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Four Leadership Roles that Foster Innovation

Posted on August 8th, 2016 by in Chemical R&D


In my 35+ years of experience leading R&D organizations and ventures, I have witnessed many different leadership roles that help foster innovation.  I’ll discuss four –  the Entrepreneur, the Project leader, the Growth Business Leader, and the Functional Leader.

The Entrepreneur

This leader usually comes from R&D or Marketing. They’re highly creative, energetic and think outside the box. Within an organization, they’re champions of a new idea, concept or solution that’s believed to have high impact to grow the top line. They’re not afraid of taking calculated risks and possess tremendous drive.  They pride themselves on their idea, concept or solution and want to bring it to market as soon as possible.

In most cases, the Entrepreneur possess a strong ego. However, because of their energy and dynamic style, they’re capable of winning over a corporate sponsor who is willing to fund the early stages of their initiative. Most Entrepreneur leaders recognize that winning the hearts and minds of their people and their sponsors is critical to keep the funding coming, so early demonstrations of technology / market feasibility occur on a regular basis.

Working for an entrepreneurial style leader in the beginning feels great when things are going well. However, when stress occurs, sometimes this leader can become somewhat autocratic. Meaning – “do what I tell you to do”. This leadership style is excellent to foster innovation in a corporation. But as a result of their passionate optimism about technology or market readiness, they sometimes set unrealistic expectations about commercialization, which ultimately leads to a loss in credibility with the C-suite. Rather than recognize the value of these leaders, in the early stages of innovation we tend to discredit them when they don’t deliver.

I have witnessed too many of these entrepreneurial leaders get frustrated and leave the company. On the other hand, we sometimes staff the initiative so large, that the Entrepreneur doesn’t possess the skill set to manage the increased organization and management process demands.  Rather than shifting to a project leader, we hold onto the Entrepreneur too long. This makes the leadership change difficult.

The Project Leader

Usually after the early stages of development of an innovation, its best to assign a Project Leader. This style of leadership is more pragmatic and is represented by those individuals who have commercialized products or market innovations in their career.  Through their experiences, they know the challenges in developing and commercializing an innovation. They recognize that risks can be managed, but that project expectations must be realistic with their sponsors and team.

Usually a good Project Leader knows how to set aggressive milestones to motivate the team, but understands the reality of what it takes to get things done. This style of leadership surrounds themselves with A-players and relies on diversity of thought to make critical decisions. Project Leaders value process, planning, and recognition and use they tools to move the initiative forward.

Many corporations don’t have a deep bench of these leaders, which means they assign the wrong type or inexperienced individuals to lead the innovation initiative. The Project Leader is a critical asset and key competency for innovation, and needs to be valued and continuously developed. Excellent Project Leaders usually advance to higher level business or functional leadership positions.

The Growth Business Leader

This leader will have P&L responsibilities for a business unit, but has a particular mandate to grow the business. This role can have many different leadership styles, but knows to meet the corporation’s objectives they must build the business using innovation to grow the top line.

Depending on the five year objectives and the tolerance of risk, many of these leaders will look for balance in the innovation portfolio and spread their investment over short and long term initiatives. Growth Business Leaders may sponsor long term organic growth initiatives, but will also look at partnerships and acquisitions as an alternative to growth.

Growth Business Leaders who actively participate in the innovation process usually value innovators and the importance of having a strong portfolio. However, investment must be balanced with the other fixed costs in a business. So, they understand the importance of maintaining the business in an efficient way that provides budget for R&D and marketing. Growth Business Leaders are critical to a corporation, since they manage the organizations that provide the earnings and growth to meet the corporate objectives.

The Growth Business Leaders that are excellent at their roles usually aspire to be C-suite, or are recruited for external C-suite positions. In my experience, these leaders are usually visionary, democratic – but can be commanding when needed. They’re also great communicators and keep in touch with their customers, organization and other stakeholders. These leaders know how to stimulate the organization and are not afraid to engage with people in the organization.

The Functional Leader

Whether R&D, Marketing or Business Development, the Functional Leader plays an important role within an organization for fostering innovation. In many cases, when a new idea or concept needs nurturing, look to your Functional Leader to provide some early seed money, or give the innovator headroom to do more technical or market research. Great Functional Leaders value innovation for growth, and find it important to develop the innovation competency within their organization by exposing innovators to customers and other external venues such as industry conferences. They understand the meaning of functional excellence.

Functional Leaders can provide cover when budgets get tight and know when it’s appropriate to formalize a project. They value people, process and use reward and recognition to motivate the organization. Good Functional Leaders communicate the Innovation and Business strategies to make the organization aware of the challenges for growth. They encourage peer collaboration and open innovation.

Functional Leaders that are visionary and democratic tend to foster innovation, while those that are autocratic and hierarchical tend to hinder innovation. Excellent Functional Leaders can aspire to higher level functional or business leader positions.

Certainly, there are other critical leadership roles at the C-suite that foster innovation, but I will save that for another discussion.


All opinions shared in this post are the author’s own.

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