Leadership and Innovation: 3 Lessons Learned

As part of my leadership coursework at the University of Saint Thomas, I had to interview three leaders. One of the people I chose to interview was Lyndon Taylor, a Partner at one of the big-four executive recruiting firms Russell Reynolds. While the discussion was centered on personal leadership, themes of personal and professional innovation came to the forefront. I pulled three themes of innovation from our discussion: ambition, connections, and risk.

Ambition. 

The ultra-short version of Lyndon’s background is that he was a first generation collegiate, was a Navy diver and performed Explosive Ordinance Removal, worked on Wall Street, at Enron (when it wasn’t shady), and then went back to the investment banking world before moving into executive search. Throughout his professional career, Lyndon has had a passion to do work that provides more than financial remuneration; he had a propensity to pursue challenging goals with energy and persistence. It can be summed up with one question/response: “Can you describe your background and path to success?” Lyndon chuckled and remarked, “I’m still achieving.” 

Lyndon’s personal success can be attributed, in large part, to his tenacity and drive. When faced with the right opportunity that aligned with his strategic plans, he took it. Innovation requires the same persistence and dedication. You have to have to put in long hours to deliver a product to market and success cannot be attributed to luck (don’t believe me? Check out this Time magazine article). Breakthrough innovation requires a mindset that you can crush your competitors. If you believe that there’s a better way to do business, to make customers happy, and to improve your value proposition ambition can carry you across the finish line. 

Ambition is not what a man would do, but what a man does, for ambition without action is fantasy.
Bryant H. McGill

Connectedness.

A key realization in Lyndon’s career was that he was a ‘connector’. He referred to the book The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, specifically the chapter Connectors Mavens and Salesmen. I asked a friend who knows Lyndon personally and she indicated the qualities of his that stand out the most are not his intelligence or aspiration, but his graciousness and consideration for others. By nature, Lyndon ‘gets people’ and even though he loves analysis (e.g. “the why”), more importantly, he loves people. When asked about this, he indicated that while he was passionate about analyzing trends in banking, he eventually realized that it was the “movement of people” that was most interesting to him.

An interesting habit of Lyndon’s is that any time he meets someone and gets their business card, he writes a note on the back of it to remember the context of their discussion. He has kept a rolodex of cards sorted by company and name, and it was this proclivity towards ‘connectedness’ that allowed him to reconnect with David Morris a founding managing partner of Heidrick & Struggles (a major recruitment firm in Houston), whom Lyndon had met 4 years prior on a plane and whom helped him enter the world of executive recruiting. 

Want to create the next iPod? Good luck getting venture funding or moving your idea through a matrixed organization if you can’t navigate people. It’s not about being political (that doesn’t hurt), but rather it’s about knowing which connection can get you closer to your end goal. Connectedness means being able to work with people, but it also means using your analytical mindset to foresee seeing interrelations of events in everyday occurrences.

Connectedness plays a huge role in design thinking – you need to take time to recognize problems, opportunities, and gaps and have the empathy and rationality to fit the appropriate solutions to the context. Connectedness can help you realize a strategic vision in ways that isolation never will. When asked what the key was to his success, he responded with a question: “What’s the call you return?” Make the right connections between ideas and people and the phone will ring. 

Risk.

My final question for Lyndon was what advice he would give to an emerging leader. His response was quite telling of the way in which he has lived: “jump off the cliff and grow your wings as you fall (Bradbury).” If you want to achieve great things in life, you can’t be afraid to take a few risks. Status quo is easy and most people are comfortable with things staying the same. Don't accept conformity with the past if you envision something better. Change isn't easy for most people so the bigger the innovation, expect more naysayers and realize how close to the edge you are standing. Standing on a high cliff, you can see for miles, but on the highest cliffs expect an audience and know that  some detractors might even give you a little nudge. 

Once you determine what you are passionate about and what you believe in – follow it and success will follow. I’m not promoting uninformed risk, but rather pursuing disruptive change based on an awareness of current trends and opportunities. Use your connectedness to realize how things can be improved and if you believe in it - shape the future. Innovation leaders must have instincts, guts, and ability to shape the future they want their children to see.