L. David Mounts | September 3, 2014

As summer comes to a close I have been reflecting on why I look forward to the season every year. One reason is that I enjoy spending time with the future leaders who join us each year for our intern experience. These bright minds are the future of our companies, governments and our communities. And, this millennial generation in particular is a force to be reckoned with. First, they are the largest generation ever; numbering more than 80 million, they are larger than the 76 million baby boom generation and approximately 60 percent larger than the Gen Xers who stand at just about 51 million. Technology has shaped their perspectives and wired their minds to perceive few limitations to their abilities individually or collectively. They will challenge us to take advantage of all that technology offers.

Those of us in leadership positions today certainly have witnessed and been shaped by technology — members of our generation developed the technology in many cases. However, the rate at which we encountered it was significantly different. Consider this for perspective. The telephone took 52 years to penetrate 50 percent of U.S. households; the mobile phone took just six years. Therefore, we have a linear bias that results in our believing change will happen slower than it actually will. That mindset is a competitive disadvantage.

As leaders, our role is to ensure that the minds in our companies are immersed in an environment that provides them freedom to innovate and collaborate. The power of our environment to foster — or stifle innovation must not be underestimated.

What specifically are some of the ways leaders determine the innovation that occurs within their organizations? Some go without saying — access to the right tools and technology and training. Others are less obvious:

  • Set the stage. Surroundings influence creative thinking. Functions cannot operate in vacuums. Place your people in open environments in which they interact with those from other functions. Involve your technical team in strategy. Structure opportunities for teams to interact outside their daily center of influence. Coffees with leadership, spending quantity and quality time with interns and emerging leaders, hosting community technology events, online CEO "Chats," etc., all provide settings for new thought.
  • Hire curiosity. Innovation requires more than intelligence. It requires a curiosity than can be cultivated, but is more likely when starting with people who are at their core "very curious."
  • Take down silos. I meet with every associate hired at our headquarters. We have about 900 people, but it is important to me that they know from the beginning that they can take their ideas to anyone in the organization. Yes, organization structure is important, but an individual's ability to influence should not be limited to his or her current role. In fact, I believe innovation most often comes from those outside a particular structure.

The time a leader devotes to these efforts will be rewarded. As challenging as it is to take a step back from the numbers and the competition and all that consumes our days and energy, none are any more important than tending to the environment we establish for minds to think creatively and to innovate at the rate technology makes possible.