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Why is innovative leadership essential in the workplace?

Mark McClain, co-founder and CEO of SailPoint, discusses how he became an innovative leader in business today and how it helped create a collaborative environment in the workplace.

The following is a Q&A with Mark McClain, co-founder and CEO of SailPoint, who, after 20 years of leading companies and 35 years working in business altogether, has captured the importance of driving innovative leadership in the workplace. In his book, Joy and Success At Work: Building Organizations That Don't Suck The Life Out Of People, which serves as a manual for leaders in business, he describes in detail how they can ultimately produce a workplace culture that inspires employees to apply innovative thinking to their work and thus drive better everyday performance.

Here, McClain discusses the four particular values he followed to help make his business what it is today and shares his thoughts on why an innovative and team mindset is essential for organizational success and a crucial aspect for all leaders, including CIOs, who are playing a significant role in digital transformation.

How did you come up with the Four I's -- innovation, integrity, impact and individuals -- you mention in the book, and how have you benefited from them? Why are they important?

Mark McClain: I [had] a strong view by the time I got to be the co-founder with my friend that I wanted to build an organization that succeeded, returned investors capital and helped everybody that participated in that make some money -- but not at the expense of a place where everybody hated coming to work. I don't think these things are incompatible, so that idea of having values to me was core to defining the culture.

We talk a lot about mission [and] vision values today -- I have a view [that's] in the book about values being core almost more than mission or vision. There are companies [that] are doing nothing like what they started out to do. If you have a value, I think it can withstand lots of changes in market conditions, technology [and] even business approach. I had these views going in -- if I'm going to get to be a founder, I want to put up [a] strong foundation.

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Honestly, in retrospect, some of them came out of the things that had been most frustrating about working in other organizations. [It was] almost an answer to those frustrations. [For example,] what I hated was [to] not innovate, when people just get stuck in their ways and thought they knew what to do by dreaming it up in the backroom. [Or] when people didn't follow through on their commitment -- the integrity value -- or when people took up a lot of energy and space that didn't accomplish things. If you look at the way we captured our value, it's interesting to note [that] the opposite was kind of a negative that we really wanted to avoid.

At what point in your career did innovation and the value of innovative leadership become significant?

Mark McClainMark McClain

McClain: Once I [was] in the industry for about 10 years, I saw the way things work. I knew enough about the technology landscape to know, if you were going to win, you have to do something pretty innovative. If you're a company and you're selling B2B [and] can buy effectively the same solution from an unknown new company or an established company, they will buy from the established company every time. Why would they take a risk on an unknown company? The product solution service you offer has to be sufficiently innovative and differentiated that justifies them taking the risk on going with a lesser-known company. I think innovation is inherent as a requirement in tech startups -- in almost any startup but particularly in tech.

What would you say are the top qualities that characterize innovative leaders today?

McClain: I think part of being innovative and creative is being willing to admit that the current way you think about something or others think about might not be the best. I think there's an inherent humility in innovation because you're willing to try something new to challenge the established order. It's counterbalanced with an odd confidence. You have to have enough humility to acknowledge something can be done better than it's being done but also the confidence that you can figure that out. And I argue that you figure that out to market contact and in talking to people that are experiencing the pain. The most common is people understand pain and frustration, and they go figure out a better way to solve that pain and frustration in the market.

I think [what also] helps people get [innovation] right is a belief in the strength of teams. I believe a lot of the greatest ideas come when a team puts their minds together and they turn the problem over [and] look at it from different angles to figure out the best overall solution. Sometimes, you still get some single individual who makes a significant breakthrough, but I love when we're brainstorming about how to solve problems and, when you get to the end of the meeting, you can't even remember where some of the ideas came from. There's an old quote from something to the effect of: 'It's amazing what can get done when it doesn't matter who gets the credit.' [It's] a more innovative, creative solution if people aren't hung up on who's going to get credit. In my experience, a team mindset is the other way to get a higher level of innovation.

What about failure in terms of innovation? Would you say it comes with the territory?

McClain: Sometimes, we can conflate innovation and invention -- they are related but distinct. I think invention probably involves a lot of iteration and failure. [But] the sad truth about your question [is] a lot of the tolerance for failure is atypical and tied to the culture of an organization. I think some cultures are far more tolerant of 'that's great if you try a stretch goal and don't get there -- at least you tried, and we learned along the way.' I think way more companies have a mindset of 'don't try something too far out of bounds because we don't really tolerate failure here,' which, over time, just makes people more and more conservative and unwilling to challenge the status quo.

Part of what you see in tech is most of the innovation -- back to that word more than invention -- tends to come in the startup, early-stage company world because, by definition, you're trying something new and experimenting. You start down one [path], and you've learned something, and [then] you pivot into a slightly, maybe different, approach. In [smaller] companies, that's just called survival, [where] you're trying to figure it out. And, in big companies, generally over time, they calcified a fair amount, and that's why so many big companies now grow by acquiring those successful early-stage companies. And then the very rare killer companies, [like] Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google, [are] amazing because, at scale, they continue to innovate and try new things. If you look inside those companies, a lot of it is cultural. They have a tolerance for innovation and failure that many older-line companies just don't have.

There's a lot of CIOs that are undergoing digital transformation initiatives, and they may be facing pressure to drive innovation that will give their organization a competitive edge. What advice would you give them?

McClain: At the macro level, you want to have a relatively well-defined macro plan -- a big sense of how far you can go, how fast you can go, the organization's tolerance for change and the order in which to do things and the best place to pilot a target change within an organization. There's some discipline thinking that can be applied to reduce the risk of something like that. For example, to avoid total failure, as opposed to within that skeletal structure that looks fairly achievable, trying to pilot [a project] that might fail quickly. So, you go, 'OK, that didn't work as well as I thought; let's try something different.'

I think we've learned a lot over the years of managing any kind of large-scale project [not] to try all of it in a big-bang theory at once. Iterate along the way, [and] do pilots [and] experiments -- some of those small things may either fail or at least underperform, but you've made a small investment. You've learned, and you can readjust and keep going. I think that the prior era that I grew up in in software in the late '80s [and] early '90s was much more of a big-bang theory approach, [where] we're going to spend five years setting up for this massive [project], but we won't see anything until we flip the switch on day one of transformation. I think the world's learned that that's just a high failure probability approach versus along this long macro journey, can we do small-scale pilot proof of concept, experiments [and] tests that you're constantly iterating and improving as you go and scale something up. You want something that, at the macro [level], looks like it's well designed and well thought out, but inside that structural framework, I think you can do far more incremental, experimental things to test different ideas.

Can CIOs and other IT leaders apply the Four I's to these digital transformation initiatives?

McClain: I have a belief that these are scalable values. I wrote them more from the concept of building and establishing companies, but there's no reason those kinds of values don't apply to a leader of a team in a larger organization. Quite often, in larger organizations, a subteam leader, whether that's a division or even just a manager of a group, has a lot of power to influence the culture of their group. It is still in the context of a larger company culture, but you can have a group that works with a set of values that are not [necessarily] in direct conflict with the larger organization but more highlighting certain aspects. You can have a culture of innovation in a subgroup, even if innovation isn't the overall macro value of the company.

If you look at those Four Is and the way we define them, who wouldn't want those things? There's a sense of how much energy and effort you put into tracking, measuring and rewarding those things that speaks about your culture. There's an applicability that's pretty universal.

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