Early in my career I witnessed a gap that many saw as concerning, but a few of us recognized as inspiring. Too many leaders were not leveraging the knowledge of their employees. I was a Six Sigma Black Belt, a continuous improvement leader tasked with leading, training, and coaching teams to identify constraints, solve problems, and make the business better. I had no one working for me, but I coached and influenced up to 15 teams of five to ten people at a time. My focus was to help bring out the knowledge they possessed about the work they were doing by collaborating with a common problem solving methodology and then leveraging that knowledge to improve business processes.

Leverage Existing Knowledge

I learned three important insights that helped to shape my thinking and provide inspiration throughout my career. The first was that most of the time, the best ideas to innovate and improve already exist within the company with the people doing the work. Your people are your most valuable assets when it comes to innovation. Allowing team members a chance to engage through a transparent problem solving process while recognizing the knowledge and perspectives of everyone creates the best solutions.

Inspire Growth

The second insight is that collaborating around a solution that incorporates perspectives from everyone doing the work helps to get buy-in and commitment from those that have to live with required changes. And getting buy-in from the team is more important than developing the perfect solution because it inspires continuous improvement. When employees feel ownership for their work, they’ll not only give their best, but also find ways to keep getting better.

Close the Gap

The final insight was the significant gap in many organizations between leaders and front line employees. There are many great leaders out there who know how to tap into the potential of teams to create great organizations that last. There are also many leaders who start to believe that they’ve made it to their position by having all the answers. And the higher those leaders go, the more they tend to get isolated from the day to day work where the magic happens. This is when we see low engagement levels, individuals working at half of their potential, and stagnate organizations. All employees have something to contribute, and great companies create systems that foster individual contributions with a shared purpose. Unlocking this potential has become my inspiration.

In today’s world of constant change, the companies that survive will be those that figure out how to leverage the full potential of all employees through dynamic teams. This is most apparent in startups and smaller companies where everyone is on the front lines and has to contribute fully to survive. It becomes more difficult as companies grow and scale with more layers, more locations, and more products and services. And this is where we can learn from smaller companies by maintaining a more entrepreneurial leadership style, staying connected to the front lines, collaborating transparently, listening to all perspectives, learning together, and sharing in success. Otherwise we’re only putting half of the team on the field.