Innovative Service is Inspired by Bold Leaders

There is an old expression that goes: “Only dead fish swim with the current.” The truth is, smart fish swim in all directions, but the pull of the current does not influence their choice.

Innovative service is different from business as usual—it never follows the current of the latest fad, gimmick, or “me too” tactic. Innovative service is the kind of refreshing experience that is so remarkable it creates customer attraction and ensures customer advocacy. It is delivered by employees with leaders who model bold action as they encourage bold practices.

Encouraging boldness is more about removing obstacles and impediments than adding in anything different and new. Think of the idea of boldness already residing in us all. Some biologists would assert that gutsy is in our genes, domesticated by social stigmas and psychological doubts. The “remove rather than add” approach means innovative service leaders focus on eliminating whatever exists in the work world that fuels the opposite of boldness—i.e., timidity, hesitance, reserve, and the like.

Boldness Is Born of a Higher Purpose

Boldness is a choice based on a commitment to a future state. It is not reactionary like rebellion; it is deliberate action. Boldness is pro-action at its finest, a step toward the light. It is born of a noble reach beyond the mediocre of the moment and the ordinariness of the status quo. It requires awareness of a vision and a desire to move in the direction of that vision.

“Before you can inspire with emotion,” said Winston Churchill, “you must be swamped with it yourself. Before you can move their tears, your own must flow. To convince them, you must yourself believe.” Before you can stir ardor for a vision, you must first clear up your own. If you learned you had only six months to live, and you had to continue to work, how would you work? What legacy would you want to leave?

Boldness Happens When Employees Do Not Fear Error

Boldness would not be daring were the potential for error not sizeable. Without risk, there’s no innovation—the root word being “new.” But with risk comes the occasional honest mistake. It’s easier to gently rein in overzealous, go-the-extra-mile employees than to find ones with an enthusiastic attitude. Fostering boldness is a manifestation of trust. The greater the trust, the greater the freedom. But with freedom comes responsibility. The leader’s job is to coach employees to feel more and more comfortable with more and more responsibility.

Examine procedures. Employees may feel vulnerable due to past practices. Are employees clear on what is a “thou shalt not...” law versus what is an “it would be better if you didn’t...” guideline? Are metrics so restrictive that employees feel leaders are “pulling up plants to determine if they are growing?” Recall a time an employee made an honest mistake. Was forgiveness spoken or just implied? How many times do employees get praised for excellent efforts that failed to work?

Boldness Comes from Responsible Risk-Taking

Risk-taking is not a blank check to be foolhardy and reckless. Sensible risk-taking comes from knowing how to balance service with stewardship—creating a unique experience for the customer while ensuring a congruent fit for the organization. That is “owner-thinking.” If employees are to make front-line decisions like owners, they need the benefit of “owner-type information.” If employees are to focus on long term relationships with customers (and not be completely preoccupied with the transaction cost of each encounter), they need big picture direction and details about the balance sheet.

How do you cultivate responsible risk-taking? Examine your reward and recognition practices. Which is more valued: creativity or compliance? Being resourceful or being always right? Who gets praised or promoted—and for what? If you put too many fences around your employees, they can become pastures of sheep. And how many patents are assigned to sheep?”

Surround your unit with bold people. Invite known card-carrying mavericks to your meetings. Read biographies of pioneers who overcame personal limitations to achieve greatness. Visit organizations known for breakthrough, inventive thinking (R&D facilities, art studios, etc.). While the approach you use needs to be relevant to your organization, others can offer suggestions that can be beneficial.

“Whatever you can do, or dream, you can begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it,” wrote W. H. Murray. As the Latin proverb says: “Fortune favors the bold but abandons the timid.” Customers favor them as well.

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