Blog: Growing Leadership, Management and Mindsets for Innovation in the West Midlands

Innovative leadership and mindsets are essential aspects of innovation talent, and our consultations with you, our stakeholders, show that talent is a major enabler (or barrier) to innovation.

On 7th December 2021, the Innovation Alliance for the West Midlands facilitated a panel discussion to help to understand and shape the West Midlands’ approaches to developing the Leadership, Management and Mindsets for Innovation required to see continued recovery and improved prosperity across the region.

Attended by over 50 public, private and academic organisations and stakeholders, the session brought together a diverse panel of leaders of innovatively minded businesses and organisations delivering innovation leadership training and consultancy, to investigate this important topic. The panel was chaired by Dr Julie Nugent, Director of Productivity and Skills at the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA).

Julie kick started the session by saying that it is a timely moment to be having this conversation. Julie has been Director of Skills & productivity at WMCA for several years and now also holds the remit for the economy brief. The current focus is all about post Brexit/pandemic recovery and exploring what our region needs to move forwards. What are the opportunities? What are the barriers? As you would expect, Innovation features heavily in both of those discussions. WMCA is trying to bring together public and private sector partners to develop a new economic mission. A lot comes down to the leadership and management within companies and how they not only source talent but how they source and translate new ideas.

The panel members each introduced their perspective on innovation talent and leadership:

Taran Singh, Taran 3D: Taran3D is a creative 3D Agency based in Birmingham producing amazing interactive content and experiences with their ever-evolving 3D, VR and AR capabilities. Taran is passionate about supporting the next generation of tech talent into the industry and as a company, Taran 3D are committed to nurturing new talent where possible. They proudly work with partner organisations to teach, inspire and motivate young people to understand the industry and consider tech as a worthy career path.

Anna Jester, Jester – the home of Lead Happy: Prior to founding Jester, Anna had her own global leadership career. Thought of as a high potential and a natural leader, on the inside she felt anything but. During a transformational few years, Anna learned the biggest leadership lesson there is – that to lead brilliantly is to feel confident in who you are, comfortable in your own leadership skin and capable in your own, unique leadership style. Jester is all about helping others to do the same. 

David Dunn, W.H.Tildesley: David is General Manager at Black Country based company W.H.Tildesley Ltd. Established in 1874, it is one of the oldest drop forging companies remaining in the United Kingdom. As a more traditional business it is interesting to hear how after a recent £1.4 Million refurbishment, they now have the most modern drop forging facility in the UK. Their extensive in-house capabilities enable them to offer an efficient service by reducing the use of sub-contractors, improving quality and lead times. W.H. Tildesley also collaborates extensively with academia on R&D.

George Akomas, Coventry University: Assistant Professor and Help to Grow Programme, Coventry University, George has a passion for strategy and a love for excellence, with an objective to keep pushing boundaries. Through the Help to Grow programme, Coventry Business School is offering a three-month, online and face-to-face practical management training programme. Delivered by Coventry Business School and accredited by the Small Business Charter, this course aims to support senior managers of small and medium sized businesses to boost their business resilience and long-term goals.

After their introductions, Julie posed a series of questions…

What is the best way of identifying new ideas and bringing forward innovation?

Anna – “For any organisational culture to develop brilliant approaches to innovation, we need to create an even playing field. That goes for every organisation and sector. The minute we judge books by covers, not give people a voice and not believe that every human being is an expert in something, that’s the point we kill the opportunity for innovation.”

Anna cited a company she worked with who enabled a process where anyone in the business could contribute to the direction of travel to the business by providing ideas for improvements.

David advised W.H.Tildesley changed their product portfolio by reaching out for help from the government’s Catapult Network and by working in partnership with universities. They were surprised by the range of talent across the business who have played an active role in innovation across the organisation. They have taken on 6 apprentices, working to ensure knowledge transfer from older to younger staff.

How do we encourage collaboration within organisations, does that require a different mindset and have you unlocked new ideas and talent from an unexpected place?

George – “You cannot underestimate the importance of diversity. Diversity in every way, not just ethnicity, but also age and outlook. You need to enable the feeling of value within the individual to feel able to be part of the conversation. “

Anna – “We expect people to perform without holistic investment. People need to feel like they are safe, belong, and are valued. Without that people won’t come forward with the innovative thinking required to push boundaries.  Scrum meetings, collaborative sessions, using online tools, they have continued to enable innovation throughout the pandemic, but we need the right leadership approach to enable these new ways of working to be successful. Leaders and people managers are still sending long emails and holding long meetings. It kills innovation and creativity. “

Julie added “The WMCA have been trying to adopt more flexible working due to the pandemic. On the one hand your whole day is mechanically ordered for online meetings, on the other you don’t have that flexibility to think. When it comes to the hierarchy of group team meetings, it is also notable who gets to speak and who feels empowered to speak and the impact that has on the way ideas flow through.”

David – “The culture to encourage continuous improvement that works right across the shop floor. Any operator can put forward an innovative idea which has been important as, due to the pandemic and the need for social distancing, access to HE partners through Knowledge Transfer Partnerships has been limited. The positive of this though has been the experience and knowledge of the internal team has been given the opportunity to be used more than ever before. “

Taran – “Working with Niyo Enterprise’s bootcamp, focussed on supporting black women into tech. Each idea was worthy of going for seed funding, this led to the bootcamp being adapted due to the level of innovation coming forwards. “

What sort of external support or interventions do businesses need from the government to enable them to do more?

Taran – “Business education in a holistic way such as procurement and access to funding. Public sector funding is daunting for smaller businesses to access, so support to help accessing the funding and understanding the process is needed. “

George – “Simplifying the ability for diverse and international individuals to enter roles where there are shortages of skills locally. In addition, there needs to be more to be done to celebrate innovation as an aspiration for young people. We are bombarded with the culture of celebrity but why don’t we celebrate innovation in a similar way? “

David – “We need a capital expenditure funding scheme. As we can no longer access European funding schemes such as ERDF it is hard to compete with European manufacturers who receive 70% funding support. “

Anna – “We are creating fixers but not leaders! Sometimes it is quicker in the short term to tell people how you want things done but this isn’t an effective longer-term solution. We need to create empowering enabling cultures which has a short-term pain but a long-term gain. Government schemes to match fund development and coaching for leaders would be beneficial. “

The audience weren’t short on questions for the panel as everyone got stuck into the conversation!

When you think about your own business’s innovation journey, how has your business changed?

David – “We are still on the journey but, if we can just improve a little bit each day, we can get there. “

Anna – “I started as an independent consultant, now we have a team in place. Creating a culture ripe for innovation has come through conversation, challenge and environments of phycological security so staff feel safe to stick their head above the parapet. “

Taran – “When I first started, I was shy and nervous and didn’t have the business background. As time has gone on, I have the confidence now that I didn’t before. We have taken on junior staff through the kick start programme and have created an atmosphere of playfulness, inclusiveness and celebrating everyone’s contribution to the success of the business. “

How would you describe the change in the definition of the customer and how does innovation enable you to be the supplier of choice?

David – “Innovation gives you the edge and a USP. If you can provide something different then you are securing your own longevity. “

Taran – “Empathy with your client helps you stand in the client’s shoes to help you see a better way to go. Listening to your client and innovating in response to their needs as opposed to pushing your innovation on them in a way that doesn’t necessarily solve their problems. Developing a proof of concept helps remove the fear of failure. “

How as organisations can we recruit and develop diversity into businesses?

Anna – “Making a place at the table to ensure people are heard, have a worth and belong. Anyone can be given a seat, but it doesn’t mean they belong. We need to validate and affirm people and ideas, not just box ticking. Beyond diversity is belonging. We talk about diversity in a linear, one dimensional way. Everyone is a minority, for multiple reasons and experiences. We need to give everyone a sense of belonging regardless of how they identify, what group they come from, or what minority they associate themselves with. “

George – “Encourage curiosity! If you are just ticking boxes nothing will change as the spirit of the exercise is not there. If you are curious enough there is so much you will learn.”

How do you manage the risk of innovation and playfulness whilst working within tight parameters?

David – “You have to keep your eye on the ball and make sure there is a commercial exploitation recognised, especially when it comes to cross industry/ academia collaboration. Focus on Risks vs costs and the payback on those costs all the way through.”

How can employers work with WMCA on the digital skills fund to enable innovation?

Julie advised that the WMCA is looking to deliver rapid responses to market needs.

Over recent years there have been efforts to tackle a range of digital skills needs, notably through the Beat the Bots Fund, launched by mayor Andy Street in May 2019, providing £5 million from the Government’s National Retraining Scheme, announced by Secretary of State for Education Damian Hinds in summer 2018 as part of the WMCA’s Skills Deal. The fund is helping train the region’s workers for the jobs of the future through a range of innovative delivery programmes such as bootcamps on cyber, AI, and coding.

More recently bootcamps have been used to train lorry drivers months before government realised the national / international challenge. It is important that the WMCA connect things in at the point they can make a difference and doing so quickly.

If anyone would like to discuss market skills needs directly with Julie they can do so either by connecting via LinkedIn or via email –

Final words from Julie…

The broader message is that there is no one rule on innovation as some have the space to play but others have risk barriers. The key is to enable ideas, conversations and playfulness.

Diversity and that people have a variety of challenges and issues. Listening, understanding, then trying to respond.

Are we listening enough? If we’re not listening carefully, are we hearing all the issues?

(Author: Iain Mansell, Deputy Director, Innovation Alliance for the West Midlands)

Find out more about future Innovation Policy & Practice Events here which will return in the summer of 2022. In the meantime we look forward to seeing you all at our flagship event, Venturefest West Midlands, which will be taking place on 24th March 2022.