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Lembit Opik

Leadenhall Consulting and former MP

Associate Director

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Talking Point: Lembit Opik – Do you know how to manage a maverick?


I suppose you could say that I was a ‘maverick.’ 

Of course, it all depends on the definition.
Personally, I’d define a maverick as someone who follows their conscience and imagination rather than following the ‘norm’. 
But other people might define such people in a different way: for example, as an unpredictable, uncontrollable -or even destructive – influence. 
In short, conventions collide with mavericks just as exceptional tides on the River Severn cause dramatic waves that can travel for many miles up the estuary. This, in turn, creates a dramatic and unsettling discontinuity between reality and how we expect water to behave.
But to see mavericks as a problem is as foolish as regarding the behaviour of citizens in a foreign and strange land as ‘wrong’. Mavericks simply represent ‘foreign’ ways of thinking, providing a different cultural perspective that challenges the conventional view. 
Indeed they speak a ‘different language’ to the one employed by many others in the organisation. Most people dare not speak out beyond the accepted norm. Mavericks, on the other hand, offer a contrary viewpoint to what everyone else thinks. 
This doesn’t make mavericks ‘right’, but it certainly makes them interesting. And if senior managers simply dismiss them as crazy and unpredictable, they run the risk of limiting the introduction of breakthrough change across the entire organisation. 
Yet mavericks, like everyone else, follow the laws of human nature. If you make the effort to try and understand them, you can generally predict their likely response to a given stimulus, and even work out triggers that may encourage them to ‘think outside the box.’
As I’ve already pointed out, I’ve frequently been labelled as a ‘maverick’ – for better or for worse. So, based on both my personal experience and my association with other such people, here are three tips to help you turn your problem staff into an asset:
1. Identify whether your maverick has a left or right brain focus
Mavericks tend to have a strong ‘right brain’ or ‘left brain’ focus. Whereas most people enjoy a comfortable relationship with both the ‘logical’ and ‘creative’ parts of their mind, mavericks appear to be almost helplessly guided by one or the other.
‘Right brain’-dominated mavericks often come up with remarkable and creative ideas – some of which are unfeasible, but many of which only seem odd because nobody else has thought of them before. Moreover, although they may not be particularly reliable in terms of logistical details, they’re brilliant at seeing the big picture. 
‘Left brain’-dominated mavericks, on the other hand, are creatures of logic and will cut through vagueness and sloppy thinking with a clarity verging on rudeness. 
They will point out the unfeasibility of a marketing plan based on the data, the research and the facts. Because they don’t suffer fools gladly, however, they generally make bad politicians. But they’re brilliant at spotting the details. 
If you can identify which particular focus your maverick displays – and there are various tools to do this –you can make a huge difference to their effectiveness within the business as a whole.
2. Give weight to your maverick’s opinions
Except in the most extreme cases, mavericks want to be valued just like everyone else. They don’t set out to march to the beat of a different drum – it’s just that they see the world a little differently.
For instance, while everyone else might think that liquid soap is too expensive to be a viable product, a maverick would observe that no ordinary person would make such a calculation and, therefore, that the convenience of liquid soap dispensers would outweigh any consideration of ‘cost-per-handwash.’
This is a real-world example taken from my own experience at Procter & Gamble, where I spent some years in the firm’s marketing department. I lost the argument for liquid soap though, leaving the sector wide open for its competitors – something that the company has paid for ever since.
3. Show courage when managing your maverick
Managing mavericks takes courage. By definition, they’ll come up with ideas that you don’t want to hear. In fact, they’ll come up with ideas that many senior managers will seek to dismiss without proper consideration simply because their ideas are ‘outside-of-the-box.’ 
But here’s the irony. A maverick’s ideas may be disregarded because they differ too far from the rhetoric of a ‘mainstream employee’, but the only way that organisations can break out of their conventional mould is to court unconventional thoughts. 
But it’s scary, which is exactly why so few companies make ‘step changes’ to their mode of operation – and why businesses like Apple have made a fortune by creating an entirely new market space in which to operate. 
Mavericks potentially hold the key to new territories. They never fail to offer a different path – and even if it’s not the right one, it makes sense to encourage exploration. Any business should be willing to invest at least 10% of their efforts in order to find a road less travelled. 
Marching to a different tune
Can conventional managers discover unconventional paths? Yes – as long as they use mavericks as their pathfinders. Too many people are ‘incarcerated’ in the conventions of their culture, trade or company. It is precisely for this reason that the almost naive enthusiasm of mavericks can be so valuable. 
It is also why it makes sense to appreciate the talents of a maverick rather than treat them as a pariah. They’re going to get it wrong at least some of the time, but as long as you and their managers know what they’re good at, they could also make a profound difference to the overall output of the business.
And here’s the thing – you don’t have to understand how a maverick operates to value what they contribute. Their reality looks different to other people’s and sometimes that leads to dead-ends. But at other times, they triumph in ways that can’t easily be predicted.
So, the challenge that I set you is this: have you got the courage to bring out the best in those that you’ve never thought of as game-changers? If not, carry on as before. 
But if you’re willing to consider the prospect that unexploited talent may lurk in people who ‘march to a different beat,’ then a former problem may just become an asset and transformational change come a step closer.
No business can operate successfully if populated by mavericks alone, any more than it can thrive with a workforce comprised entirely of conformists: thus, allowing a few unusual thoughts to percolate through the collective consciousness can generate true breakthroughs. 
In the words of one Parliamentarian and fellow maverick: “I think differently by accident, and sometimes the accidents turn out to be pretty good. I believe it’s called evolution.’’

Lembit Opik is an associate director of Leadenhall Consulting, former Liberal Democrat MP and one-time HR, training and development manager at Procter & Gamble.

2 Responses

  1. Maverick management

     Excellent, I enjoyed your insight and refreshing views. If I may, I would only add that such individuals need constant and careful ‘management’ as they are prone to drive on regardless of any damage they may incur to either their own career or their organisation’s success. By definition, a maverick will not always receive advice even when offered with the best intent. 

  2. Maverick management

    Fantastic read – great to see someone approaching the subject from a different angle, most people pigeon hole mavericks as troublesome and damaging. Great to read an opinion I have shared. Interested to hear other peoples thoughts….

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