Executive Insights | August 2010 | By Robin Van Tan

Creativity Required

Creativity is usually the trait that gets an executive his position, but making it a priority on the job is what keeps him there.

It turns out the No. 1 trait for chief-exec success in the next five years won’t be dedication, influence, or integrity. According to a recent study by IBM, which consisted of more than 1,500 one-on-one interviews with CEOs worldwide, creativity will be the most important leadership quality in the coming years.

“Creativity is what allows CEOs to really understand what their customer’s lifestyle is and how they want the concept to be a part of that lifestyle,” says Kevin Higar, director of research and consulting services for Technomic Inc.

Creativity is the very trait that helped most top executives get their positions, since it’s so essential to problem solving. But David Magellan Horth, coauthor of The Leader’s Edge: Six Creative Competencies for Navigating Complex Challenges and chairman of the Creative Education Foundation’s board of trustees, says that CEOs often abandon the trait once they’re on the job.

“In the economic downturn that we’ve been experiencing, the thing that’s going to determine a company’s survival is the ability to be able to take prudent risks and come up with creative products and solutions that differentiate your concept,” Horth says.

The good news: Any CEO can inject more creativity into his or her concepts to boost everything from the bottom line to employee morale. 

 “A creative CEO looks just like anybody else,” Horth says. “The only difference is they make creativity a priority.”

Inspire Yourself

When Horth works with CEOs, he likes to ask them what they do outside the workplace. He has yet to find one without some sort of hobby, whether it’s gardening or sculpting. Pursuing those interests that are unrelated to the job is essential to staying creative within it, Horth says.

“Think about what things you can do that energize you and what places you can go to that allow you to be more reflective and not in the intensity of your everyday work,” he says.

Take, for example, one executive with whom Horth worked, who would get away from the office at lunchtime as often as possible to go for a jog.

“She came back energized and often with new ideas about how she might approach the challenges she was facing,” Horth says. “While she was jogging, she was putting things in the back of her mind. It was like an incubator.”

Bringing those outside interests into the workplace is just as important. Horth suggests telling personal stories when they’re relevant in meetings and thinking about how you can use your hobby as a metaphor to explain new concepts or directions.

“When other people see your creative processes, it gives them the freedom to be their creative selves,” he says.

Let Employees Inspire You

In Horth’s experience, when an employee comes to a company head with an idea, an alarming number of them ask themselves, “Why can’t people just do what we hire them to do?” instead of, “How can I use this idea to improve the concept?” This, Horth says, is a mistake.

“The vast majority of ideas are probably sparked by someone at a unit level,” Technomic’s Higar says. Employees are the ones who interact with customers daily and have the most opportunities to see how to better serve them. “The most creative CEOs are making sure those lines of communication are open with the individuals below them.”

It doesn’t matter what kind of system is used to solicit input from people at different levels of the concept—just that there is one. 

The CEOs who utilize creativity the most effectively also are open to ideas that are expressed outside of any instituted process for making suggestions.

Creativity is what allows CEOs to really understand what their customer’s lifestyle is and how they want the concept to be a part of that lifestyle.”

“Innovation tends not to come in convenient ways or times,” Horth says. “It doesn’t have a calendar that says, ‘It’s time now; let’s start innovating.’”

By taking the time and effort to recognize creativity and adjust strategy—even when it’s inconvenient—a myriad of missed opportunities can be prevented.

Let Customers Inspire You

“I really do believe that creativity is just another way of saying that you’re maintaining relevance with the consumer,” says Timothy Casey, CEO of Mrs. Fields’ Original Cookies Inc., which encompasses both the Mrs. Fields’ Cookies and TCBY brands.

At the time of Casey’s interview, he had just returned from TCBY’s first self-serve store in North Carolina, where he spent two days asking customers what about the new unit design resonated with them. Their answers helped him alter plans for the two new self-serve stores that were scheduled to open in the company’s home base of Salt Lake City over the summer.

“Some people call it consumer-centric,” he says. “I think it’s just paying attention to them.”

Listening to customers can also help an executive evaluate whether an innovation is worthwhile.

“Sometimes something that seems like a great idea will actually just put a snag in how you’re operating,” Higar says. “If new initiatives are put in place and you’re seeing an increase in the number of consumer complaints, that’s a sign that you should re-evaluate it.”

As important as consumer feedback is, Higar says CEOs shouldn’t rely solely on customers to let them know what the consumer experience is.

“You’ve got to get out and go see things from the customer perspective for yourself,” he says—even if that means traveling to a market where employees won’t recognize you as the CEO.

“Get the true consumer experience,” Higar says. “From the time you drive up to the time you leave, there are all these touch points where the concept and the customer interact. Every one of those is a chance to be creative.”

He points to a Tennessee concept that assumes drive-thru customers will round up to the nearest dollar when paying for their order and prepares change accordingly before they get to the pick-up window. The move makes service faster and more accurate for the majority of guests, who do in fact choose to round up to the next dollar.

“Something as simple as having that change ready streamlines the entire process and really makes a difference in the customer experience,” Higar says. “And that’s what it’s about—coming up with better ways to make their lives easier.”