Leading Leaders for Strategic Innovation

By Vincent Chan | Content Writer | Strategic Innovation, Leadership
Change is happening at a rate never seen before. To keep up, business as usual just won’t cut it. Instead, the ability to understand how to drive strategic innovation is crucial – not merely to survive, but to truly drive breakthrough performance.

To deal with these unprecedented challenges, conventional hard and soft skills may not be enough; rather, great leaders require a dynamic combination of what at Asia School of Business (ASB), we call Smart and Sharp skills – the former, to lead, motivate and direct people more effectively, the latter to understand, leverage on and deploy technology, data, processes and resources.

Or, as Professor Loredana Padurean, Associate Dean & Faculty Direction for Action Learning at ASB and International Faculty Fellow at MIT puts it, “Humans are complex algorithms”, thus the need for smart skills to “augment our humanity.” Similarly, business approaches need to be constantly optimized using science-based management, data analytics and analytical reasoning. As Prof Loredana adds, “We cannot say that once we have learnt these skills, we’re done. They need to be ‘sharpened’ at all times!”

These Smart and Sharp skills form the basis of essential leadership strategies that, when combined with the right leadership mindset, can help organizations unleash their potential. In this article, we take a broad view of five of these strategies, which are explored in more depth and detail in the flagship Leading Leaders for Strategic Innovation Programme from ASB.


1. Turning Political Risk into Opportunities

Politics is part and parcel of a business’ operations. Within the context of the current pandemic, for instance, considerations such as “Is your line of business classified as an essential service that would be able to operate during a lockdown?” or “Will you need to restructure your supply chain in order to deal with government restrictions to imports, or to escape newly-impose tariffs?” become crucial.

“To just comply with the laws of the country you’re are headquartered in is not enough when the world is your marketplace,” says Professor Renato Lima de Oliveira, Assistant Professor of Business and Society at ASB and Research Affiliate at MIT, whose primary focus is on state-business relations, specifically where industrial competition, innovation policies and energy transition are concerned.

Having spent a better part of his life studying political economy and non-market strategies in international business, Prof Renato has a deep understanding of the complexities and dynamics of international business and political risk. With business becoming increasingly borderless and therefore more integrated than ever before, modern day leaders need a strong grasp of these political issues to ensure they’re adequately prepared for any eventuality.

Prof Renato believes that with the right insights informing the appropriate strategy, politics becomes not just a source of risk, “but also of opportunity. If you can identity these opportunities, they become a source of competitive advantage”.


2. Mastering Supply Chain Design by Understanding Clockspeed

In today’s increasingly complex global environment, businesses that are able to evolve and defend their competitive advantage are those that, according to Prof. Charles Fine, President and Dean of ASB, can “master the art of supply chain design while continuously building capability chains.”

To do this requires an understanding of a concept that Prof Fine pioneered in his ground-breaking book Clockspeed: Winning Industry Control in the Age of Temporary Advantage, defined as “the evolutionary life cycle of an industry that is measured by the rate at which it introduces new products, processes and organizational structures.” He surmises that “the ultimate core competency is mastering the art of supply chain design, carefully choosing which components and capabilities to keep in-house, and which to purchase from outside.”

Prof Fine drew on over a decade’s worth of research at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and took inspiration from the world of biology to develop the concept of clockspeed. The concept of clockspeed is inspired by the evolutionary path of animals – and how some, like the fruit fly, evolve faster than other. This is why the fruit fly is studied by geneticists to gain insight into the evolutionary path of other animals. In his work, Prof Fine identifies the “industrial fruit flies” of today, such as the Internet of things, smartphones and streaming entertainment, which are evolving through each new generation at rapid speeds.

What all industries can learn from these “fast clockspeed” industries is that “All competitive advantage is temporary”, he stressed. Instead of relying on competitive advantage, it is a firm knowledge of what Prof Fine calls “the new laws of value chain dynamics” that will allow leaders to keep up with the competition and become industry leaders.


3. Nail, Scale, Sail – or Fail

Just as the evolution of a company’s industry is crucial, the evolutionary journey of the individual firm is also crucial when thinking about how to best structure and run an organization depending on its stage of growth.

To that end, Prof Loredana has developed a unique new framework revolving around Nailing, Scaling and Sailing, a framework that is “shorthand for different stages of the organization’s life cycle.” The framework helps business leaders to “understand the complex journey that successful companies go through – from a start-up, to scale-up to a sail-up” while focusing on practical operational strategies and tools.

She uses the “Jungle, Mountain, Ocean” metaphor to better describe these different stages and the important elements within each. Nailing is akin to “hacking through a very dense jungle with nothing but a machete”; then there’s Scaling the “mountain” where the path is clearer and the peak is more tangible. Finally, Sailing, which usually happens much later, is when a company has somewhat achieved part of its goals, but may still need to “navigate the stormy seas of competitive, technological and environmental challenges.” After all, even the largest, most advanced “ship” can somehow find itself in a never-before situation, such as what recently happened in the Suez Canal.


4. Authentic Leadership, Driven by Clarity of Values and Purpose

In the article “Emerging Leadership During Times of Crisis and Change”, Muhammad Sabri, Senior Lecturer with the Iclif Executive Education Center at ASB, mentions that, “A leader’s integrity and deeply held principles serve as an anchor for decision-making in unpredictable times.” True leadership is built on a leader’s values, and the ability to act on those values to create positive change. This is why he believes that “leadership starts with leading oneself.” He finds that most leadership definitions “tend to focus overly on what we do for and to others”, when the focus should be on the motivations of the leaders themselves.

This is particularly evident when it comes to the current pandemic era, where effective leadership is seen to be built on authenticity rather than authority. As Muhammad Sabri puts it, “Leaders today cannot afford to just focus on strategy and KPIs; they need to reach out and touch someone. Being able to talk honestly and openly, even if it’s through Zoom, is crucial. Leaders have the opportunity, more than ever before, to lead through authenticity.” This springs from the belief that humanity is at the heart of leadership – and that people want to be led by those they believe understand what they’re going through.


5. Harnessing the Power of Leadership Energy

“Leadership is the art of harnessing human energy to create a better future,” says Dr. Thun Thamrongnawasawat, Professor of Practice at ASB and International Faculty Fellow at MIT, who specializes in the neuroscience of leadership and holds an ExMSc in neuroleadership. He believes that there is merit in looking at leadership through the lens of energy science in order to “guide leaders to navigate their flow of energy to create the most useful output and sustain its longevity.”

This is the idea behind what he calls The Leadership Energy Journey, which uses the laws of energy and overlays them onto the art of leadership to form a series of “mileposts” that leaders need to navigate in order to tap into their limitless source of leadership energy.

From waking up the brain from its fundamental energy conservation mode, to creating a difference of states and working to cross the activation barrier, to understanding that “energy is value-neutral” and must therefore be actively channelled towards usefulness, each stage moves an individual towards the inevitable revelation that “the Leadership Energy Journey is not linear, but a continuous loop.” Figuring out how to sustain one’s leadership energy by recognizing this and developing the ability to ride the flow, is what enables leaders to stay resilient in the face of overwhelming odds.

About the ASB Master of Central Banking Program

The Master of Central Banking (MCB) is designed for central bankers and offers a comprehensive, first-of-its-kind curriculum that connects all the core functions of central banking as well as leadership and governance, in light of the technological and economic changes taking place in today’s world.

For more information: https://asb.edu.my/academic-program/master-of-central-banking

Build Up Your Strategic Innovation and Leadership Capabilities

Spearheaded by the five thought leaders in this article, and featuring a host of game-changing ideas, strategies and frameworks on understanding and driving strategic innovation in your organization, the signature Leading Leaders for Strategic Innovation by ASB, which will be held from 24th to 29th July 2022, is an immersive experience that arms top-tier leaders with a comprehensive, practical and future-forward toolkit to help their organization take the next leap forward.

Find out more about it here.