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leadership lab

This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at

Every startup aspires to convert a concept into something tangible, and ultimately make it a profitable, sustainable business. The entrepreneurs driving these startups are big thinkers, fuelled by passion and an unbounded freedom to create, innovate and experiment.

As leaders, we need to seek inspiration from entrepreneurs, and apply it to our organizations to foster fresh, new thinking and motivate employees. This is especially important since innovative thinking tends to become compartmentalized as companies get bigger. I believe that all businesses must foster a startup mentality to help focus their strategies. If they don't, with the rapid pace of change, and global competition, it's unlikely they'll thrive.

Through my many conversations with startups across Canada, I've learned and applied several lessons that have proven invaluable to me and my team.

Create a culture of innovation

We know continuous innovation is the lifeblood of any startup. Success – in fact, existence – hangs in its balance. Principles promoted in books like Eric Ries's The Lean Startup urge rapid, in-market testing that favour behavioural data versus market research. While many would argue those same innovation principles don't apply to larger corporations, I would tend to disagree.

As leaders we need to ignite, nurture and reward innovative thinking that should be based on rapid testing, and driven from front-line teams. This mindset not only serves to develop groundbreaking products, services and go-to-market programs, it also pays dividends by attracting and retaining top talent.

At Intuit we encourage employees to spend 10 per cent of their time on entrepreneurial projects, and it's yielded awesome results that wouldn't have been possible without allowing employees to take time out of their nine-to-five responsibilities and invent. Intuit's SnapTax is an example – this app allows you to file your taxes by taking a pic of your T4 slip with your smartphone or tablet, answer a few questions, and file via Netfile. This app changes the tax game, and couldn't have been possible without allowing employees to be in-house entrepreneurs.

Listen to your employees and take action

Feeling as if you have a stake in the game is the surest way to inspire your work force. Startup employees work hard and fast because they know their ideas and actions matter.

As leaders, it's not enough to just listen to employees; it's about taking action based on what you've heard.

By listening to employees and following through on feedback, leaders engender trust and inspire collaboration, loyalty and creativity. It's no small wonder that employees who feel they have a true stake in the game will give you their best work.

Take risks

Entrepreneurs, by their very nature, are risk takers. Conversely, an established corporation, with all its processes and long-term strategies, are often risk-averse. Understandably, when it comes to taking risks, larger, publicly traded corporations have more to consider; however, if we want to innovate, we have to embrace some level of risk, and that risk should be educated, and underpinned by process.

Start by defining a customer problem you need to solve, and challenge your team to go beyond traditional solutions. These principles provoke big thinking, hypothesis development and experimentation, which ultimately helps lead to customer delight.

Whatever your field, these lessons from startups will allow you to stay nimble, create an engaged work force and break new ground, regardless of your organization's size or current mindset.

Jeff Cates is the president of Intuit Canada (@QuickBooksCA), a provider of business and accounting software.