovation?

During our Psychology of Talent breakfast events in 2016, our HR audience discussed innovation. Many said that while their leaders talk the talk on innovation, few of them actually embrace it. Innovation was seen as something they should do and a key influence on their organisation’s future. But few really focused on innovative ways to prepare for that future.

Ignoring innovation is risky. In our 2017 Innovation Matters research 66% of those asked believe their organisations won’t survive without innovation. But just 24% are fully confident they have defined the skills and activities they need to be innovative. So what can organisations do?

We’ve worked with clients to help them define and identify the talent who create the right conditions for successful innovation. These are our main recommendations.

Identify the people who will pioneer innovation

Find the innovation leaders, at all levels, in your organisation. Look for behaviours that create energy around innovation: critical and conceptual thinking, originality and resourcefulness. And, most importantly, build collaboration to elicit ideas and action from and with others. Make use of talent assessment tools that draw out these characteristics and identify a talent pool that’s rich with these sorts of people. As our Psychology of Talent audience said, innovation can happen by allowing the re-purposing and re-positioning of ideas, so you need to identify who can do this.

Invest in an agile recruitment strategy

This strategy should not only tackle current capability gaps but consider future capability requirements too - including innovators. Sadly, organisations often fail to recruit ‘right-brain’ thinkers. They prefer the ‘cookie-cutter’ approach to recruitment, where the 'I recruit those most like me' culture prevails. This needs to go.  

Hone your ‘intrapreneurs’

You need to make sure you hang on to this rare breed if your organisation is lucky enough to have them. These individuals with an entrepreneurial spirit choose to use it within their organisation, rather than setting up on their own. Researchers Felicio et al (2012)1 found that intrapreneurship improved corporate performance. And Ray et al (2004)2postulate that successful companies maintain competitive advantage by allowing access to higher quality tools and scarce and unique resources, like intrapreneurs.

Make sure leaders encourage, inspire and reward innovation

Most organisations in our workshop agreed that leaders need to fully endorse and model ways of working that facilitate exploring new ideas and disruptive thinking. They also believe leaders should encourage people who challenge the status quo and seek out new opportunities.

Our research reached similar conclusions: that leaders are key levers for innovative behaviours. In this research, 50% of the organisations we spoke to told us they’re not confident they have the right leaders in place to nurture and drive innovation. They said leaders lack the passion and vision to encourage innovative behaviours within their teams. An HR specialist from a large City-based financial institution, who came along to our Psychology of Talent event commented on this. In their view while a lot of time and attention was spent on innovation, large parts of the organisation and many leaders weren’t ready and this had a detrimental impact.

Leaders need to actively reward innovative behaviours. That will make sure team members keep the momentum and look for opportunities to innovate. 38% of the organisations we spoke to stated that they’re able to hire innovative talent but struggle to keep them. Leaders need to align their working structures and reward processes with what today’s innovators want.

And you need to plan for the future

The HR specialists’ role is not just about creating the conditions to foster successful innovation – organisations also need to try and stay ahead of the game. Innovation inside and outside your organisation will affect the talent you’ll need further down the line. Our Workforce Futures Team are working with organisations to help them prepare for those shifts. For example we recently led an exciting programme with Atkins, a world-leading design, engineering and project management consultancy, to stimulate and focus thinking on their potential future challenges and turn the insight that emerged into practical actions for implementation now.


1. Felicio, J, A., Rodrigues, R., & Caldeirinha, V. R. (2012). The effect of intrapreneurship on corporate performance. Management Decision, Vol. 50 Iss: 10, 1717-1738.

2. Ray, G., Barney, J.B. and Muhanna, W.A. (2004). Capabilities, business processes, and competitive advantage: choosing the dependent variable in empirical tests of the resource-based view. Strategic Management Journal, Vol. 25 No. 1, 23-37.

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