Category Archives: Building Better Business Managers

In Corporate Culture the Maverick is Both a Bane and a Blessing

A maverick let loose in a business culture is a disruptive force that can morph into a catalyst for constructive change.

A maverick is someone who always wants tomorrow to be today. Accepting the way things are, because that’s the way they are, is about as uncomfortable for the maverick as running naked through a field of poison ivy. And they seem to come by this independent spirit quite naturally.

There seems to be something hardwired in the internal circuitry of mavericks that causes them to want to fix what others don’t think is broken. When they were younger, parents and teachers referred Independenceto nascent mavericks as the ones with “ants in their pants.” They were the independent thinkers, often viewed as “odd” or out of place. In the Old West a wild horse that could not be tamed, trained or branded was called a maverick; and that pretty well sums up how the business world feels about today’s mavericks.

Since the objective of most business organizations is for things to run smoothly, the focus of management is to codify consistency and eliminate surprise. It’s no wonder, then, that the corporate culture tends to dismiss the maverick as simply a disgruntled malcontent who is unhappy with any and every thing.

But this is a hasty, misjudgment fostered by those who are, for the most part, content with the same old, same old. A true maverick is only discontented when things are not as they “should be” and when no effort is being made to do what should be done. The essence of a maverick – and the real value they can add – is to make others uncomfortable with the way things are so they can be more accepting of the way things should be.

Most of those in business who have to deal with a maverick in their midst, pass through three phases of emotion:

In the first phase they are frustrated and irritated with the maverick for being a nonconformist outlier who is not willing to go along to get along.

In the next phase many managers become intimidated by the ideas of the maverick, because they may force them to change the way they do things. And change is discomfiting.

Finally, it is not unusual for those who initially chastised the maverick to come to wish that, they too, could be a maverick.

Even though any company can benefit from encouraging a maverick mentality, being a business maverick is not easy, because it means being an outsider while being on the inside. Bringing about needed change from the inside is the most difficult to accomplish, because those on the inside are the most resistant to change. This is the reason why troubled companies often look outside for someone to be brought in as the change-agent. Yet the most effective change can only come from someone who fully understands the inside, but does not complacently accept it as the only way, or even the best way. And such a person can only be an embedded maverick.

The Maverick is a Shameless Rule Breaker

Let there be no doubt that successful mavericks in business are those who break the existing rules of how things should be done and chart new, creative courses of action. Often, due to constant rejection, trailblazing mavericks end up running new entrepreneurial businesses, but it is also possible for the maverick to end up running some of the biggest names in business. One thing all successful mavericks have in common is that they changed the company they work for or the industry they operate in from the inside. They had experience and knowledge of how the business was being run, and had an idea to do it better. Think of Fred Smith, founder of FedEx, Steve Jobs, the guru of Apple, Inc., Bill Gates of Microsoft, or Richard Branson of the Virgin empire. Mavericks like these are noted first and foremost for breaking the rules and traditions of their industries that say, “You can’t do that.” Still, true maverick rule-breakers are too few on the American business scene and there is always opportunity – not to mention need – for more.

So You Want to be a Maverick?

If you want to join the universe of successful business mavericks, you’ve got to start by thinking like they do. And the first sign of a true maverick is relentless curiosity. The man or woman who challenges the old, outmoded rules of business is constantly asking questions and confronting the way things are done. True mavericks are never negative just to be negative. Rather they offer positive alternatives to established procedures and mores.

Inveterate mavericks often exhibit other attributes as well:

  • They are willing to explore new perspectives on how things should be done.
  • They are open to try new things or do old things differently.
  • They have a compelling drive to seek out new ideas and test their potential value.
  • They are eager to listen to others and profit from their input; regardless of who gets the credit.

When you get right down to it, all it takes to be a maverick is an openness and willingness to look at the world as it is in new ways. But to be a successful maverick takes more than aberrant thinking. DifferentlyEffective mavericks understand that thinking about a new idea or way of doing things is not enough. The true value of a good idea resides in its implementation. As management expert Peter Drucker wrote, “Ideas are cheap and abundant. What is of value is the effective placement of these ideas into situation that develop into action.”

Admittedly, pushing forward with new ideas or instituting a new approach to the way things are done is more difficult in the stultifying environment of most corporate cultures, but that is what distinguishes the true maverick. And it is the reason why so many who believe deeply in their beliefs go off to become successful entrepreneurs. In fact, entrepreneur and maverick are almost synonymous mindsets.

Mavericks on the Fringes

There is no doubt that mavericks are on the fringes of most corporate cultures, but that is what creates the opportunity to be so impactful. Sure, daring to think and do things differently exposes the maverick to risks and ridicule, but you know what? Being a maverick is the only way to be true to yourself and make a difference in how things are done. Even though you may risk the derision and tsk-tsk of your friends, business associates, boss, and an endless string of others; even though there is a risk that you’ll come up with a dumb idea for which you’ll be chastised; even though some may perceive you as a show-off or know-it-all; even though all of this may be true, when you finally succeed. the reward and personal satisfaction is so much better than the abuse suffered. And it’s not even a contest. Just ask Fred Smith, Bill Gates, Richard Branson and any other successful maverick if the rewards and personal satisfaction was worth the ridicule and naysayers they experienced as mavericks?

Fortunately, even if one is not a born maverick, it is an attitude and way of thinking that can be an acquired talent well worth learning and practicing. It may not be easy, but it will be worth the effort. To do so we have to overcome the way our psyche has been hardwired. We have to stop just accepting the way things are and start asking what they could be. It is my contention that the only way to stand out in a conventional world is to be unconventional and the only way to do that is to challenge convention. No one challenges convention better than a maverick.

Live for the Future but Act in the Moment

If it’s not possible to predict the future, why do so many business people try to?

One staple of the business world is the ubiquitous “business plan.” These “plans,” in effect, are a detailed attempt to predict the future by anticipating the environment, actions and results of a company for the next one, three, five or even 10 years. Tell me this: Have you ever met a business plan that has not been reforecast, ignored or forgotten by the time the future it was supposed to predict arrived? Neither have I.

It’s not like these business plans are a broad narrative of the intent or vision of the BusinessPlancompany. No, the typical business plan endeavors to predict the most detailed minutia of the company’s future operations. Right there printed in black and white are the specific prognostications for such things as sales, revenues, taxes, expenses and profits. And then each of these categories is further broken down into specific details. Things like the number, timing and average sale size; employee count, cost of capital, facilities size and overhead are all there down to the last dollar. Right alongside these numbers are extrapolations for what the internal rate of return on invested capital, total return, shareholder equity and something called EBITDA will be years from now.

I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that if a rational person steps back and objectively looks at this effort they have to ask: Are you kidding me? Who in their right mind would waste their time or put any credence in this type of fortunetelling? (It has been estimated that the cost in time and money wasted on annually developing business plans is greater than the entire GNP of Norway.)

To my way of thinking these business plans are the Tarot cards of the business world. And yet, these concoctions of numerals are used – indeed relied on – by (supposedly) highly intelligent individuals when deciding to invest millions in the operations of a company. Private equity firms are famous for basing a significant part of their investment decisions on the “due diligence” of a company’s business plan. When it comes to start-up companies, venture capitalists have nothing to base their investment decisions on except an out-of-whole-cloth, pie-in-the-sky business plan presented by the entrepreneur. Despite this hocus-pocus sleight-of-hand, investors go forward because the Tarot cards look good and are aligned in the right order. (Or maybe it’s because the PowerPoint presentations are so pretty.)

The Wrong and Right of Business Plans

The real weakness in the traditional business plan process is the failure to acknowledge that getting to the future requires dealing with a multiplicity of possibilities. The only thing static in the business world (other than business plans) is that the world is not static. It is impossible to anticipate what possibilities might become reality and even if that could be done, they do not lend themselves to control.

It is much like the chance of picking a specific set of numbers that will emerge from an infinite number of numbers. In the real world that is called a lottery; in the business world it is called a business plan. No matter how many variable possibilities are planned for, there are an infinite number of possibilities that are not able to be anticipated. This means that the failure of even the most thought out and detailed business plans is about the only thing preordained in the plan.

So what’s the point here? It’s not that you shouldn’t have a plan, but the plan should not be to predict the future, it should be a plan to shape the future. You see, even though it is not possible to predict the future, it is possible to influence and shape it. And that should be the real intent and focus of a business plan.

The best business plan starts with a clear vision of what the company seeks to look like Futureand achieve in the future. This vision must above all be concise, coherent and plausible. Once established the vision must be consistently communicated and staunchly adhered to.

At its founding, the five-year business plan for my company – LifeUSA — was: “In five years LifeUSA will be a national company competing effectively against the largest companies in the industry.” This plan allowed those associated with LifeUSA to live in the future while operating in the moment. Each year the planning process would be predicated on responding to two questions:

  • What can we do better this year to improve on what we did last year?
  • What can we do this year that we didn’t do last year that will get us closer to achieving our plan?

These questions were not answered by plugging wishful numbers into an evanescent future, but by targeting ideas and actions for the present moment in time that would ultimately produce the numbers. This approach to planning offered the flexibility to deal with emerging possibilities – both good and bad – that could not have been anticipated.

At the end of each year those involved in the management of the company were asked to list five specific actions they would take during the next year that would help LifeUSA move closer to its long term vision of being a national company. Once the numbers for the current year were finalized, that same group would be asked to develop specific actions that could be taken to simply make the numbers better in the upcoming year. Other than for budgeting purposes, there was no specific targeting of numbers; only that they increase from the previous year.

The philosophy behind this approach was simple. If the company consistently improved its performance in the moment at hand, the future would always be better than the present. This type of approach to business planning allowed management to quickly adapt to the multiplicity of possibilities that could emerge at any time, but that never can be predicted. In effect, any unanticipated changes – good or bad – played into the strength of our business plan; rather than destroying it premise and credibility. Unlike other company business plans, we didn’t have to worry about trying to predict the unpredictable. Instead, the LifeUSA business plan process allowed the company to concentrate on doing what we could do in the present, so that we could shape the future.  

Passion and Fear are to Entrepreneurial Success What Air and Water is to Life Itself

The longing for success will keep your dream alive, but like a respirator – it only allows you to hang on.

If you think about it, despite all the high-minded philosophical rhetoric, the driving force for the American Revolution boiled down to a very simple concept – Americans wanted to “be their own boss.” And they were willing to do what it took to achieve that end.

This notion of America becoming independent of the British Empire did not just pop up in 1776; the very idea of gaining the freedom to be in control of their own future was the motivation for colonists to come to America in the first place. The desire for a new country that would be free to “be its own boss” had been a dream of Americans for over two centuries. But it was not until after Patrick Henry expressed the passion of “Give me liberty or give me death,” that Americans rose up to realize that dream.

The yearning to be an entrepreneur in order to “be your own boss” is an American dream that has persisted for over 200 years. It would be difficult to find anyone, who at some timeBeYourOwnBoss2 in their life, has not dreamed of being an entrepreneur and their own boss. For most, this dream is visualized in the form of starting their own business. It really makes no difference the size of that company; it can be anything from a car repair shop to a car factory, the impetus to be one’s own boss is the same. The perceived incentive for becoming your own boss is a deep sense of the freedom to decide your own future, unencumbered by the restraints of others. What could be more appealing than that?

Unfortunately for most, the dream of being their own boss is like dangling the carrot on a stick in front of a mule harnessed to a wagon. It’s right there encouraging them to plod forward, but the carrot always remains just out of reach; they never get close enough to take a bite. Often this failure to move ahead is not caused by a lack of desire or opportunity, but more a lack of true passion and fear that causes the dreams of so many to be their own boss to go “poof.” Instead they just keep pulling the wagon forward for others.

Where’s the Passion?

I can’t count the number of individuals who have come to me with dreams of entrepreneurial success and the desire to be their own boss. Some are still in the phase of “thinking” about making the leap, while others have already jumped. All have what they believe to be great ideas and plans for their success. Sure, some are just beguiled by the chance to be their own boss, but still they have specific plans and ideas.

As I listen to their presentations there is one thing I always look for and unfortunately rarely find. What is often missing from their dream is a deep-seated visceral passion for their vision. They lack the passion that causes them to simply have to do something, not just a want to do something. People may have an idea or goal and want to achieve it, but it is passion that makes them do it. Passion is the powerful motivator that not only fuels action, it steels the would-be entrepreneurial boss with the resolve to move forward, meet the challenges and overcome the risks to achieve their goal. It is true that passion can blind one to reality, but I would take “passion” over “want” anytime. Even if passion leads to failure, at least you know you attempted to do what needed to be done.

Many may want to be their own boss as an entrepreneur, but few have the passion it takes to initiate the action to do so or the resolve needed to see it through. I have known individuals who have complained for years about being unhappy and unfulfilled in their current situation. They may even have great plans for moving forward, but they Passionare filled with more wants than passion, and so they keep plodding along chasing that elusive carrot. I have known others who were driven only by passion – lacking realistic ideas and plans – who may have failed, but they were still happier than the carrot-chaser, because at least they tried. (Who can really determine if a passionate person’s ideas are realistic? Was my passion to start a new life insurance company – LifeUSA – in an industry dominated by established giants, realistic?)

It may not be possible to see passion – it does not lend itself to detailed business plans – but you know it when you have it, because it is a feeling that keeps you focused, determined and driving toward a goal no matter what roadblocks are in the path. Without passion, there is little chance you will ever get what you want, because you may never try. With passion propelling you forward, at least you have a chance.

Fear is not what Should be Feared

One of the roadblocks faced by many who want to become their own boss is the fear of failure. They become frozen by the question: If I give up what I have for what I want, what will happen if I fail? This apprehension causes many to continue to dream of being their own boss, but they are forever paralyzed to act. The problem is that they are asking the wrong question. The real question should be: What will happen if I fail to even try to act on the desire to be my own boss?

Fear is as powerful an emotion as passion. Fear is either bad in that it cripples the ability to take action or it can be good in that it motivates action. Fear of trying and failing is threatening and can prevent acting on a dream, but the fear of what will happen if you don’t even try, can be a motivator to take action.

Many are prompted to take action to be their own boss out of fear that if they don’t, others will continue to control their future and failure will be guaranteed.Quote Nothing can be quite as fearsome and demoralizing as looking back on life and thinking, “I should have at least tried.”

In the end, being an entrepreneur and your own boss comes down to having an unquenchable passion to do what you know you should do and the fear that if you don’t act, you will end up feeling more of a failure than if you had tried and failed. Trying and failing is one thing, but not having the passion to act and the fear of not trying is an even greater failure.