Finding and Retaining Innovators: First, Heal Thyself

Posted by Colin Kingsbury

Oct 16, 2006 12:11:00 PM

Over on ERE John Sullivan has a piece talking about ways to find and hire more innovators at your company. This is a topic of personal interest since I have in the past been accused of being an innovator, and I think Dr. Sullivan vastly understates the challenge for companies seeking to improve in this regard.

It's about retention--and not much else
Every great new company out there was started by people who used to work for somebody else. While people in accounting sometimes quit and start clothing stores, the more common path is for people to go into business in the same industry, often becoming a direct competitor to their alma mater. 

To be blunt, if your company lacks its own innovators now, the problem is not necessarily one that recruiting can or even should try to solve. While a conservative company in a "dull" industry may not be the natural home for a Steve Jobs-type thinker, creative thinking is found in many people and chances are good that in the past year your culture and bureaucracy have hounded many of those people out the door. Exit interviews will turn lots of rocks over if done properly.

Now, if your way of doing things was backwards enough to chase out such mild-mannered and conservative people, how long do you think a really, truly outside-the-box person will last? And if that person bolts after 3, 6, even 12 months, who will eat the blame? I definitely wouldn't want to be the recruiter who convinced the department head to pay 50% over their average to bring in a really special person only to have them leave in six months.

My advice as someone who has been accused of being an innovator in the past is that companies need to do more to identify and support people who are already inside the machine. There is a great role for HR to play in identifying and helping these people but unfortunately, HR is just as often one of the vital organs of the bureaucracy that drives innovators out of the company in the first place.

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