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6 ways to shine as a workplace rebel—and not be a jerk

Your idols are rule breakers, but your boss wants you to conform. So what’s your path to standing out in work and life?

6 ways to shine as a workplace rebel—and not be a jerk
[Source image: tolgart/Getty Images]

Corporate life is known for its love of conformity. Everything gets turned into a rule. How much you can spend. What size office an employee of a certain grade is entitled to have. What computer you can use. Many of these regulations keep employees safe and the company out of court. However, the love of conformity bleeds into how we are expected to behave. We are asked to obey rules and do what we are told. Be a good corporate citizen and we will get ahead.  

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The trouble is that when we look at the most celebrated managers in the world, we see a different picture. Leaders like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are not rule followers—they bend the world to their will. They are workplace rebels. Musk has turned the rules of the automobile industry on its head. It’s almost impossible to count how many companies have suffered in competition with Amazon.

If you are building your career, this presents a problem. Employers want you to conform, but your role-models are rule breakers. What should you do? Play it safe or get ahead as a workplace rebel. Nobody wants an employee who is reckless or unethical. Musk’s dislike of rules has not always worked out for him, as he continues to battle the consequences of ill-considered Tweets. However, my research suggests that there is a path for rebels who push the rules. The secret is how you do it. 

CEOs like Jim Peck at market research firm NielsenIQ show what can be achieved. Peck got his start by persuading managers at his former firm LexisNexis to back him in a bid to create one of the world’s first ‘big data’ analytics firms. This was a bold step, well outside Peck’s day-to-day responsibilities. But, having seen the opportunity, he couldn’t let it go. The business has become a multi-billion-dollar revenue firm. Peck was its first CEO and has gone on to lead two other firms since. He is not alone. There are rebels like Peck pushing the boundaries of established firms all over the world. 

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At European insurance company UNIQA, Krisztian Kurtisz proposed a radical new business model that his CEO said would put a “nuclear bomb” under the insurance industry. At the time, Kurtisz was a middle manager responsible for the company’s Hungarian business. He got his funding and is now rolling out his new business across central and eastern Europe. There are similar stories at Japanese firm Panasonic, where Yoky Matsuoka is creating groundbreaking new businesses, defying the norms of a hundred-year-old electronics giant. 

What can we learn from these rebels? Six lessons stand out for anyone who wants to be a successful workplace rebel. 

Get your energy from solving a problem for your customers

Corporations, like all large organizations, get comfortable. They know how to get things done. When things go wrong, it is usually easy to find out why and fix it. They are confident. Unfortunately, this makes them more internal in their thinking. Rebels point to what is happening outside the firm. What are customers talking about? What do they need? How can we do more of what they want? One of my favorite rebels is Sara Carvalho at the engineering firm, Bosch. She saw how difficult it was for people in developing countries to get access to hot water. She mobilized her company to develop a solar power solution, paid for via mobile phone, that she took into villages in Kenya. This was an insight about real people with a real problem she felt the company could solve.  

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Set a scale of ambition that makes following your idea worthwhile

It seems natural not to set your sights too high, a small, cheap idea is surely easier to adopt than a bigger, more expensive one. The reverse is true. If you want to be a rebel who moves the needle for the team, department, or company of which you are a part, you need to solve problems that matter. Jim Peck proposed creating a new category of company. There were no ‘data-led’ businesses when he started his journey to create LexisNexis Risk Solutions in 2001. The boldness of the idea reflected the scale of the opportunity, and it was big enough to matter to his bosses. 

Have a compelling story with vivid imagery, so that people ‘get it’

Krisztian Kurtisz presented his vision for a new insurance business model in dramatic terms. He presented a slide with a large and densely populated office building side by side with the image of the two people he proposed to employ in his new call center. This image, comparing the cost of administration in a traditional insurance firm with that of performing the same task in the digital era, relayed a simple message: our model is broken, and we need to reinvent insurance before others do it for us. 

Build a movement behind your ideas

Kurtisz did not get the opportunity to present his concept on day one. He had to build a network of supporters around him. Some of these would be allies, ready to pitch-in resources to help him get started, others would be advocates, who he could persuade of the value of his idea. Rebels are not loners. Over invest your time in getting others to see the opportunity. Gather their feedback and adapt what you are saying to reflect their input.

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Be humble, letting others feel that they made you successful

Successful rebels are rarely egotists. They are ready to see others feel pride for what you achieved. It is not about getting the attention, but about achieving something that is new and different. This is probably a contrast to the great entrepreneurs like Elon Musk. Attention seeking behavior pushes people away and makes them feel unsafe. If you are going to build a movement behind your ideas.

Don’t wait to be asked

We all have a critique of what is wrong with large corporations, what senior managers need to do. Most of this is probably accurate. Rebels see it too. What’s different is that they do not waste energy on it. Nobody appointed people like Peck and Kurtisz to the job of inventing radical new business opportunities. They saw the opportunity and got started on building support for ideas to capture it. 

Rebels do not always succeed. Large corporations can be tough environments. However, remember that all great new ideas face opposition at first. Even the Apollo lunar landings were not popular at first, it seemed incredible to most people that we could land a person on the Moon and return them safely to Earth. Rebels should not expect to be popular with everyone. What matters is the quality of your commitment to your purpose and willingness to stand out from the crowd. 

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Andy Binns is coauthor of the new book, Corporate Explorer: How Corporations Beat Startups at the Innovation Game, together with Professor Michael Tushman from Harvard Business School and Professor Charles O’Reilly from Stanford. They are all cofounders and directors of the Boston-based innovation advisory firm, Change Logic


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