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What does it take to be a leader in digital innovation? How are the qualities of a digital start-up leader the same or different from ‘just being a good leader’? To find out we spoke with Dominique Fisher, who is the Chair of the Victorian Government’s Innovation Expert Panel. She is also the CEO of CareerLounge and app Paddl, which focuses on connecting students with employers, by using data to define skills and experience in innovative ways.
Combining her expertise and practical experience, Dominique argues that a digital leader is one who:
We recognised that students were acquiring technical knowledge in qualifications, but they were not presenting to employers as ‘job ready’ – they were missing the ability to demonstrate they were ready to go ‘day one’. Paddl set out to create a product that could match students to employers and build their experience profile that was relevant to their qualification whilst still studying.
By using Paddl to build a portfolio of experiences: from hack challenges, placements, and volunteer or part-time work, students are able to prove that they understand the application of the knowledge they’ve acquired through their studies in a business context. Our aspiration is to build the world’s first student experience graph, to disrupt the concept of a traditional CV – which provides a ‘flat’ list of qualifications and experience. The Paddl graph is much more dynamic as it visibly evolves as students gain more and diverse experience.
Well, I think having persistence is key to being a leader in innovation. It doesn’t always work the first time and that shouldn’t necessarily be deemed as a failure. It’s committing to a high-level process and an outcome, and pushing to see where it can go. It’s the discovery and the excitement of it – and the hair-raising part of it as well! Which leads to the need for courage and flexibility to be open to new ways of thinking, and that often means being prepared to take risks – without constraining yourself by attempting to mitigate them, before you’ve had the chance to test your new ideas.
You also have to be a really good sales person because you must be able to convince people to come on the journey from the outset. You have to articulate a visionary framework to give them the direction and focus they need, but at the same time have the confidence to step back and trust that the process will actually take you to an outcome. This is, in my view, what is really important in the innovation piece – that you’re driving to an outcome, not just driving to ‘group think’ without an outcome. The ability to take an inclusive approach to conceiving new ideas and problem solving that picks up diversity at every level, whether that’s discipline, age, experience, or backgrounds – because the more diversity you can have represented at that table, the more likely you are of coming up with something that will resonate with a broader community.
All these things are necessary for all leaders today, but I think the discussion around risk is what really separates how we’ve dealt with things in the past, to the way we need to look at them in the future. Having tolerance for risk and the ability to understand how that needs to be managed is the challenge that you have in seeking innovation. It is the bridge between the old and the new.
You need to call on things like persistence, passion, and commitment. You’re trying to align – not only where your product and vision is today and where it might be in the future – but you’re also trying to ensure that it is in sync with the market. By this I mean being ready to understand what you’re doing and also to adapt what you’re doing – this can take you places you don’t even know your product could take you! That’s a challenge because there are 50 reasons every day that you can convince yourself that it’s all going to be a disaster and what you’re doing is crazy, but as long as you have the commitment and the passion to ask, “what have we learned today?”, and as long as you don’t make the same mistake more than twice, then you’re heading in the right direction.
I often describe it like running up and down a brick wall looking for the loose brick, and that wall can be very wide and very high sometimes. But when you find it – it’s incredibly exciting. That’s what we feel we’ve done with Paddl- we’ve finally found the loose brick in the wall.
“Typically, most companies are excited to be involved in innovation and others will tell you they’ve been doing it all along. Where I think we fail, and what I try to encourage employers and organisations to do, is to focus their innovation on the way they attract and manage their own talent. It is the last thing that ever gets focus – but to me it is the best exhibitor of genuine innovation in an organisation.
If you keep hiring the same people using the same process, you’re going to end up with the same outcome. If you really want to drive an innovation culture, you really have to think very differently about the way you attract and hire people to work with you. In my view, that diversity in its broadest sense, is the greatest single contributor to driving an innovative culture in an organisation. This is genuinely where easy innovation can come from. You just have to brave enough to open yourself up. Just have a go, take the risk. You’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain.