Examples of well-known creative CEOs

Nicolas Hayek, Steve Jobs, William McKnight: the recipes for successful creativity from three well-known CEOs with different management styles. 

Different management styles can stimulate employee creativity. Lessons can be learned from the past examples of William McKnight, former CEO of 3M, Steve Jobs, former CEO of Apple and Nicolas Hayek, former CEO of the Swatch group. 

William McKnight

William McKnight (1887-1978) is one of the first CEOs to have actively cultivated creativity within his company. He managed to transform the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company, a small firm specializing in sandpaper, into 3M – one of the most innovative groups in the US. The company is behind inventions as diverse and influential as Scotch tape, the Post-it, touch screens and lithium batteries. 3M spends 8% of its revenue on research into new products, one of the highest proportions in the industry.

William McKnight, who managed the firm between 1929 and 1966, very quickly understood the importance of letting his employees clear their heads, being of the view that this would stimulate their creativity. Since the shift to 3M, employees are entitled to take as many breaks as they wish. The CEO also believed it was vital to delegate responsibility to them to let them express their creativity. So he allowed them to spend 15% of their working hours on a research project of their choice.

William McKnight also introduced regular meetings called “Tech Forum” for employees, where everyone can find out about, discuss and review other employees’ inventions. The inventiveness of the group is impressive: 3M sells 55,000 different products, which represents nearly one innovation per employee. 

Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs (1955-2011) was behind two of the most innovative companies in the world: Pixar Animation Studios and Apple. He was behind the laptop revolution. Under his direction, Apple produced an almost constant wave of successful innovations, from the iPod to the iPhone, including the iPad.

As soon as he arrived at Pixar, he had a vision of bringing people from different departments together (IT experts, scriptwriters, cartoonists, etc.) in one building to promote exchanges and help improve the end product. He also introduced daily criticism sessions, where employees were encouraged to discuss their peers’ work.

As the boss of Apple, Steve Jobs adopted a stricter approach, sometimes described as autocratic. Every decision had to be submitted to him and be approved by him, from the design of the latest iPhone to the cafeteria menu. This is a top-down management style which left little room for delegation.

Employees were chosen for their expertise rather than their experience: he favored extremely specialized employees, avoiding multi-disciplinary managers. This vertical integration method was topped off by assigning a DRI (directly responsible individual) to each project, responsible for ensuring its success.

Unlike many other Silicon Valley firms which promote horizontal interaction, Apple cultivates secrecy and requires that its employees communicate as little as possible between themselves and outside the company. Employees only have access to the part of the Apple campus where they have their office, and they are not supposed to talk about their work on specialist blogs or to their families. It’s an extreme form of management which contradicted all the rules, but it worked for Steve Jobs. 

Nicolas Hayek

Swiss-Lebanese entrepreneur Nicolas Hayek (1928-2010) is credited with saving the Swiss clock industry on account of launching the Swatch in 1983, at a time when the industry was in crisis particularly due to Japanese competition. This success is owed in large part to his innovative management methods, which were based on three principles: never go back on a promise made to employees, make management decisions which are transparent and easy to understand, and limit lay-offs as much as possible to prevent the loss of expertise within the company.

Nicolas Hayek applied the principle of closed innovation. He made sure that all stages of the production process for a watch could be carried out in-house, refusing, for example, to buy Japanese circuits at low cost. He believed this was the only way to protect the autonomy of his company and his competitive advantage. His personnel management was also based on trust: he would set the targets for his managers to reach, but would then allow them great freedom in doing so. The only condition was that his managers had to notify him immediately if there were any problems.

Source: Preston Bottger, IMD Lausanne.

Last modification 16.07.2018

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