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Managing Mavericks

by Raymond Yeh

Is it possible that your best asset can also be your worst headache? At the end of the day do you find yourself exhausted by that one disruptive rogue employee? Do you have an employee who is constantly going the extra mile to shake up the status-quo and create conflict? Is she always challenging the standard operating procedures? This is a familiar dilemma of managing the unmanageable.

At the same time the art of managing mavericks can be one of the most rewarding skills you can develop for your enterprise. IBM's maverick entity "Emerging Business Opportunities" (EBO) was created to take advantage of the company's own patents, which the competition had been capitalizing on. Flying under IBM's protective wing but structured to utilize the mavericks thinking outside the corporate box, the EBO is flying high, currently contributing more than $15 billion in revenue annually. At Medtronic co-founder Earl Bakken credits the mavericks in his company as an essential force in advancing and sustaining Medtronic's role in medical technologies.

Appreciating and recognizing the possibilities a maverick will bring to your organization is extremely important. When processes or projects become bogged down turn to the skilled maverick for unorthodox solutions and infectious enthusiasm, and be sure to utilize their willingness to involve themselves 110% in ideas and projects. If changing business models are causing chaos and confusion, the maverick's visionary foresight will encourage creativity while inspiring the whole group to evaluate and analyze its own past and future performance. Letting the maverick know you are his confederate when it comes to corporate politics will go a long way toward develop rapport and mutual respect. Making the extra effort to communicate exactly what you expect will insure success and ease your frustration. Ask as many questions as needed and be explicitly clear about asking for his contribution to the greatest common good. Always keep in mind what Earl Bakken says about these unique beings: "You want to have some mavericks who are out ahead 5 or 6 years. If you don't have them you better grow them …"

Nurturing an environment that is maverick-friendly, while occasionally risky, has its rewards. Southwest Airlines (SWA) has been flying on the back of one of the most successful visionaries, Chairman Herb Kelleher, since its inception. SWA has gone beyond all expectations in setting the standards for profitability, customer loyalty, and employee initiative. When several major airlines terminated SWA's access their computer terminals for issuing tickets, Kelleher simply decided to go ticketless-although he had no idea how he would achieve it. Fortunately his maverick mentality had permeated the company. He discovered that a group of employees had already been working on an unofficial "skunk works" project to go ticketless and that SWA was actually ready to go ticketless!

As with the employees at SWA, most mavericks will make contributions that are definitely outside the norm. They may offer a hundred wild and crazy ideas, out of which one or two may be brilliant gems. They can be terrible to manage yet every company needs at least one. Need some advice from a pro? Here are two bits from Earl Bakken: "They are terrible to manage…You don't let them rule, but you've got to have a system that at least allows them to be heard …"




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