Innovation may be a bit of a buzzword these days. However, in an era with continually changing technology, research indicates it is a top priority for senior executives.

Many leaders may not feel confident in their ability to foster innovation. In researching my latest book, “Mean People Suck” I discovered something I call Champion Leadership: the leadership style that motivated employees, drives innovation, and delivers the business results leaders are craving. I also found several companies who got it right.

Employee happiness

The single biggest predictor of an employee’s satisfaction at work is their relationship with their immediate manager. My research found that the way managers can cultivate engaged employees is through Champion Leadership, a management style that encourages and supports creativity and innovation in employees.

In the digital era, innovation has become a hallmark of success, but it is tricky to manufacture. It’s one of the most sought-after workplace characteristics in today’s business climate, but continual innovation doesn’t come easily for most. Our brains need specific, optimal conditions for creativity to happen.

However, I acknowledge this is easier said than done. A Gallup poll found that only three out of every ten employees feel their opinions matter at work. These findings are indicative of a lack of  “psychological safety,” a worker’s perceived ability to speak their mind and give input.

To create a psychologically safe environment, I recommend managers follow the steps as prescribed by Home Depot’s VP and CMO Trish Mueller. She makes herself as available as possible to employees so they feel comfortable approaching her with any issues they may face. She does the following:

  • Keeps an “open door” policy
  • Spends time with lower-level employees
  • Constantly on the search for new innovations
  • Looks for inspiration from other teams

Mueller isn’t the only one who has cultivated an environment that practices champion leadership and encourages innovation. Here are several other companies that have experienced success as a result of champion leadership.

Xenium’s integrated employee experience

Based outside of Portland, Oregon, the professional employer organization Xenium wanted to take their employee experience to a new level. “We had a great culture,” Xenium’s president, Anne Donovan, explained. “Business was growing. However, we wanted to create an integrated talent experience.”

Called the “Xcite Xenium Integration Team,” their team facilitated surveys, brainstorm sessions, and events. All of it was done to determine how to create a better experience for current employees. It was imperative to leadership that they do this before rolling out new programs to clients.

The project was successful. Xenium took the insights they gained and used them to create the HR solutions and services it offers its customers. As a result, the organization has above a 90% retention rate which is much higher than the industry average.

At Xenium it’s all about people. (That’s even their tagline) Their mission: To create great employers. How cool is that?

Adopting new ideas at Cleveland Clinic

I believe most marketing sucks. It talks about how awesome companies are to audiences that are bored and uninterested. Ads don’t work and yet brands spend more on them year after year to feed their executives’ egos.

When Senior Director, Amanda Todorovich began her role at the Cleveland Clinic, the hospital’s leadership wanted to communicate their commitment to providing an excellent patient experience.

They created what was meant to be an internal video to encourage their 40,000+ employees to be more empathic when caring for patients. The premise of the video was,  “If you could stand in someone else’s shoes, would you treat them differently?”

The video depicted experiences we can all relate to: a nervous patient who is learning about treatment options, a patient who is on hour 3 of waiting in the ER, a woman who fears she waited too long to make an appointment, a girl visiting her dad for the last time (OK that’s where my eyes start to well up!). When Amanda saw the video that depicted experiences many of us have had, she knew it was too good to use internally.

So she published it across the hospital’s social media channels and blog. The video quickly went viral after it has circulated among health networks, and to date has nearly 5 million views on YouTube.

Amanda Todorovich’s video inspired the executive team to think about the hospital’s mission statement and to encourage more empathy as an organization. Their mission now states “to improve people’s lives, whether they could become a patient of ours or not.”

The updated hospital mission was reflected in the revamping of their blog. Now called Health Essentials, the article topics answer the questions we have all had when it comes to health.

Their strategy paid off. Since its launch in 2012, the Cleveland Clinic’s website is one of the most visited hospital blogs in the United States. And Amanda has said that the site more than covers costs in the form of advertising and content partnerships.

This story highlights the main premise of “Mean People Suck.” Empathy isn’t just a nice thing to have. It’s good for business!

Champion leaders empower employees

Home Depot, Xenium, and Cleveland Clinic embodied champion leadership and each organization is seeing success from it because the leaders of those organizations listen to their employees and supported the execution of their ideas.

Champion leadership creates a domino effect, with higher levels of job appreciation and opens the door for others to feel comfortable to express their ideas. This new level of contentment and freedom to be creative leads to innovation.

Employees might have great ideas that their managers would have never even considered. When employees are engaged, inspired, and motivated, the impact of their positivity and expertise is mind-blowing!