Xero Chair David Thodey: three tips to become an innovation leader

Skill development, risk-taking and passion combined with purpose are three key ingredients in the recipe for successful innovation

From the potential impact of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and 5G technology to emerging business opportunities in space, the world is teeming with possibilities for great innovations. However, innovating in practice can be incredibly challenging: it requires taking risks, experimenting with untested approaches, and venturing into unknown territory. Resistance to change can also be a significant hurdle to innovation, making it difficult to introduce innovative ideas or approaches. For entrepreneurs and businesses alike, failure can be costly and discouraging.

Some, however, have dedicated their lives to helping organisations embrace innovation by driving change and leading with purpose. Australian business leader David Thodey, Xero’s Chair of the Board and Director of Ramsay Health Care, has built a career on using technology and innovation to solve real-world problems and transform organisations, the lives of customers and society for the better.

He previously served as the CEO and Executive Director of Telstra, and CEO of IBM (Australia and New Zealand). During his 22 years at IBM, he held several senior executive positions across the Asia Pacific. In 2017, he was recognised for his services to business and ethical business leadership with an Order of Australia (AO). Today he serves on several boards and is active in consulting, academia, public policy, science and research, where he continues to utilise his passions for technology, innovation and customer-centred transformation of businesses.

Mr Thodey recently sat down with Professor Mary-Anne Williams, UNSW Michael J Crouch Chair in Innovation and Deputy Director, UNSW AI Institute, to discuss his views on leadership, the biggest technology trends reshaping the world, and career advice for budding future innovators and change makers.

1. Build skills: find something you enjoy, and excel at it

Innovation often requires significant resources, such as time, money and talent. Some individuals and organisations may lack the resources necessary to invest in innovation, while others may be unwilling to allocate resources away from other priorities.

To be a great innovator, Mr Thodey said you first need to find something you are good at. “Innovation is about this continual quest to find ways to improve, to do things better,” he explained. “Whether we're running an organisation or doing research and development, it's this continual quest for improvement and being willing to go outside the dots to find a solution.”

But what most people need to realise is that creating innovation can be very difficult, and he said the results will take a while before they bear any fruit. According to McKinsey, innovation requires discipline just as much as it requires creativity. Innovation takes work and sustained effort in an area of focus, but Mr Thodey said it is that focus that should be based on your strengths and key passions, which will help drive you forward.

“There is something that I would say to every student or anyone you know, saying their career, find out what you do enjoy and be really good at it. I know that sounds a bit simplistic, but we all need something that, you know, we specialise in,” said Mr Thodey. “And don't try to be too broad too quickly, you see, because you build all these other skills around analytics about how to approach problems, how to get to solutions and things like that.”

So the first step is to find out what you enjoy, invest in being good at it, and then you are ready to take a leap of faith.

2. Take risks: innovation requires taking something to the next level

Mr Thodey also talked about the importance of being agile, as your interests and passions may change and shift over time as you learn more about the specific problem or issues you are working on. 

“Because as you start down that road, new things will come across your path. And I think it's really important that you remain open to new ideas,” he said. “There's this constant sort of re-learning or being open to maybe changing along the way, but you've got that foundation of what you're good at doing or what you enjoy, then remain open and be willing to course correct.”

So knowing when to take risks is another essential skill you can hone to become a good innovator. “I see many wonderful people who are bright, articulate, deep-domain experts, but they stay in their comfort zone too much,” explained Mr Thodey.

Culture may play a role here. Mr Thodey alluded to a perception that others in the developing world consider Australians to be afraid of risk, but he disagreed. “A lot of people think that Australians are, you know, risk-averse. But we're pretty rational. Take miners, for example; that is pretty risky, right? You know, going and spending three years looking for lithium in waste and spending tens of millions of dollars to do that, but they believe something was there," he said.

“So we're not necessarily risk-averse; we haven't applied that to some new areas like technology or software development or even medicine. So we need to take that adventurous spirit and apply it to new areas."

3. Passion and purpose: the key to unlocking the energy to innovate

Finding motivation, passion and energy in our work is crucial to being a good innovator. The final piece of advice Mr Thodey spoke about was that if you are doing something and you are not enjoying it, simply do not do it. “Go where you get natural energy,” he said.

Energy (which you can gain from uniting passion and purpose), is an essential component of the process of creation because it provides the drive and motivation necessary to overcome the many challenges and obstacles that you may face when experimenting with innovative ideas and solutions to many of life’s challenging problems.  “The great innovators worked through incredible hardship and tried things… sometimes the same thing 100 times, and then the 101st time, well, they found something different, and there's a breakthrough,” said Mr Thodey.

Importantly, he said it would not just be one of these technologies or new innovations that profoundly changes the world for the better. Rather, it will be the combined efforts of all innovators pushing forward now and in the future that will enable positive change that could very well alter the course of human history.

“I think it is all these technologies working together to enable a whole different way of doing things… that really is what drives me enormously,” he said. “So I think it's really important that as you go through that, be willing to step out and give it a go; that may be starting your own business, it may be raising capital, it may be just doing something different within what your area of expertise is.

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“So it's not just because you're bright; it's actually some hard work along the way that can really enable you to be successful. If you follow some of those principles, and then [with] a little bit of luck along the way... recognise the luck and go for it, I think the world is an incredible opportunity for all of us.

“Be bold, be strong, give it a go – would be my view,” he said.


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