How Alex O’Brien of Cardinal Group Fosters a Culture of Innovation

The Cardinal Group is one of the most innovative firms in the multifamily industry.  They operate with the goal of achieving the improbable with limited people and resources.  Accomplishing this goal requires an innovative approach and openness to new ideas.

Recently, I spoke with Alex about his approach to innovation and leadership.  Here are some insights he had to share.

Before you can apply innovative ideas to your business, you must develop them.  How do you identify opportunities for innovation?

I think the term innovation is really overused and misused.  As Simon Sinek pointed out, innovation is usually just “new features.”[i]  With that said, I believe that the rapid changes related to new technologies are opening up major opportunities to innovate or at least offer new features to our products.   

I think all innovation should address a problem that actually needs solving.  We are now in a world where our imaginations can be brought to life, so we simply need to identify the problem we are solving and imagine the solution.

At the Cardinal group, there is no such thing as a change for the sake of change.  Their innovative solutions all start with defined and recognized problems.

The Cardinal Group is known for innovation.  In what ways do you encourage innovation inside the organization?

We are very Intrepreneurial, which starts with a best ideas culture.  We constantly are surveying our teams for ways to improve, and some of those ideas actually lead to major changes or even innovations.  We have not only encouraged our team members to leave Cardinal to start their own businesses, but we have launched new businesses to serve the needs – both current and projected – of the industry.

As Alex and I were speaking, we touched on kaizen[ii].  This philosophy of doing business empowers all employees to bring their ideas.  At the Cardinal Group, the leadership recognizes that great ideas can come from anyone.  Their executives strive to be approachable and open to innovation.

It takes a particular leader to be open to suggestions.  What do you look for when building a leadership team?

We are a strengths-based organization, so we are constantly looking at ways to bring the best out of our leaders.  If we look at what people do great and not at where people are weak, we bring out the best in our leaders.   

Also, I have a few rules:

  1. Absolute commitment to the Culture in our actions.
    • Be a team player.
    • Be humble.
    • Be passionate and determined.
    • Create fun.
    • Do more with less.
    • The actions of our leadership team must align with our Culture.
  2. Don’t be a d**k unless you have to be.
  3. Be open to giving and receiving feedback.
  4. Be a coach and be coachable.

For leaders to thrive, they must give clear feedback, and also be willing to listen to areas they can improve.  Humility is needed!

Leaders create leaders.  I usually ask people, “who is the one leader that has most impacted your career.”  If I hear the same name a few times, I try to recruit that person to join my team!

Before Alex and the Cardinal Group bring a new leader on board, they look for these traits.

Innovation is a core value for you and your organization.  How do you create a culture of innovation?

How do you create a culture of anything?  It starts at the top, and you must remove roadblocks that prevent it from flowing in the organization.  Cultures are all about the behaviors we allow and reward – so if we say “Pursue Growth and Knowledge” as a value – we need to reward behaviors that align with that value.  

Also, innovation is risky.  It involves ideas that don’t work.  It involves failure.  Emotional and psychological safety are crucial for people to feel they can jump, and the shoot will open.  If you want to create a culture of innovation, focus first on a culture that allows people to fail forward.

Developing innovative solutions is inherently risky.  Sometimes, new ideas will fail.  At the Cardinal Group, they recognize that Risk is OK.  They focus on finding and removing roadblocks that may hinder innovation.

Through my conversation with Alex, I gained three key takeaways:

  • As a Leader, You’re Responsible for Everything Your Team Does or Doesn’t Do

When something goes wrong, great leaders take responsibility.  When things go well, great leaders share the credit.

  • Innovation Starts at the Top

You can’t just tell your team to “be innovative.”  If you want to develop innovative solutions, it must be a priority at every level.

  • Identify, Recognize and Reward Behaviors That Represent Your Desired Values

There are certain behaviors that put your business values into motion.  The behaviors that you reward will continue.

The Cardinal Group may be a leader in the multifamily industry, but its innovative approach to doing business can apply to any business in any industry.

[i] Sinek, S. (2009). Start with why: How great leaders inspire everyone to take action. New York, N.Y.: Portfolio.


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