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To Foster Innovation, First Ask, “What Type of Person Is Your Company?”

Allison, MariaBy Maria Allison, Courtesy of Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business

Presidential candidate Mitt Romney was being heckled at the 2011 Iowa State Fair when he shouted this retort: “Corporations are people, my friend!”

That exchange was about tax policy, but you could do worse than applying Romney’s rebuttal as a first step toward fostering innovation and creativity in the workplace.

All you need to do is change Romney’s emphasis. Make it: Corporations are people, my friend.

Corporations are people.

Not “employers” of people. Not “providers” of products and services to people. People.

Because if there’s one thing we know about people, they get passionate about accomplishing what is most important to them.

And if there’s one thing we know about innovation, it always begins with a person pursuing a passion.

The Human Element

Innovators are fueled not by market research, analytical analyses or probabilities of success. Reorganizing lines of business, entering new markets or replacing the CEO do not inspire them. They are stimulated by something distinctively human. Their passions.

So, if you wanted to make your business human, what would be its passion?

It could be nothing more (or less) than generating shareholder value. Or helping the sick get healthy. Or facilitating the disadvantaged in finding meaningful work. Whatever the mission is, your company and its employees will be more creative and innovative in its pursuit if you imbue your organization with a personality that fits the goal.

The Power of Passion

My partner, Nicole Koedyker, and I see this all the time in the business we created, Forsei Consulting. We help small businesses grow by being socially responsible and environmentally friendly so that they can earn B Corp. certification, which can be a valuable attribute in a competitive marketplace. And what drove our innovation that led to Forsei? Nicole grew up on a 300-acre cattle ranch in Arizona and has always had a deep connection with nature. I grew up dividing my time between a father in Seattle and a mother in Washington, D.C., exposing me to both laid-back liberalism and high-stakes politics. These produced within me a passion to do good, not just do well.

Nicole and I met as freshmen at Drexel University, and as graduation neared—time to find a job or create one—we decided to combine our passions and create one. Our clients include a cleaning service that is a subsidiary of Depaul USA, a transitional housing program that assists homeless and formerly incarcerated men with re-entry into employment. Helping their clients find employment, not providing cleaning services, is their passion. Their innovation was creating their own cleaning company to employ their clients who needed jobs.

Define and Refine Your Purpose

At Forsei, we pick apart companies and help them boil their essential purpose down to one sentence about which they are passionate. They might be a food company, but what they are passionate about is health. They might be a real estate company, but what they are passionate about is reclaiming vacant city lots. They might be a social media marketing company, but what they are passionate about is promoting the visibility of nonprofits.

I took a year’s leave from Drexel to work with City Year, an AmeriCorps program that partners with high-need public schools to provide full-time targeted student interventions. I spent the year tutoring seventh graders and directing a spring-break camp for middle school students. And I watched as City Year and its corporate sponsors created win-win-win partnerships that served the community while ensuring City Year’s solvency and engendering goodwill for businesses large and small. It was all about connecting passions.

Let the Creativity Flow

Does your company have a passion? Does that passion dictate the type of people you hire and the priorities you undertake? Does it guide the policies you adopt and the stakeholders you engage? Does your workplace provide a comfortable environment in which people feel free to follow the company’s passion and connect it with their own?

Only then will people be their best selves while working, and innovation will flourish.

If you want to foster innovation and creativity in the workplace, you need ask yourself this question: “What type of person do I want my company to be?”