Is The Maverick At Your Company A Genius Or A Jerk?

...And what if he's both? Bob and Gregg Vanourek explain how to work with talented people who are, shall we say, idiosyncratic.

Would Tim Cook hire Steve Jobs?

Think about it. If he did, how long would Jobs last at today's Apple? Would Cook fire Jobs for his famous rants and bullying ways? Would Jobs bail out, frustrated with the lack of total control, and go start another universe-denting company?

These are telling questions because they address a critical but poorly understood aspect of innovative companies: how to deal with mavericks?

Jobs was many things, as we saw in his remarkable career trajectory. People can debate his leadership style and personal characteristics, including sometimes-outrageous behavior, but there is no doubt that Jobs was a quintessential maverick.

Mavericks Are Essential to Innovation

Mavericks are the independent innovators or performers—often quirky—who do not run well with others. They think and act differently. Many mavericks take mischievous delight in shaking things up.

Mavericks can be exceptional innovators, critical in our ultracompetitive world. Besides Jobs, think of other product and business model innovators like Jeff Bezos, Tony Hsieh, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Richard Branson, and Daniel Ek of Spotify. Think also of social innovation mavericks like Bill Drayton of Ashoka and Billy Shore of Share Our Strength. Don't forget cultural mavericks like Lady Gaga, E. L. James, and Stephen Colbert.

Of course, mavericks can be found beyond the ranks of entrepreneurs and celebrities. Many are found within organizations, fighting to bring innovation into corporate cultures that are not always receptive.

And there's the rub: mavericks don't always get along well with others. With their quirky ways, strong wills, and high standards, they often create friction and conflict. They make others uncomfortable. They bristle at systems and routines. As a result, mavericks are often marginalized, rejected by the corporate immune system or by colleagues who want harmony or simplicity. Meanwhile, innovation fizzles.

In such cases, senior executives play a critical role: leaders must protect the mavericks in their organizations. They must step up and give mavericks space to operate, providing organizational cover for mavericks to work their magic and keep the flame of innovation alight.

Look to a surprising example we discovered in our research and interviews for our new book, Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations: Mayo Clinic, founded in 1889. The Mayo network serves more than a million patients annually. It is a global leader in health care delivery, research, and education, with a sterling brand in health care. Patients from all corners of the globe journey to Mayo for treatment. For over 20 straight years, Mayo hospitals have earned top U.S. News & World Report rankings. Mayo has compiled a stunning record of impacts, from to establish medical residency education to performing the first FDA-approved hip replacement opening their Center for Innovation in 2008.

Mayo's approach is both high-tech and high-touch—combining smart use of technology with old-fashioned customer service and attentive care. On the tech side, Mayo created one of the largest electronic medical record systems in the world and developed a "Virtual Mayo Clinic" presence on Second Life.

Its rich history and sense of tradition notwithstanding, Mayo is not looking for homogeneous candidates when it comes to recruiting. Mayo values what it calls "jarring individuals," employees who question the status quo and shake things up. These Mayo mavericks—and the Clinic's ability to protect them and leverage their talents—are essential to Mayo's enduring success.

Here, Mayo Clinic is not alone. At DaVita (a leading kidney care provider), COO Emeritus Joe Mello told us, "You need mavericks. You should embrace them. They test the assumptions that you're managing with."

How can leaders protect mavericks in their organizations? Here is a punch list:

  • create and empower autonomous "rapid action teams" (or "skunk works")—small cross-functional groups, trained and empowered with the resources and authority to launch path-breaking new products ("insanely great products," as Steve Jobs would say)
  • recognize mavericks and their contributions in meetings, conferences, retreats, and other communications
  • provide mentoring and coaching for mavericks, listening and helping them when they encounter roadblocks
  • intervene when dust-ups occur between mavericks and others, reframing to focus on the goal instead of the dispute
  • create a culture that celebrates piloting, experimentation, and pivots, and that allows or even welcomes failure (as an investment in learning and discovery)
  • personally engage in innovation projects to show top-level commitment

But Take Heed

There are, however, important exceptions to the "protect the mavericks" mantra. There are cases when leaders should not protect the mavericks because their behavior has gone too far. [b]When mavericks do not operate by the shared values of the organization, and support its mission, they must become casualties. Leaders must remove them from the organization, "helping them succeed elsewhere."

Mello told us about one high-performing maverick at DaVita who "did not live by the core values. He thought they were a joke. We terminated him. We made it known the reason he was gone was that he didn't manage by the mission and values. Once you do that, the message gets around."

In our years of experience, from Fortune 500 firms to startups and turnarounds, we have worked with all sorts of mavericks, from brilliant academicians to software engineers, temperamental artists, and entrepreneurial founders. We have seen ball hogs, bad apples, bullies, unguided missiles (who launch a disruptive rocket at a colleague in a meeting and then sit back to watch the fallout), naysayers, malicious compliers (who acquiesce to a request knowing negative consequences will result), saboteurs, destructive, toxic personalities, and more. What to do with them when they are beyond fixing? Xerox CEO Ursula Burns told us succinctly: "We fire them." Harvard Business School professor Bill George told us his approach when he was CEO of Medtronic: "We don't tolerate jerks."

Too many leaders either fail to take the necessary casualties or fail to do it soon enough. They ignore inappropriate behavior that undermines the organization's values, often because the individual in question is a star performer. When leaders fail to take decisive action with these malcontents, they damage the organization's culture—and their own moral authority.

Of course, not all cases are clear-cut. Leaders must make judgment calls about when coaching, second chances, and creative interventions are appropriate. Leading organizations with mavericks is a challenge and not for the faint of heart.

Back to our hypothetical (and slightly heretical) questions about Apple: Would Cook hire Jobs? Fire him? Of course, Apple would be who-knows-where without the contributions of Jobs (and cofounder Steve Wozniak). Jobs brought a bruised Apple back to life, restoring its maverick magic and propelling it to historic heights. Steve Jobs demonstrated genius, but his leadership style had profound flaws—and his behavior was sometimes atrocious.

Leaders should protect the mavericks who support the organization's mission and values—and part ways with those who don't.

Bob and Gregg Vanourek are the authors of Triple Crown Leadership, available now from McGraw-Hill. Follow them @TripleCrownLead.

[Image: Flickr user Jon Rawlinson]

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