The Innovation Bridge

Linking Student Learning to Innovation and Growth

Posted by Pallavi Sodhi

Do leaders give rise to innovation or does a culture of innovation in organizations give rise to leaders?

Image Credit: Saj

Do leaders give rise to innovation or does a culture of innovation in organizations give rise to leaders?

Leadership starts at the academic level with students and like a crescendo, peaks at companies that nurture innovation. Give students the right tools and experiences and see them shine to become leaders of tomorrow. Innovation is needed on both academic and corporate fronts to build leaders, the foundation of which is based on strategic alliances between three parties: companies, academic institutions and raw talent. All of which meet on the innovation bridge.

Key Note Speech given by Pallavi Sodhi at the World Marketing Summit 2019 at Toronto:

Building a culture of innovation in companies can only come to fruition if the right talent comes on board. So where does that right talent come from? The answer may not be that obvious. The right talent need not be poached from a competitor, nor would they be ticking off all the boxes on the job selection criteria. They may not need to have the requisite years of experience doing a similar job at a similar organization, nor would they have to manage a similar team size to be a leader… It is a known fact that companies today often wish for plug-and-play talent. Many hiring managers even hire people like themselves. Few companies follow the Russian nesting dolls (the matryoshka) principle as eloquently used by David Ogilvy, when he said, “If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarves. But if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we will become a company of giants.”

"If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarves. But if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we will become a company of giants."

Hiring managers or Human Resource professionals may argue that it is hard enough to find those people “bigger” than they are, or that once they are “found”, it is a challenge to hire them. This is where a sound Employer Brand plays a critical role in convincing this “bigger” talent to come and work for you.

Once you have created a strong Employer Brand, and have gained the ability to attract top talent, do try NOT to fall into that plug-and-play trap.

Once companies find their ideal candidate, the next step is to keep them engaged and happy.

  • Why? Because engaged employees perform 20% better than disengaged counterparts (SHRM, 2007 Research Quarterly).
  • How? Invest in making your employees happy.


Happy employees experience 31% higher productivity, 37% higher sales, and three times higher creativity.

(Martin, 2014)

And there is no doubt that creative juices form the cocktail for innovation.

Once you have built a happy employee base, it is time to cherry-pick the high achievers, and provide a solid framework to train and develop them, so they become leaders. Companies that create an environment of happy employees become a leadership incubator. They have the ability to spot raw talent and have the tools and patience to develop them because they understand only too well that the right talent could have significant impact on their bottom line. Their mantra becomes “Over-hire, you over-achieve. Under-hire, you under-achieve.”

However, leadership incubators cannot work in isolation. It is vital for these incubators to form strategic alliances with academic institutions as well as with raw talent. Collectively they push the boundaries for innovation, in an ever-changing global landscape.”

Companies need to create an environment where employees will not only survive, but thrive. They must eat, breathe and sleep a strong employer brand so they become the employer of choice.”

So how does the raw talent feel? Ironic but some established stats reveal that:

61% of employees say the realities of their new job differ from expectations set during the interview process. (Glassdoor, 2013). Often what’s on the menu is not always reflected on the plate. This is not a one-sided arrangement. It’s not just up to companies to lay the foundation for future success but prospective employees need to participate as well.

39% of employers believe new grads are ill equipped to join the workforce and 25% believe they are not prepared for the complexity of entry-level roles. (Busteed, 2019)

This is where Academic Institutions become a valued partner. They are part of the bridge to link companies and raw talent. They have the capabilities and know-how to provide a platform where real life experiences can shape thinking and most importantly, expectations. The irrevocable impact that schools have on students’ careers is directly proportional to the output of talent that the organizations receive. It is at schools that students receive a broader palette of learning and a bigger brush to be creative.

Innovative, experiential programs like Canada’s Next Top Ad Executive organized by DeGroote’s School of Business and Live Client Learning Marketing at York University’s School of Administrative Studies go beyond the confines of the classroom and help place students closer to the boardroom. Experiential learning replicates the real-world environment, immersing students in an active and shared learning environment through role playing, guided discussions, and simulated situations. Focused on preparing students to enter the fast-paced, real world of marketing, being able to tackle marketing challenges, interacting with senior marketing leaders and demonstrating their leadership skills are opportunities that students rarely get to have before graduating. The raw talent becomes not-so-raw after all!! They get a taste of what working for a company is like – fiercely competitive, a race to win awards, accolades and, potentially, career growth.

Combining exploration of fresh thinking, executing and reflecting upon key lessons learned, are the tenets of experiential learning that challenges students to get out of their comfort zone…. perfect fodder for innovation! Prof. Mandeep Malik of DeGroote’s Business School, an innovator in the world of academia and the visionary of Canada’s Next Top Ad Exec, speaks to the value of such programs:

“With traditional classrooms being spaces that are constrained by a templated role of student and instructor, something needed to change. I observed student motivation being very different in spaces not designed for instruction…. so I borrowed from the concept of playgrounds. What we have created now are self-directed spaces where students learn by doing and in partnership with industry. These spaces allow for application of knowledge, opportunities for collaboration and feedback from practitioners that gives students both growth and the confidence in their abilities.”

Prof. Malik elaborates on the programs as being a training ground where students receive leadership training by doing. “The experiential programs I run have been designed to be managed for students by students in keeping with principles of self-directed learning. Students are put into leadership roles and tasked with building collaboration with industry, with peers and with other academic institutions. They propose budgets, manage resources, structure teams, gain coaching, overcome obstacles and learn to deliver outcomes for multiple stakeholders. These are unparalleled structured leadership experiences curated through faculty mentorship outside of curriculum limitations. These are earned leadership experiences and students sign up for these based on personal motivations and aspirations. This is the new un-classroom.”

The innovative concept of the un-classroom is in itself a talent pool of budding leaders for companies to draw from…. provided they continue to do their part in engaging these young leaders and imparting training.

Other programs like the Live-Client Learning at YorkU, in a unique setting, tests students on their marketing and leadership skills as well as cultural fit, because it is important that experiential programs drive both the tangible and intangible elements of being in a workforce. Combining classroom and real-world experience, applying marketing theories to solve real business problems posed by companies from diverse sectors, these select students gain confidence to participate in national and global marketing competitions, presenting innovative go-to-market solutions to diverse audience groups, demonstrating initiative, leadership, social responsibility, integrity, and accountability. They extend their learning and enhance their understanding of “what clients want” from an employability standpoint.

The result: leaders in the classroom move on with an inherent knowledge that others have not acquired, allowing for a smoother transition into leadership development, bringing life to their innovative ideas that often contribute to a company’s bottom line.

The success of these experiential learning initiatives shows that creating such live experiences engages students as learners, and stretches their imagination, leading them to think differently, which adds to innovation


They learn to review the “what”, the “how” and “how not to”…. by matching the goals, with actionable strategies and the process that gets them there. Most importantly they recognize what to do and what not to do, by understanding business impact from the results they achieve. They are then able to create a “template” of processes that lead to positive results, simplifying it for others and making it more efficient for the company to replicate success. And in this entire transformation, they become the leaders of tomorrow.

In summary, innovation is needed on both academic and corporate fronts to build leaders. The foundation of the innovation bridge is based on strategic alliances between three parties: companies, academic institutions and raw talent, each of them having to do their part in holding up the bridge. Together, the primary responsibility of corporations, academic institutions and the raw talent force is to ensure a sustainable strategic partnership, holding each other accountable, and being part of change that, in turn leads to innovation. There is a whole domino effect here…. companies that foster a culture of innovation need the right talent to build leaders; for that, they need to hire “bigger” than who they are… which they can do only if they have a strong employer brand. Once top talent has been secured, companies need to keep them happy and engaged, because that is what leads to creativity and innovation. On the other end of the bridge are the academic institutions that have the capacity and ability to provide raw talent, who, through new and innovative ‘un-classroom’ programs, are able to transition smoothly into leadership development, and become a storehouse for innovation.


Centre for Workforce Engagement (2015). Retrieved from

Lyubomirsky, S., King, L., and Diener, E. (2005). The benefits of frequent positive affect: does happiness lead to success? University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign and The Gallup Organization. Retrieved from

Zwilling, Martin. (2014, December 2). How to Increase Productivity By Employee Happiness. Retrieved from

Glassdoor Team. (2013, May 10). 6 in 10 Employees Say Job Realities Different Than Expected. Retrieved from

Busteed, Brandon. (2019, March 29). Why Aren’t Graduates Ready For Work? Retrieved from

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