Managing mavericks

 

THE BRIGHTEST BUSINESS IDEAS OFTEN COME FROM THE WILDEST CARDS IN THE PACK. THE TRICK IS FOR COMPANIES TO NURTURE OFF-THE-WALL EMPLOYEES RATHER THAN SEND THEM SCREAMING THROUGH THE DOOR, AS WIDGET FINN EXPLAINS

 

Every organisation needs mavericks. They are the people who ignore the rules, refuse to follow conventions and are difficult to work with. But they are also the people who think outside the box and come up with zany ideas that might just work.

Companies have always needed new ideas to survive, progress and keep them ahead of their competitors but, in the past, they have been poor at nurturing the people who produce them.

The history of bright ideas is littered with mavericks who have been ignored or who have stormed out of the corporate fold because no one would listen to them. James Dyson's bagless vacuum cleaner and Trevor Bayliss' clockwork radio became commercial realities only because their inventors failed to get corporate support and decided to go it alone.

Anita Roddick knew it would be fruitless to sell her idea of natural beauty products packaged in plain plastic bottles to a commercial firm. Her unconventional approach to running a company found little support among the business establishment, particularly when she referred to potential corporate City investors as "boring old men in suits". Thirty years on and she is still regarded as a maverick in the business world.

International corporates need maverick companies to jolt them out of their complacency, but even maverick companies need some formal structure and conventional business framework to be successful. Bill Gates realised that the maverick image can be an essential part of a corporate brand, but a global company has to be run on acceptably conventional lines. So Gates represents the out-of-the box thinking that is vital to keep Microsoft as a market leader, while he's supported by a framework of astute business brains.

But many mavericks eventually feel constrained by the structure of an organisation, even when it is their own creation, and end up handing over their brainchild to more conventional foster parents in a bid to pursue new ideas. An organisation doesn't necessarily have to have a maverick at the top, but it does need creative talent at all levels, and it must be imaginatively nurtured. The skills of many mavericks have been wasted because no one could handle them, since these non-conformists fit uneasily into the structure of an organisation. But as business guru Tom Peters says: "Weed out the dullards and nurture the nuts."

The nuts are not always easily recognisable, for an apparently conventional exterior can conceal a zany thinker. Take surrealist painter Rene Magritte, who lived in a trim, suburban house in Brussels with his wife and pet Pomeranians.

Mavericks stand out from the crowd because they challenge the status quo, according to Sue Cheshire, managing director of The Academy for Chief Executives, who has worked with several of these blue-sky thinkers. She says: "They are the people who make the rest of us stop and think. Often they are frustrating to deal with, or frustrated because they can't understand why others don't see the world from their point of view, but I wouldn't change them because they make an invaluable contribution to the business."

'Only those who come up with original ideas will survive in a competitive market'

Often people labelled as mavericks fail to understand why because they consider themselves "the norm". James Dyson says: "I never thought of myself as a maverick until someone included me in a book on them. But I have always tried to find a different and better way of doing things. Every organisation needs vast quantities of people who think in an original way. Only those who come up with original ideas and solutions will survive in a competitive marketplace. The conventional answer has either been tried by others or fails to solve the new problem. At Dyson we try to have an atmosphere where everyone is pioneering and breaking new ground, and there is no fear in making suggestions."

Mavericks bring other benefits to the workplace apart from their commercial value, says Chris Dyson, director of the Hay Group. "They have an enthusiasm and excitement about their work that is infectious. Their level of integrity is higher than corporate man, which means that they are very surprised when others fail to live up to their own standards. But there is a down side: their single-mindedness, since their overriding ideas become an all-consuming passion that leaves little room to appreciate the feelings and views of others."

Rob Yeung, business psychologist at Kiddy and Partners, divides mavericks into two types - those who deliver results and those who don't. He says: "The latter won't survive long within the corporate fold. The former may bring in significant revenue, maintain exceptional client relationships or show outstanding technical prowess, so they will be tolerated by their colleagues, however eccentric their way of working.

"The maverick can be a catalyst for change, providing an opportunity for the organisation to question its systems. If he or she is producing outstanding results through unconventional methods then perhaps some policies need to be changed."

"We don't have rules, we have systems, so that everyone agrees the framework, then staff are given a huge amount of freedom to just get on with things. Everyone is encouraged to try out new ideas in a no-blame culture." Cheshire argues that managing mavericks means setting boundaries, then allowing them the freedom to operate within them. "Give them the 'what', but don't try to specify the 'how'. These individuals enjoy finding new ways to get work done, and need challenges to deliver things their own way."

'Mavericks have an enthusiasm and excitement about their work that is infectious'

Keeping mavericks motivated is essential to prevent them from walking out of the door, taking their creative ideas with them. John French, founder and chief executive of Brand ID Group, argues that it's vital to establish what drives them.

"Few creatives are motivated by money," he says. "One of our key workers wanted to help the charity sector. She developed some technology that enables visually impaired people to use websites, which the RNIB is adopting. It has taken the business into a completely different area and, if we had failed to encourage her to pursue this project, she might have gone to another company."

Aside from individual drivers, French uses a reward scheme to encourage creative thinkers - a notoriously independent lot - to work in flexible teams. Twenty-five per cent of the company is owned by a staff trust, so everyone benefits from its financial success.

Perhaps the best managers of mavericks are other mavericks - after all, it takes one to know one. As a self-proclaimed maverick, Iain Bennett worked in a large organisation, reporting to a manager who knew how to handle him.

Bennett says: "He demonstrated possibilities rather than setting targets, putting me in situations where I would meet people and create what business I could from it, rather than saying 'your target today is...' He gave me the confidence to go forward." Bennett, recently appointed CEO of Metro New Media, claims long experience of managing mavericks. "You collaborate with them and conspire together, making it clear that you're protecting them from anything the institution can throw at them." The dot.com era threw up a particular dilemma among large organisations who saw their brightest talent walking out of the door, enticed away by the prospect of financial rewards and the opportunity to develop new ideas. How could these companies generate innovation internally and become more entrepreneurial while protecting shareholder value?

'You collaborate with them and conspire together, making it clear that you're protecting them from anything the institution can throw at them' - Iain Bennett

Henley-Incubator (www.henley-incubator.com) is a spin-off venture set up by Henley Management College to help companies manage innovative and creative ideas that fail to fit into the current corporate structure. Andrew Gaule, CEO of Henley-Incubator, explains: "An employee may come up with new technology or a new channel to the marketplace, and we offer a route that helps the company retain these talented entrepreneurs."

A potential entrepreneur receives advice on building a business plan and, if it's accepted, the parent company invests around 10,000, freeing up the individual from his day job to develop the area. The incubator scheme also provides executive directors to help the organisation develop. BT and Powergen are among major companies who see it as a means of utilising assets, such as brand and intellectual property, instead of losing their creative people.

Now, large companies, realising the value of the maverick spirit, are attempting to capture it by acquiring oddball companies. Unilever is going to great lengths to protect its new acquisition, Ben and Jerry's ice-cream company, from the deadening hand of head office. But Chris Dyson believes that, in the long run, traditional companies stifle any maverick quality. "Corporates are under pressure from the City and are discomforted by nonconformity."

The message for successfully managing mavericks is clear. Set the boundaries, then give them their head. When 3M's employees had the freedom to explore unusual uses for substandard glue, the Post-it note was born, transforming office life - and 3M's bottom line.

 

CASE STUDY - ST LUKE'S COMMUNICATIONS