Balancing Stewardship and Innovation in Established Companies


When I took over the Cleaver Company in 1992, I felt a keen responsibility to steward the decades of work that had preceded my tenure. Since the mid 1950s, this firm had been producing, validating, and implementing a diverse range of management diagnostics that were (and still are) used in thousands of companies around the globe. All the products we feature have been built in business, for business. The commitment to high quality, effective, and easy to utilize diagnostics stemmed from the company's founder; John Cleaver, also known as "Clipper" to his friends, was a Princeton educated industrial engineer. He approached management challenges at client sites with the precise and incisive eye of an engineer, and the company's reputation was built on the back of the integrity of his non-subjective assessments.

So what became my question as I took the reins here is how to honor and preserve that reputation. This engineering-inspired approach to people development is what drew me to Cleaver Company in the first place, but I also wanted to innovate and expand on what we did here. My own background in counseling and entrepreneurship has provided me a with development-focused perspective: while diagnostics are essential to identify challenges and take the temperature of where things might be, they are really the starting point of a larger dialogue about growth, change, and advancement. I wasn't just interested in analyzing the data and feeding it back to clients, I was interested in helping them develop and increase their results because of the analysis.

My goals centered around one core vision: people, teams, and organizations have the power to improve - where they are today isn't the end of the story or the only story about their potential.

The process of taking the helm at an established company really highlighted for me the tension leaders can feel between stewardship for what has been and innovating what will be in an organization. I still feel that tension today, as Cleaver Company continues to evolve and work with clients in new and exciting ways: does where we're going have integrity to Clipper's foundation? Does it have integrity to what I have done with the organization thus far? Does it lay a foundation for future innovation and the right legacy?

As much as I don't want to be bound by the past, I realize that this tension between stewardship and innovation keeps me focused on creating consistency in our client experiences and brand presentation.

How do you address the tension between stewardship and innovation in your organization?

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Photo by Mark Robinson courtesy of Flickr