Discovery Journey: Innovation in Leadership Development

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Nokia is a giant among technology companies. Long past its phase as the world’s largest producer of mobile phones, it is now a technology company delivering end-to-end networks for the 5G era. It enables digitalisation and automation as well as being a heavy part of the roll-out of IoT (the Internet of Things). It has over 98,000 employees and a turnover €22.5 billion.

Nokia is almost by definition future-facing and in this context I have defined leadership as the art of getting people to define tomorrow today. It is not surprising, therefore, that a core part of Nokia’s innovation in leadership development is to enable what we call “Discovery Journeys” for its high-potential middle to senior leaders.

The aim is to help them gain insights not from the classroom but from being placed in new situations interacting with companies with whom they were previously unfamiliar but from whom they could garner new knowledge and build potential new opportunities for Nokia.

There is an additional element: a fast and intensive learning curve. Sharing the knowledge of experts means non-technical participants become more familiar with technological topics, Nokia strategy and basic elements of IoT and “Industry 4.0”, which is key for Nokia, private networks and connectivity in general.

The Discovery Journey is an integral part of the overall framework of leadership competence. The experience addresses five critical competences that will carry the company forward:

1. Drives vision and purpose

2. Offers business insight

3. Demonstrates strategic mindset

4. Cultivates innovation

5. Shows courage and manages ambiguity

The programme is an exploration and therefore has only a small pre-defined curriculum. For this to be successful, key staff running the programme need to offer flexible input and support that is tailored to the needs of both the individual participants and each team With each cohort having between 30 to 36 participants divided into teams of around five, those running the programme have at least five or six individual experiences to organise and manage simultaneously.

The focus for the teams is to meet key players from different industries who have a stake in IoT. By working with companies they would not usually meet, participants are forced to adjust their understanding of how IoT works in the wider industrial world and therefore work on new business opportunities. These are then pitched to senior executives and if the pitches are good enough, the projects will secure funding to pursue the ideas embedded in them.

The programme lasts between eight and nine weeks, including one week that includes Learning about Leadership, Innovation, Strategic Intuition, Pitching/Elevator speech and getting to know the smaller and wider teams – enhancing collaboration – and includes key face-to-face meetings with other companies outside the normal Nokia sphere of influence.

In addition, there are centrally organised online sessions and group work that is self-directed by each team. The programme does not end at week nine. If a pitch to the executives is successful, the team continues to work on its case to turn theory into practice. All of the presentations made to senior executives will help stimulate innovation and some will mould the company for the future and open up new markets and new business opportunities as well as offer the senior executives learning opportunities themselves.

The programme workload comes on top of the participants’ normal jobs and does require freeing up some of their time. To ensure this, alignment calls with participants and their line managers were scheduled to ensure all parties know what the programme requires and maximum commitment. This paved the way for participants to develop their curiosity, begin experimenting, questioning, observing and reflecting on the complex technology environment and begin to see clarity in uncertainty and change.

In addition, by defining a business idea and converting it into a business case, they learn about business modelling, competition, pricing and so on. It also helps them address and overcome the fear associated with the risk of failure. Not every pitch is funded and not every experiment works.

The teams also offer the rest of the company a unique perspective on where Nokia slots into the IoT ecosystem. This process also helps establish a strong, new network of colleagues from different regions and functions inside the company as well as building partnerships with different organisations outside Nokia’s usual sphere of influence. Potential new partners also experience at first hand the quality of Nokia and how it sees itself going forward.

The Discovery Journey, at its core, introduces Nokia managers to a range of new companies from large mature companies to innovative new companies and even start-ups. Each company has a different IoT specialism and staff experience the newest technologies such as robotics and automation and look at breakthroughs in cybersecurity and enterprise in line with Nokia strategic priorities.

In addition to the opportunity to meet new external potential clients, key executives from around the company present to the teams and share their specialist knowledge. So, while the thrust is about developing leadership skills it is equally aimed at encouraging participants to have the courage and wherewithal to challenge the status quo and renewing the company.

The ultimate aim is to build value through opening up new opportunities with new organisations and new markets. And on top of this, cohorts learn to observe, ask relevant questions, network with people they would not normally network with and formulate experiments to test out their assumptions and ideas.

This programme is genuinely innovative for Nokia. It is a clear indication that the company wants to innovate and experiment using its own resources and without recourse to consultancy firms telling it what to do.

By maintaining an open agenda with no fixed outcomes, the participants are able to follow their instincts and interests and experiment and be curious. The expectation is that the conclusions the teams draw will offer huge insight to the company and offer perspectives about new opportunities and new markets.

The programme started in 2017 and each nine-week programme has between 30 and 36 participants. Even though it is still a relatively new idea, a few key experiments that have emerged from these encounters are being funded by the company. It is too early to predict the long-term outcomes but it is quite possible that one of these experiments could help move the company forward at some point.

This would justify all the effort and investment. And this outcome could not emerge from a more conventional leadership development programme. In essence, Nokia is betting on the future by investing in its key “talents”, “high-potentials”, future leaders and offering them a high degree of autonomy and trust in the knowledge that this belief will be repaid handsomely.

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