What are the core elements of an effective culture that encourages and enables innovation, and how can leaders create such a culture? These two questions are at the heart of Quick and Nimble, a new book from New York Times feature writer Adam Bryant. Bryant replicates the process he used for his previous book on leadership, The Corner Office, by interviewing more than 200 CEOs, then gathering their insights into focused chapters on key topics.
In the first part of Quick and Nimble, Bryant outlines the basic elements identified by the CEOs he interviewed as essential to an effective innovation culture. A sample of these elements include
- A simple plan. Complex objectives and goals won’t be understood and will therefore fail to inspire and focus employees.
- Values.Behavior in the organization must be driven by clearly communicated values.
- Respect.Interactions between all leaders, managers and employees must be built on unwavering respect.
- Team focus. All members of the organization must be ready to do their part for the team.
- Frank feedback. Misunderstandings and disagreements are unavoidable, but they need to be resolved through honest and open “adult conversations.”
In the second part of the book, Bryant shifts to guidelines for leaders who want to build on the cultural foundation of their organizations and foster innovation. These guidelines include the importance of:
- Constant communication to keep employees focused on priorities.
- Training managers on key managerial skills, behaviors and habits.
- Offering learning opportunities to high-performing employees by moving them around the organization.
- Surfacing problems that might be hiding under the surface.
- Knocking down silos.
The Wisdom (and Wit) of CEOs
At the beginning of the book, Bryant writes that he structured each chapter “much like a dinner party conversation, with me as the host, guiding the conversation with a large group of CEOs.” The metaphor is apt, as the reader can imagine a circle of CEOs gathered around a dinner table, adding their insights and stories to the discussion at hand. The chapter on having values as the guiding “rules of the road” is a case in point.
Lars Björk, CEO of data software firm QlikTech, shares the values that drive his fast-growing company: challenge (the conventional); move fast; be open and straightforward; teamwork for results; and take responsibility. Robert LoCascio, CEO of software company LivePerson, recounts the challenge of changing a culture that had become hierarchical and bureaucratic. The major changes he introduced — beginning with asking leaders to move out of offices — did not go over easily: one-hundred twenty employees and three-quarters of the management left the company, either voluntarily or not.
To reinforce the values through stories (one of the most effective reinforcement techniques), City National Bank CEO Russell Goldsmith describes how he organizes a quarterly American Idol-inspired “Story Idol” for employees (Goldsmith, it should be said, is a former movie industry executive). Other CEOs share the clever expressions that summarize the culture, such as LinkedIn’s “next play,” which echoes the phrase Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski yells to his players at the end of any play, offensive or defensive. Like Krzyzewski, LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner doesn’t want his team celebrating what they’ve just accomplished or lamenting what they failed to do: Just move on to the “next play.”
For health care supply company Medline Industries CEO Andy Mills, a favorite expression is “kissing frogs.” Mills often tells employees that “they have to kiss a lot of frogs,” which means that they should not be afraid to take long shots that might not pan out. After, the frog might just be a prince.
Filled with the wisdom — and wit — of 200 successful practitioners and well organized into focused topics of discussion, Quick and Nimble is an insightful, comprehensive and entertaining overview of the role of culture in building an innovative company.