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Trends in Corporate Innovation: What Corporate Innovators think Australian Leadership Needs

Every other month we meet with an invite-only group of executive level corporate and government innovators in a forum that has become known colloquially as ‘innovators anonymous’ a.k.a. Sydney Corporate Innovators. We explore the unique challenges and opportunities of corporate innovation with people evolving how large Australian organisations respond to changing customer demands. People who seek to move away from the ‘permafrost’ of traditional slow-moving, risk-averse bureaucratic corporate culture. The group includes Innovation Directors, CMOs, MDs and policy-makers who share ideas and lessons in an inspiring, open, future-focussed forum in Sydney CBD.

Here’s a short run-down of last week’s event which focussed on what the era of disruption demands of leadership and trends in corporate innovation and the leadership requirements.

What’s the issue?

The life expectancy of listed organisations has reduced dramatically in recent years, owing in large part to disruptive new companies and technologies. The right style of leadership is needed to navigate them through change. We asked questions such as:

  • What do leaders need to do differently in the era of disruption?
  • What are the key challenges leaders face in a highly disrupted market?
  • What are some examples (good and bad) of leadership in the current era of disruption?
  • Why is Australia considered 3-5 years behind North America in terms of both the level of sophistication in understanding disruptive change, and the urgency of new styles of leadership?

  “Corporate graveyards are littered with examples of companies that woke up to smell the coffee a little too late–Blockbuster, Blackberry, and Kodak, to name but a few. That’s rarely ever the fault of employees; the impetus to think disruptively must come from the top…some 40% of Fortune 500 companies in 2000 no longer existed by 2010. That rate of extinction hasn’t let up. Leaders have to be continuously ready to challenge everything that they’ve held dear.” ¹

The leadership qualities required to thrive

The over-arching wisdom in the room was that the following qualities are essential for leadership in an era of rapid change, increased competition and disruption:

  • A strong vision from leaders becomes increasingly important to drive alignment and purpose while allowing greater flexibility on the individual steps en route to the end goal
  • Openness to new ways of doing things, new ideas from anywhere inside and outside the organisation, and flexibility to change tact or ‘pivot’ when needed
  • Bigger picture thinking and less focus on execution
  • Performance-driven leadership above just compliance
  • Cognitive diversity in leadership positions, not just gender diversity.
We must crack through the leadership “PMS” issue

One recurring theme excellently summarised by one Sydney Corporate Innovator is the fact that most Australian ASX boards continue to be dominated by white males of a conservative mind-set and older generation – hence the phrase ‘pale, male and stale’ (PMS). They are known to each other, trusted not to rock the boat too much, won’t show each other up for not knowing some new-fangled technology, and will protect each other’s interests. As the saying goes, the fish rots from the head. Meaning that the tone set by leadership is the tone that dominates the organisation. In that case, what chance do middle managers have in driving innovation forward?

Further, the group discussed a current trend in Australian corporates of taking successful female leaders or ‘stars’ from large international organisations and transplanting them into ‘2IC’ roles as a way of sending a message to the market that the company is ‘pro-change’ and ‘pro-female leadership’. The challenge is that this trend has been to offer international stars a role that is just shy of the top job – both a giant leap and a small step from really letting go of the reins of power to a female change maker. Are Australian corporates too conservative and risk-averse to welcome in a new era of leadership?

It is clear that more diversity is needed within leadership to drive innovation, but this isn’t simply to say that more female leaders are needed. It is cognitive diversity that is essential – new thinking and different world views that can only come from people with different backgrounds, cultures and ages.

Effective innovative leadership must balance ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ leadership traits. Empathy, collaboration and nurturing relationships need to be balanced with the more traditional directive and decisive leadership styles to provide a level of clarity in ambiguity; allowing flexibility while keeping a clear vision in sight.

These are some of the discussions that unfolded at the latest Sydney Corporate Innovators network event. Tell us what you think. What do Australian corporate and government leaders need to do to thrive in an era of rapid change, increased competition and disruption?



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