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Do You Have What it Takes to be a Successful Business Maverick?

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Business mavericks are abhorred and adored. The mentality of a maverick is to relentlessly seek to find better ways to do what is being done and to focus on what is not being done and ask “why.” Those who are comfortable with or indebted to the way things are, abhor the maverick as a troublesome irritation who constantly rocks the boat. Those who are frustrated by the status quo but feel powerless to bring about change, adore the successful maverick as a hero and a role model. One thing is clear, whether it is resisted or embraced, the successful maverick brings about change that ultimately benefits everyone.

For those who long to follow in the footsteps of successful mavericks, the question is: What does it take to be a successful maverick?    

Let there be no doubt that the business mavericks who bring about change are those who challenge the old rules governing how and what should be done and chart new, creative courses of action. Often, these trailblazers are running new, entrepreneurial businesses, but just as often they head some of the biggest names in business.

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. Business mavericks like these are noted first and foremost for breaking the rules; for challenging the tradition which says, “You can’t do that.” They don’t accept that as an answer and always seek to find ways that it can be done.

But it is important to understand that one need not be an industry mogul to become a successful business maverick. Anyone at any level in any business of any size can challenge the way things are and seek to do better. It makes no difference if one is tasked to do a specific job, manage a department or lead a division, it is possible to exhibit the attributes of a maverick; and spur success.

If you want to join the fraternity of successful business mavericks, you’ve got to start by thinking like they do. And the first sign of maverick tendencies is relentless curiosity. The man or woman who “cheats” on the old, outmoded rules of business is constantly asking questions and challenging the way things are done. It means being willing to accept the resistance from those wedded to the status quo and take exception to established procedures and mores.

Mavericks often exhibit other attributes as well:

  1. The willingness to adopt new perspectives whenever possible.
  2. The openness to try new things and to do old things differently.
  3. The compelling drive to act on ideas to test their true value.
  4. The eagerness to listen to others and profit from their input, regardless of who gets credit.
  5. Respect for and support of others when they propose new courses of action.

Being a business maverick requires an openness and willingness to look at the world in new ways. Rule-breakers know that new ideas need nurturing and support. But they know that thinking about a new idea is not enough. The true value of a good idea resides in its implementation. As 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.”

On the surface, becoming a business maverick doesn’t require any special skills. You don’t have to have an MBA from an Ivy League university. In fact, you don’t need a degree at all. But if it’s so easy to be a cheater, and the potential for reward is so great, why, then, doesn’t everybody do it?

The Will to be a Maverick Is Hammered Out of Us

We have to recognize that daring to think and do things differently exposes us to risks as well as rewards. But you know what? Even though you may risk the ridicule and tsk-tsk of your friends, business associates and your 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 by doing things differently, the reward and personal satisfaction is so much better than the punishment. It’s not even a contest.

The only reason the downside exposure exists is simply to control you: to intimidate you so that you’ll be unwilling to join the ranks of mavericks and creative thinkers. The result? Many potential mavericks are afraid to engage in behavior that could potentially make waves. Instead, they lay low and avoid the possibility of future embarrassment and pain. It is a shame that most who admire the maverick and seek to follow in their path become timid feeders in a sea of conformity.

But it does not have to be that way. Even if one is not a natural born maverick, the attitude can be an acquired talent; a talent well worth learning and practicing. To develop and nurture this talent for ourselves, we have to overcome the way our psyche has been bullied for so long in an effort to get us to stop asking questions. To achieve real success in our life and career, it is essential to recondition ourselves to challenge convention. Doing so allows us to join the ranks of those mavericks who bring about real change and become a role model for others.

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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.

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The Maverick’s Creed: If It’s Not Broken, Fix It

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 Al Neuharthindustry 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 usatodayindustry (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!

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