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From Narrow to Innovative Leadership and Diverse Organisations

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By Chally Kacelnik

At LKS Quaero’s Meeting the Challenge of Amalgamation forum in Sydney in February this year, speaker Jeff Tate shared insights from his extensive experience as a local government expert and former CEO of two South Australian Councils. Listening to Jeff, I was interested in how he tackled gender imbalance in leadership roles when he was a CEO.

I caught up with Jeff after his talk and asked how he found a solution for something so pervasive and that affects people’s whole career paths.

The answer was really simple: you choose candidates based on their skills and capabilities, not a narrow range of previous job titles. You pick the person who’s best for the job, who is not always the person who has had the most normative career path.

This means that you get the right people in the right roles, with a range of life experience and ideas, and you get a more robust, more interesting organisation. In fact, you can apply this sort of thinking to many things in organisational life. If you critically examine your assumptions rather than retreating to the safety of what’s always been done before, you end up with the best possible organisation. This can’t be done by only looking at what’s already been done, but by considering all the possibilities.

So why do we make assumptions about people’s value that limit both people and organisations?

There’s a lot of buzz about how diversity fosters innovation. In 2013, the Harvard Business Review published How Diversity Can Drive Innovation, which reports on research that found diversity in leadership correlates with higher company performance. Diversity among the workforce wasn’t found to be enough: diverse leadership was needed for the ideas of employees from social minorities to be heard.

It’s one thing to say that everyone in an organisation is valued and it’s another to make sure it’s put into practice every day. Working to put the right people in the right places is part of that, but HBR suggests specific behaviours for unlocking innovation:

  • Creating an environment where everyone is heard
  • Creating a safe environment for proposing new ideas
  • Giving decision-making authority to team members
  • Sharing credit for success
  • Giving actionable feedback
  • Implementing team feedback

These behaviours – which need to be rigorously assessed and maintained – can lay the groundwork for making sure toxic assumptions about who and what are valuable don’t constrict how an organisation works.

“Assume nothing and gain everything” sounds trite, because it is. Assumptions have their uses and virtues – plus, it’s impossible to live assumption-free. Avoiding assumptions shouldn’t be the goal: the goal should be to learn to recognise those assumptions, set them aside when they’re not helpful, and step in when they’re having a negative effect.

How about this instead, then? If you critically examine assumptions about who people are – their histories, knowledge, capabilities, beliefs, weaknesses, and ambitions – you stand to gain a richer, fairer, and more ethical way of working.

At LKS Quaero, we help clients with effective organisational transformation and leadership and culture strategies. If you’d like to know more, visit us at lksquaero.com or follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter.

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