Leading for innovation: How can trustees encourage innovation?

Katherine William-Powlett shares her thoughts on innovation and on leadership in the voluntary sector. Katherine no longer works for NCVO but her posts have been archived on this site for reference.

In my view there is only one thing trustees need to do well to encourage innovation: offer informed challenge to the executive. What do I mean by this? How does it help? How do you do it?

A leader can influence how innovative their organisation is. In a well run charity, CEOs lead in partnership with their board. So what role trustees play in leading innovation? My research shows that boards with a positive influence on innovation have the following characteristics:

  • They are wedded to a clear, ambitious, well-articulated vision;
  • They have a strong trusting relationship with the CEO;
  • They are manifestly open to ideas. For example they are non-hierarchical and listen to ideas from across the organisation; they time set aside in meetings to explore ideas;
  • They understand their role:they are involved enough to know what is going on but not so involved that they become meddlesome;
  • They scan the external environment bringing in ideas from other sectors and areas;
  • They are good at listening and debating respectfully.

The reason all these are important is that they all support the board’s ability to offer informed challenge to the executive:

  • By having a clear vision they can challenge the CEO to go further and try new things to meet it;
  • By having a trusting relationship with the CEO, challenge is not seen as a threat but as a support;
  • By being open to ideas they have things to challenge;
  • By being involved enough without interfering they know what they are talking about and gain the trust and respect of the executive;
  • By scanning the external environment they are able to inject new ideas and ambition into the organisation.

It is this informed challenge that allows them to help develop ideas and understand if they are right for the organisation. It is only possible in an atmosphere of trust and respectful debate. Done well, a good idea brought by a CEO can become a brilliant idea, and a poor idea that a CEO is misguidedly enthusiastic about can be steered into the bin or turned into something better.
But challenge has another vital function in innovation-for innovative ideas to get off the ground, those implementing them need to feel free to act within clear boundaries and unafraid of taking risks. When a board has challenged and debated a new idea well, they can feel confident that they are taking a considered risk for the right reasons. They can then step back to allow new ideas to be implemented with freedom. After all, you cannot discover new oceans unless you have the courage to lose sight of the shore. Knowing that ideas have been scrutinised gives you that courage.

What about stifling innovation? See my related blog:Six ways trustees stifle innovation

Time to re-think your leadership? Why not co me on the NCVO Leadership Development Programme sponsored by Barclays

This blog is based on the result of my research project for my Masters in Innovation Creativity and Leadership at City University. I am now a guest blogger for NCVO having moved on: click here for more info

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