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7 Tips for Building a Culture of Innovation and Accountability from Heads of HR

Posted by Lauren Kendall on December 7, 2017
HR executives are charged with building and supporting cultures of innovation in an increasingly fast-paced world.  Not only is innovation a nebulous concept, many HR executives explain that it is difficult to build the accountability that enables it to flourish.

On Tuesday, November 28th, this challenge was discussed in depth at The Bowdoin Group’s corporate headquarters in Waltham, MA in the second of a series of panels geared towards senior HR executives.  Hosted in partnership with Marsh & McLennan, the event, How to Build a Culture of Innovation and Accountability in the New Economy, featured a panel of HR leaders from local technology and life sciences companies.

Panelists were asked several questions about developing, implementing, and protecting the cultures of innovation that they have built.  Here are the key takeaways from the discussion:

  1. Understand that innovation requires investment – One company encourages employees to spend 20% of their time on a project that is personally interesting or that can help the company grow. The HR team quickly found that employees didn’t have the financial resources they needed to succeed, so they created an innovation fund and employees now pitch their ideas to receive funding.
  2. During times of change, be the continuity point – One panelist described the transition from VC to PE-backed as a turning point for the company, particularly in terms of culture. Innovation took a backseat to keeping the culture alive.  The panelist affectionately described food as being critically important to employees.  When food-based events and activities were called into question, she fought hard to keep them, knowing how central they were to company culture.  She said, “When you’ve worked hard to build something like culture, don’t give up on it.  That was HR’s primary role during the acquisition – advocate for the things that make this a place people want to work.”
  3. Understand what’s enabled your success to date – As organizations scale, it’s important to understand what has made them successful to protect against the complacency that prosperity brings with it. Companies need a different skillset during startup and growth phases—an organization’s growth stage determines whether it needs to focus innovative efforts on entrepreneurship or on process.  Determine the sweet spot for your organization at this point and encourage employees to focus efforts around growth or standardization.
  4. Maintain gender balance in the workforce – An important part of innovation is ensuring diversity of opinion. One panelist explained how their company is working hard to ensure gender equity.  The team recently repopulated the board which now represents 40% women.  Gender pay equity is 98%.  The company just revisited its maternity and paternity leave and now offers 16 weeks and two months of working part-time.  When the company hires new candidates, diversity is always part of the equation because if it’s not part of the criteria, it doesn’t become part of the search.
  5. Empower your leadership team – The entire leadership team (not just executive leadership) must be prepared to uphold and espouse company values. One panelist described her first few months as being a listening journey to enable her leadership team and the next layer down.  She conducted over 100 one-on-ones to understand who her strategic influencers were who would co-create culture and carry it forward.  She explains her priority as “making functional leaders enterprise participants.”
  6. Protect your culture against bad influencers – In light of recent media, panelists were asked how to deal with high-performing bad actors. All agreed that HR plays a unique role in ensuring that there is accountability for negative actions.  The “head in the sand” method simply does not work.  Issues need to be addressed head-on and early; bad actors will destroy the culture of an organization.
  7. Realize that “development is the new equity” – Russ Campanello of iRobot coined this phrase that rang true for all panelists and seemed to really resonate with attendees. It’s up to the HR team to ensure they don’t make assumptions about people’s development.  The process of learning about people’s career aspirations starts during the recruiting process to plant the seed that employee development is top of mind.  Offering employees the opportunity to do their job in another part of the world or shift people from one department to another has been a successful effort for one of the panelists.  Another panelist described that their company set a very visible goal of achieving greater than 15% of employees who would experience change in their role (either laterally or by adding interesting responsibilities to their job).  This effort has created more consciousness of development opportunities throughout the organization.

The expert panel addressed many different aspects of creating a culture of innovation, ranging from how to maintain gender balance to how to deal with bad influencers.  The discussion revealed that HR plays a critically important role in culture and accountability.  HR can help to encourage it, empower teams to live it, build systems that enable it to flourish, and protect it.

Special thanks to the following panelists: