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Building innovator talent – how your people strategy supports your business strategy


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All organisations want their people to be more agile and adaptable and to learn continuously. However, for some, the ability to innovate is a strategic necessity. What does it take to build a pipeline of innovator talent?

While most HR teams focus on consistency, fairness, and predictability – innovation and innovators are called upon to question, challenge, and disrupt. This requires conventional approaches to hiring, career development, talent management, and rewards to be adapted too.

In this roundtable, Dr Debra France shared the unique approach that W. L. Gore & Associates has developed to ensure individuals in these challenging (and sometimes risky) innovator roles receive the support they need to create new pathways to increased revenue and customer delight.

Rosemary McLean pointed out that this is a particularly appropriate topic because The Career Innovation Company was founded to encourage organisations to find new and better ways of doing things in the field of career development.


David North linked the session theme to several dimensions of the Career Strategy and Support model. The priority given to developing innovator talent reflects the importance of strategic alignment and a successful outcome depends upon a receptive organisational culture.

In this context, participants shared the actions they and their colleagues were taking to support the development of future innovators. These included:

  • Establishing Innovation Teams and Centres to equip individuals to innovate and to foster an innovation culture
  • Building innovative thinking and blending innovation into performance and talent review processes
  • Leveraging the lessons learned during the pandemic about the potential of team innovation
  • Introducing training programmes to help leaders drive a culture of innovation
  • Providing tools and techniques to stimulate innovation at all levels
  • Partnering with external academics and entrepreneurs to bring new ideas in, or encouraging employees to search for innovative approaches outside the organisation
  • Encouraging employees to use virtual channels to connect and stimulate each other’s creative thinking
  • Introducing awards and funding to explore ideas judged to have commercial potential

Innovators are ‘disruptors’, they ‘break’ things and the organisation is going to work against them


‘Talent management for Innovators is not for the faint of heart’.

It’s important to say from the outset that Gore has been designed for innovation; innovation is fundamental to their business strategy.

In describing Gore’s approach, Debra’s session covered five areas:

  • Naming the challenge – why is it difficult to develop and engage innovators?
  • Sourcing and discerning innovator attributes
  • Recognising innovator talent – in self and teams
  • Developing innovators
  • Leading innovation – moderating tensions and optimising the culture

Debra shared reflections on some of the challenges for everyone involved:

  • In early careers, consistency and conformity are valued and this makes things especially challenging for young innovators who see value in challenging or evolving how they approach the work
  • HR professionals need to learn how to see and value innovator talent uniquely
  • Leaders have to evolve to meet the changing requirements of innovation

Debra told us that it’s important to be deliberate about what innovation you want and where you want it in the organisation

If everyone is innovating it will break most companies.

Debra shared their ACE framework, which they use to recruit and spot talent.

Gore sources future innovators by searching for key personal attributes they’ve identified. These include being:

  • Visionary
  • Curious
  • Divergent
  • Optimistic
  • Collaborative

Having found their people, they immerse them in activities that build their capabilities. These aim, amongst other essential requirements, to develop:

  • External Focus
  • Market Sensitivity
  • Disciplined Execution

They also make good use of carefully selected tools, which help individuals and teams to recognise and ultilise their differing innovator talents. Debra introduced the Basadur Problem Solving Sequence, the SWARM vision profile, and the three Horizons of Growth as means of assessing and maximising the potential of Gore Associates.

There are fewer outstanding leaders of innovators than there are innovators

Finally, Debra shared her insights on how leaders can create an optimum culture for innovation. Effective leaders support innovators, they advocate for them, and they secure resources by demonstrating the ROI from their work. Crucially, they moderate the tensions involved in creating the right microenvironment. They assess the need for:

  • More support vs. more challenge
  • More clarity vs. more ambiguity
  • More certainty vs. more risk
  • More emphasis on starting things vs. more emphasis on finishing things

We discussed the need to ensure talent management is bespoke to the capability you’re trying to recruit, develop and leverage. We reflected on reward strategy, and the need to offer pay progression for high-value specialists. We highlighted the pitfalls of using standard recruitment processes that might reject the very divergent thinkers we are looking for. The Gore approach demonstrated how HR needs to design a tailored approach for people who represent the ‘exceptions’.


Referring back to the question of strategic alignment, Debra’s story suggested the way forward when managing people with other key, mission-critical capabilities; whether these are in established work areas, or emerging ones.

Innovation is a ‘team sport’, you need to blend different creative problem solving strengths

The Gore strategy for innovators underlined the need to really understand the nature of the people you want to recruit, and how you retain and get the best from them. Rosemary McLean challenged us to question how often we innovate as HR leaders, and how well we collaborate across the function to find creative solutions to career management priorities.

Participants shared practical actions for better aligning their people strategy with their need for innovator talent:

  • Value and reward individuals appropriately; it’s not about level, but contribution
  • Understand where you’re starting from through the innovation lens
  • Get the organisation ready for when you flip the ‘innovator switch’ on
  • Build, and sustain the right environment for innovators to flourish in
  • Articulate a compelling and targeted case for innovation in your organisation
  • Understand the capability you’re trying to develop: explore why you’ve failed in the past

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