23 May 2016 20:16 IST

Managing the mavericks

While they might not always be easy to handle, these misfits are certainly key to a firm’s success

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square hole. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

These words were written for an Apple ad by Steve Jobs (and others). Jobs himself was a maverick, who made Apple a religion, more than a brand.

While the words seem very inspiring, the reality is different. Mavericks don’t have it easy. Many senior managers do not appreciate or respect mavericks. They want ultra-obedient, rule-loving, hierarchy-respecting people to work.

Unfortunately for them, today, more and more mavericks are joining the modern organisation and are actually contributing significantly to the growth. Creativity, which is central to being a maverick, has been proven to have a strong association with laterality that brings out originality, creativity and experimentation.

They’re everywhere

Every organisation has its share of mavericks. If you think your company doesn’t have any, , think again. These creative geniuses can be camouflaged in a grey flannel-suit or a beret. What most of them do have in common are certain habits — including an obsessive dedication to their work. Whether you view them as obnoxious or amusing, it doesn’t matter. What is important is the realisation that they are destined to become a valuable asset to your organisation.

The challenge, perhaps, is that mavericks do not always get along well with others. Given their quirky ways, strong will and high standards, they may ruffle quite a few feathers. They make others uncomfortable. They bristle at systems and organisational routines. Leaders must step up and give space to mavericks to operate and provide them organisational cover to unleash their innovation potential.

What can leaders do?

So what can they do to protect the mavericks in their organisations? Here are some thoughts:

~ Create and empower “skunk works”. The internet defines this term as a small group which works on a project in a way that’s not conventional. Only they can deliver what Steve Jobs described as “insanely great products”.

~ Recognise their contributions in meetings and other opportunities.

~ Provide mentoring and coaching to them.

~ Listen to the mavericks and help them when they face roadblocks.

~ Intervene when dust-up occurs between the mavericks and the others.

~ Personally engage in innovation projects to demonstrate top-level involvement.

The warning

There is only one caveat here.

It is one thing to be a maverick, but quite another to live by company values. Mavericks who do not respect and practice company values need to be let go of. It is important to recognise the ball hogs, the bullies, the bad apples, the unguided missiles, the nay-sayers, the malicious compliers, saboteurs and other toxic personalities, and fire them.

Mistaking them as mavericks whose creative geniuses will help the company become more innovative and productive can backfire. Real mavericks serve to counteract the inertia in the organisation.

As such, while leaders may not be able to cage a maverick, they can guide them. Formal authority might not have much effect on the maverick. But a robust dialogue and a willingness to listen and communicating to them that you value their ideas, helps.

Managing mavericks will become a key formula for success, especially for organisations that want to break new grounds and stay ahead of competition.