When asked to describe the personality of a scientist, some might revert to the Sheldon Cooper stereotype made popular on “The Big Bang Theory” and describe an anti-social, uncreative, analytical and somewhat dull personality.
But Lina Echeverria knows better. As an engineer and scientist with a PhD in geology and more than 30 years of experience as a scientist and a senior manager at Corning, she knows that scientists aren’t dull or uncreative. She knows scientists like to jitterbug. And cook. And collect butterflies.
It’s those more creative attributes of scientists and other workers, she says, that help drive innovation in an organization – and too many companies and leaders are ignoring them to the detriment of the bottom line.
When Echeverria was at Corning, she was known for constantly asking team members how they felt about things, whether it was a project or hobbies in their life. Such conversations often led her to a better understanding of how to help her team members stretch and grow. She learned that technicians – who loved to cook gourmet meals – don’t always have to be assigned to technical roles, and can fit better into a human-relations role.
“Your hobbies let you be unrestrained,” she says. “That’s the same flow of energy you need at work to be innovative. A manager’s job is to discover what you have to offer and then let you unleash it.”
She says she encourages team members “to bring their whole selves to work. If you leave your creativity at the door, you’re leaving a lot of richness behind.”
In many cases, it’s leaders who are the real roadblocks to innovation, she says. Leaders are often Type A personalities, with a need to control processes and the people who work for them.
“Leaders also think they can help workers develop ideas,” she says. “But what workers need is freedom and an environment that lets them know they’re not being pressured. They’ve got plenty of their own ideas. They don’t need help from managers.”
Echeverria, who oversaw projects for several breakthrough technologies for Corning, advises leaders to instead embrace the idea that their position is not about power, but about “serving others to be the best of themselves.” That’s also the best way, she says, for managers to maintain their “inner peace” as they keep detractors at bay while encouraging their team to innovate.
“This whole idea of letting employees have the freedom to innovate can be very tough for managers because they’re going to be bombarded by all sorts of people saying it will never work,” she says. “You really have to stick to your guns.”
Echeverria is author of “Idea Agent: Leadership that Liberates Creativity and Accelerates Innovation,” a sort of roadmap to help managers be more effective in helping employees develop more innovative ideas. Among her suggestions:
The leadership role that Echeverria defines in her book might be best described as a conglomeration of coach, mother, rabbi and guard dog. She laughs at the idea, but says it’s often true. If leaders want to unleash the innovation on their team, they’ve got to be ready reach deep and do things differently than they may have done before – or been trained to do by the organization.
“Leadership isn’t about power,” she says. “It’s about serving others to be the best of themselves.”
What do you think it takes to unleash great ideas?