Real change springs from knowing what is and seeing what it should be.
On April 19, Al Neuharth died at age 89. He will mostly be remembered as the inspiration and founder of USA TODAY, but he was more than that. Al Neuharth was – for good and bad – a classic business maverick. By definition a “business maverick” is one who learned what they know in one industry and then knowingly go against what they know. Only someone with an insider’s intimate knowledge of a company or industry, an intuitive inquisitiveness to question the system and the courage to challenge it, can bring about real change. The maverick’s value is to be instinctively dissatisfied with what most see as the only way, because they have always done it that way.
It is not easy to be a business maverick. They live in a world where their ideas and actions are, at least initially, greeted by a negative reception that ranges from disregard to disdain. They are chastised and castigated as a heretical turncoat and traitor by those in their industry who believe the way things are being done is the way things should continue to be done. Those most vociferous in ostracizing and denigrating the maverick are those they have worked with or competed against. It has been reported that Ben Bradlee, the former editor of The Washington Post, once referred to Neuharth as a “mountebank.” That is a “polite” way for Bradlee to suggest that Neuharth was nothing more than a fraud, charlatan and huckster. Such aspersions are a way of life for those business mavericks who “go against their own kind.”
A Closer Look at the Man behind the Newspaper
Al Neuharth had all the traits of the typical business maverick: That is one who is often impetuous, impatient, outrageous, abrasive and vain; mixed with a dose of creativity and innovation. The typical business maverick is, in fact, stimulated by the acrimony of controversy and uses the level generated to gauge the impact of their actions. Their attitude seems to be: If others are not threatened by what they are doing, they are not doing enough. The maverick has no problem – and actually seems to relish – picking fights and poking a stick in the eyes of traditionalists who come to loathe them. (Truth is they have to be this way if real change is to come about.)
What ignites the maverick is the belief that a company or industry – one that they know intimately and care about – needs, for its own good, to change. It is the detection of this need to change and a dedication to doing what needs to be done that shields the maverick against the tumult of disparagement heaped upon them by critics who view any change as a threat. For the business maverick, the greatest reward and validation is when those within the industry who have been the most critical begin to imitate and adopt the changes as their own.
Al Neuharth met the definition of a business maverick in all ways. He was a child and product of the newspaper industry, entering it when he was 19. He started a sports newspaper in his native South Dakota which promptly became an entrepreneurial flop. Undaunted, he took a job at the established Miami Herald and diligently worked his way up and around the newspaper business making newspapering his entire life. As he reached the pinnacle of power in the industry he turned against all he had learned and all that was accepted in an effort to bring changes to the industry. Even though the newspaper business still appeared to be healthty and highly profitable.
At a time when all newspapers were local, he wanted to go national. When the industry was black and white, he wanted color. When stories were long, deep and often ponderous, he wanted short, simple and understandable. He believed that reading a newspaper should seem like a conversation, not a lecture. The result was USA TODAY. Derided as shallow, hollow and frivolous, the stalwarts of the newspaper industry mocked USA TODAY as an insignificant interloper and jeeringly referred to it as “McPaper.” (It is ironic that those who most opposed what Neuharth was doing mocked his ideas by comparing USA TODAY with another company that had changed its industry.)
Despite the attacks, resistance and a decade of losses, we know the rest of the story. Not only did USA TODAY attain the highest circulation in the industry (The Wall Street Journal has moved slightly ahead now, but only after another business maverick assumed control.) it also became the most profitable newspaper in the industry. In fact, those who were most critical of Neuharth and his approach were soon forced to pay the highest compliment when they began to fall all over themselves trying to copy his changes. What was first considered heresy has become newspaper doctrine and it is why Al Neuharth will be remembered and celebrated: he was a changer, not the changed.
Your Call to Action
The life of a successful business maverick is exciting, challenging, exhilarating, rewarding, fun and lonely. The business world is designed to seek and welcome conventionality not unorthodoxy, but it is the maverick who is the catalyst for change when change is needed. In the end, the successful maverick does not submit to conformity, but rather forces others to comply. Think of Fred Smith, founder of FedEx, Steve Jobs, the guru of Apple, Bill Gates of Microsoft and Richard Branson of the Virgin empire and Al Neuharth of USA TODAY; they all started as mavericks and ended as legends in the business world.
If you dream of experiencing the excitement and accomplishment of a business maverick, the good news is that it requires no unique talent or skill that you probably don’t already possess. All it takes is to start thinking like a maverick. The first sign of an embryonic maverick is relentless curiosity. The maverick is constantly asking questions and challenging the way things are done with an impatient eye to how they can be done better.
Business mavericks often exhibit other attributes as well:
- The willingness to adopt new perspective whenever possible.
- The openness to try new things or do old things differently.
- The confidence to respectfully resist the opposition of others and act on new ideas to test their value.
- The eagerness to solicit and listen to the ideas of others and learn from their input.
- The tenacity to see your ideas through to conclusion.
Being a business maverick demands an openness and willingness to look at the world in new ways. A lot of people think of new ideas and how they want things to be, but that is not enough. To come to fruition, new ideas need to be nurtured by someone who is willing to resist conformity, go against the grain and stand up to the naysayers. As the longtime management expert Peter Drucker said, “Ideas are cheap and abundant. What is of value is the effective placement of these ideas into situations that develop into action.” And that is the job and value of the business maverick.
And the Moral of the Story …
Many have the dream to be an entrepreneur, but few express the desire to endure the nightmare of being a maverick. One is seen as a “Crown of Glory” while the other is a “Crown of Thorns.” But the truth is that both are needed. Being both an entrepreneur and a maverick might be the best of all worlds, but that is rare. There have been many successful entrepreneurs who were not mavericks and many acclaimed mavericks who were not entrepreneurs. The entrepreneur is needed to make it and the maverick is needed to fix it.
Al Neuharth tried and failed at being an entrepreneur, but he was a great maverick. Like all great business mavericks he understood intimately how the system worked, understood the way the system was working (at least the way people wanted it to work), recognized the system could work in a better way, and he fixed it. All hail the business maverick!