The Maverick Spirit

An Interview with Polly LaBarre, author of Mavericks at Work
By Vern Burkhardt
Mavericks are those individuals who eagerly make business decisions that fly in the face of business-as-usual. They deliberately turn traditions up-side-down or shut them out altogether, looking instead for new "disruptive" ideas and creative people, and in doing so find themselves on a joyous ride to success.

Maverick businesses will do unorthodox things like never advertise, have all their office furniture on wheels so their people can quickly reconfigure their working relationships, let customers choose which photo will go onto product labels by voting on line, or hire amateurs with the right mindset over more skilled but less inspired professionals.

These mavericks deal with the same "four timeless challenges that face organizations of every size and leaders in every field: setting strategy, unleashing new ideas, connecting with customers, and helping their best people achieve great results." It is HOW mavericks do it that makes the difference.

Polly LaBarreMavericks at Work: Why the Most Original Minds in Business Win by Polly LaBarre and William C. Taylor provides colorful portraits of a wide range of company types in order to teach us how these companies do it—each in their own unique way.

Vern Burkhardt (VB): This is not a book of "best" practices; it’s a book of "next practices". What you mean by next practices?

Polly LaBarre: "Next practices" captures the spirit of the book which is our vision of what business is going to look like going forward in the 21st century. It is not just about benchmarking and copying best practices but, with the help of this sort of idea generator, inventing your own next practices.

We set out to write this book not to say here are the thirty two companies that are going to win and endure. It isn’t our version of Built to Last.

It looks at the ideas that are animating business today and will energize business in the future. We asked what are the practices, mechanisms and principles maverick companies, organizations and individuals have invented that really bring their ideas to life. We identified some ideas and practices readers could adapt or try in their own organizations. The caveat is there's no winning formula. There’s no "one" path to follow.

VB: You use the term "maverick" which is a great descriptor. How did you come up with that name?

Polly LaBarre: Coming up with a name is a creative process. The maverick spirit entails having an original point of view and the courage to follow it to its end. The companies and people we profile are very diverse in terms of age, demographics, geographic location, type of organization, and type of business, and they are in both the public and private sectors. They all have one thing in common—a distinct and, in most cases, disruptive point of view. They stand for something. They have a set of ideas that can fundamentally reshape not just their own organization but their entire industry. They pursue and communicate those ideas with all the fervor of a cause. And that's what makes them mavericks and successful leaders.

VB: Tom Peters' was quoted as saying "I didn’t read this book, I devoured it." What a comment from Tom Peters!

Polly LaBarre: Bill Taylor and I focused on storytelling and writing in a way that would compel people to think. We had a leg-up because the organizations and the leaders we profiled are compelling. It was easy to present their business and operational practices in a lively way. (Vern's note: Willliam Taylor was Polly LaBarre's co-author of Mavericks at Work.)

VB: Companies like Cranium, Pixar, Commerce Bank and others you profile have created working environments that sound like fun places to work. There is a great sense of play, almost childlike play, in many of the ways they go about doing serious business. Would you comment on this?

Polly LaBarre: In general there is too much work and not enough play in business. I am not the first person to say it but I don't think it can be said enough times. So much of business is about formality, rules, policies, and taking oneself too seriously. The more we can drive away such rigidity, the more the better if we can operate, as you say, with fun and a sense of playfulness in organizations.

The most innovative, creative leaders and organizations I know have a tremendous sense of fun. I think it's because coming up with new ideas, seeing things in new ways, everything related to innovation and creativity, is similar to the fun-lovingness and inquisitiveness of a child's mind.

That doesn’t mean you can afford to not be rigorous about business performance in every sense of the word. But high performance and fun in the workplace can go hand-in-hand. You have to have both if you want a healthy organization.

One of my favourite mavericks is Dan Wieden, the founder of Wieden & Kennedy—the largest independent advertising agency in the world. He is the fellow who wrote the line "Just Do It". Dan said to me "You know, I think my job is to walk in stupid every day." It is such a fantastic phrase. I think it means the leader of an organization, who's purpose is to guide it into the future and help it grow and thrive, must operate in anticipation of change—knowing it's likely something will have happened overnight which means we will also need to adapt or change. We should never be complacent no matter what our industry. My job is to walk in with a fresh and open mind and the ability to absorb whatever the change may be. I need to forget what I know and embrace the new with a lot of openness, vigor and courage.

Mavericks at WorkThe notion of walking into work stupid everyday is completely counter to our traditional business instincts. Business schools teach about the experience curve. The more you do something, whether it is linking semi-conductors or creating TV spots, the better you get at it, the more efficient you are, and the smarter you are about that aspect of the business. Businesses would do well to embrace the inexperience curve; the more you do something, the better you get at something, and the more mastery you have over something the more you have to be very careful about releasing yourself from all the habits and assumptions that got you where you are and made you successful. Leaders need to keep a balance between their developed masteries, being great at something, and having attained a lot of steps in their area of expertise, and staying open, curious and fresh-minded about what is going on in the world.

VB: Not become so good at something that you lose creativity.

Polly LaBarre: Yes. That may be one of the central laws of creativity.

VB: Another theme that crops up frequently and surprisingly, given the past strictures of the business world, is that of freedom. KI aims for freedom of mobility within the company as well as "total freedom of information", while Southwest Airlines has made freedom their raison d’etre: freedom for their customers to fly easily and inexpensively, and freedom for their employees to be good at their jobs. Many companies provide opportunities for employees to freely comment on all aspects of their business. Do you think there is room for more freedom in all types of businesses? How much of a difference do you think a change in just this one area can make?

Polly LaBarre: Freedom, for me, is the watchword of 21st Century business in every sense of the word. One of the qualities that aligns mavericks is the notion of democracy and freedom. Rather than exerting control and leading with an iron fist they go against the grain of corporate life and typical corporate hierarchy. They want to open the channels of communication and freedom of expression so every person at every level can contribute their best. Encouraging this type of freedom takes progressive leadership but it is a business necessity.

Today there are many channels that enable individuals to speak up, express and assert themselves, and publish their ideas. If a leader doesn't figure out a way to unleash and harness the incredible forces of creativity, passion and participation the business will be increasingly behind in their game.

It is not a matter of just giving everyone a vague understanding that great ideas can come from anyone, anywhere in the organization—no matter what their job description. Freedom can go much further. You hire adults so you should treat them like adults, which may mean giving them the freedom to work anywhere, any time, and in any manner as long as they get their work done. This approach takes away all sorts of griping and conversation about who works when, who gets to work four days a week, how many vacation days people get, and what seniority means. I am watching this trend with great interest.

VB: You quote architect and designer David Rockwell as saying "Story is the fundamental platform for organizing ideas. That’s how you connect emotionally with people." He isn’t the only successful maverick in your book who talks about the importance of the story your business tells. I suspect the story most businesses want to tell is the one about their profit margins and return on investment. The maverick approach is completely different. Do you have any advice for those who may want to develop a story but have no idea how to go about doing so?

Polly LaBarre: The first rule of story is having an interesting story to tell. It is not a marketing ploy. It must be authentic. It must relate to who you are as an organization, what you’re trying to accomplish in the world and what the deep, human core value of that is. That’s what a story is ultimately about no matter what business you’re in.

One of my favourite stories, which I encountered since the publication of Mavericks at Work, relates to the Girl Scouts. They are undergoing a massive transformation in order to update the organization, to make it relevant for girls in our changing world. Also, structurally it has become unwieldy. Under CEO Kathy Cloninger's leadership they asked themselves "How can we describe what we’re about in a way that compels the hearts and minds of not only this organization of volunteers and girls, but also of the outside world?" They went back to the original language, wisdom and sense of purpose of Juliette Gordon Low, the intrepid founder of the Girl Scouts in 1912.

Juliette Gordon Low believed girls should have the same opportunities as boys to be outdoors, and to develop themselves as they grew up. It was a radical mission for the early 20th century. Cloninger and her team did not hire a highly paid consultant and ask them for a new mission statement that would make them cool to the girls in the 21st Century. Instead, they decided to use the story and language of the roots of the Girl Scouts. What they came up with was a wonderful statement of what they stood for: "girls of courage, confidence and character to make the world a better place". Who wouldn’t get on board with that mission?

That is an inspiring story. It was not made up, or crafted by experts. It’s a story they found within themselves.

VB: You say "The logic of competition has evolved from the imitative world of products versus products to the revolutionary fervor of business models versus business models to, now, the promising realm of value systems versus value systems." Companies are finding it more important to stand for something besides the money they can make. HBO aims to provide good, original programming. Cranium creates games that are "clever, high-quality, innovative, friendly and fun". And ING Direct encourages people to save rather than borrow and spend. Why do you think this is happening now and where do you think it will ultimately lead us?

Polly LaBarre: It is a competitive necessity. We live in a world overcrowded with great products with great features available at great prices. There is a range of superb experiences at every price point. There is so much available you could make the argument that we simply do not need another thing. In this developed country most of us have our basic needs taken care of, not to mention three iPods, two cellphones, a couple of laptops and likely a few cars in the garage. If you are selling into this crazy, competitive environment and you don’t stand for something truly different and compelling you are going to loose out.

VB: When there is so much competition is the tie-breaker the company's purpose?

Polly LaBarre: I don’t want to be glib about this matter. You can’t invent purpose for everything. Not every product has a sense of self, as it were, as does an Apple iPod, a Cranium game, or a Pixar movie. People connect with some things more than others.

But I love the fact that we can find organizations that are thriving because they have set themselves apart. Their founders and leaders started out asking simple questions: "Why?" "Why are we here?" "What are we really trying to do?" Not "What business are we in?", but "What do we stand for?"

Southwest Airlines' answer to these questions was not "We're a low-cost airline" but "We exist to democratize the skies. We’re in the freedom business. Everything about our business model is focused on how to help regular folks get the same freedom and flexibility when flying as the well-to-do." This was a revolutionary concept when Southwest Airlines started out 35 year ago. Their purpose has been that of "freedom fighters"; they have hired "freedom fighters" with "warrior spirit" for the last 35 years. The firm's performance in the stock market and marketplace over those 35 years is a testament to this sense of purpose more than is the fact that they fly one kind of airplane thus reducing operating costs, have quick turn around between landings and take offs, and provide direct point-to-point service. These are the products of Southwest Airlines' value system and purpose.

We see the same thing in another troubled industry: financial services and banking. ING Direct is being impacted by the current struggle in the financial services sector. But it will stick to its guns around its core purpose which is not to collect deposits and sell mortgages but to help Americans save money. That savings mission or purpose has been core to the way they’ve built their business. It has given ING Direct a compelling, competitive edge. It isn’t because they pay the highest interest rates. It's because the organization is designed for me, the little guy, the person who is usually trampled on by the financial services industry, to help me save for college and pump up my retirement fund. They are on my side. That’s their message. Certainly they’re savvy marketers and story tellers, but it is based on this core purpose which not only connects with customers, but also animates the people who work for ING Direct.

VB: You say intelligent people today "want to work at companies that know what they stand for", that demand creativity, and that offer the freedom and environment necessary to support that creativity. What sectors of the business world do you think are most in need of an injection of this maverick approach?

Polly LaBarre: I won’t take pot-shots at any industry or business sector. The great discovery we made while researching and writing Mavericks at Work was that mavericks could be found everywhere, even in the most unlikely places: the Edinburgh Fringe Festival; inside IBM’s recruiting processes; a furniture maker in Wisconsin. Not only in Silicon Valley, Hollywood and the so-called creative industries.

The great thing about the maverick approach is that it is industry agnostic.

VB: Can large organizations with substantial investments in infrastructure, which might motivate them to practice business as usual in order to protect that investment, still aspire to "maverickism"?

Polly LaBarre: Absolutely, though there are more pages in Mavericks at Work focused on founders and companies that are relatively young. I think that’s a most important question.

A thirty-five year old company is still pretty young compared to firms such as IBM, Proctor & Gamble and other large global organizations. One of the hardest challenges in business is transforming an organization that has been successful not over just a few decades, but over a century or two. How do you transform long established organizations that are large and complex? Many might say it can only be done in response to a major crisis for the organization, such as significant loss of revenue or market share.

IBM is an interesting study. During the years Lou Gerstner was CEO it underwent a major transformation. We studied how it managed not only to dramatically change with the times, but to get ahead of the business trends, even though it was a global, traditional organization. One example is their training and internship program which answers the questions every big organization today is asking itself: "Why would really great people want to work here? Why, when highly skilled people have all the opportunities in the world, would they work for our large organization?" Especially since highly motivated and capable individuals have opportunities to be entrepreneurs, to pursue their own dreams, or work for vibrant, young, and exciting organizations.

So why would really great people join a big company like IBM or Proctor & Gamble? I think companies that recognize this as a valid issue and wrestle with it as a challenge will be ahead of the game. IBM has been doing exactly that, which is one reason it continues to thrive.

VB: Would you talk about the term "Chief Purposologist".

Polly LaBarre: "Chief Purposologist" is the title of a woman at GSD & M, one of the most innovative organizations we know. They are the highly successful "Don't Mess With Texas" ad agency and they are a great maverick company. They care so much about values and purpose, and have so much humanity threaded through the organization that they actually hired a Chief Purposologist. She is a cultural anthropologist by training. Her job is to help the company live its values and to help clients explore their values when developing their purpose and story as a means of connecting with their customers.

VB: How do the companies in your book arrive at their successes? Do they tend to recognize an idea that will be successful or do they go through processes of trial and error?

Polly LaBarre: There is no single path to success. When I talk to successful leaders, the first thing they say is they’ve been through a lot of failure in their lives. I think this is a truism in creating something great, new, or exciting. You have to create a lot of "stuff", go through a lot of things that don’t work, that feel like failures, that feel like a zero on the success scale.

Although the maverick leaders we talked to told us about the cul-de-sacs, detours, failures, and walls they’ve met, threaded through their stories was a sense of purpose. If you have a clearly defined "why" that everyone in your organization believes in, then you have a recipe for potential success.

Alexander and Richard Tate who started Cranium were not focused on being inventors or coming up with a great game idea they could sell. Rather they were asking themselves why they wanted to be in business. They saw that the world of entertainment was full of silence and humiliation: "you are the weakest link", "you’re off the island", or "you’re fired". They wanted to create something positive that would bring families closer together, that would close the gap between what kids like to do and what parents like to do. That’s where they started and now they have one of the most vibrant corporate cultures I’ve ever seen. My point is it doesn’t mean they did everything right along the way, but they have a fundamental touchstone that grounds them—their desire to lighten and enlighten family entertainment. It’s a really great compass.

This wisdom applies to individuals as well as companies. If you know who you are, what you’re trying to do in the world, what you care about, and what your belief system is, it's much easier to make decisions—and to say "no" to things that don’t fit your belief system. There is nothing harder than saying "no" to an opportunity, whether you’re an individual or a company. But the mavericks we studied are really good at saying "no" to things that don't apply to what they are trying to do in the world.

VB: Your book makes clear how important it is for business people to stay open-minded and exposed to "people whose interests, backgrounds and experiences are least like theirs." Do you have any recommendations, in our time-constrained world, as to how people could make this type of exposure a regular part of their lives?

Polly LaBarre: There are two levels to this. One of the ideas in the book is you need to develop a distinctive point of view. You need to know what ideas you stand for and develop a genuine, authentic vocabulary about that. That’s your pivot place, what you will not change. The other tenant is that you need to be open, voracious and vigorous when it comes to seeking out and experimenting with new ideas. And that trickles down to how you behave as an individual or a leader. This is true for anyone who wants to be vibrant, live a great life and continue to learn and grow.

You need to include learning in your everyday work and find ways to push yourself out of your comfort zone. You have to make it a habit and a discipline to try new things; to flick the switch so that you’re not on automatic pilot—which a lot of us are on because that’s how we’ve managed to get through life so far. I’m not condemning but I am saying there are a lot of ways you can open yourself up to new insights, influences and ideas. Practically every maverick leader and organization in Mavericks at Work has their own version of how they do that.

Advertising agency Wieden + Kennedy do it by inviting in the edge, the fringe, and the outsiders. They have an open door policy in their downtown Portland, Oregon offices. You are welcome to walk in and enjoy their front hall art gallery, or buy tickets for local arts events. They host regular readings and performances at which everyone is welcome. They have artists in residence. They host four non-profit organizations. They’re basically saying "Hey! Come on in." Their borders are permeable and they put themselves in a position where they are going to bump into people who aren’t like themselves

One might ask how that idea can be adopted by an individual. About twelve years ago I heard Tom Peters say "Find the person inside your organization or your social circle that you’re least likely to ever go out to lunch with and make a lunch appointment with that person today. Have a lunch date once a month with someone you want to learn something from, someone totally different from you, or someone you would never think to hang out with. You may be surprised by the kind of connection and lively interaction you might have with that person."

VB: The companies profiled in your book are all huge in terms of size and value, with "small" being a hundred million dollar business. How far below the hundred million dollar level do you think the principles in your book can be usefully employed?

Polly LaBarre: A two-person start-up can be a maverick organization, as can a hundred million dollar private company or a multi-billion dollar public company. Size of company, nature of business and company history are not limiting factors, though it is easier if you start out with maverick qualities.

Moving from being a traditional organization to becoming a maverick is more difficult. Transformation is always harder.

VB: Are the new ways of doing business discussed in your book still mainly in the hands of the mavericks, or are they beginning to filter through to more conservative companies?

Polly LaBarre: They are. I don’t use the word conservative much any more. Parts of the business world are still steeped in tradition, conservatism and hierarchy, and operate according to the old rules. I’m sure they are soul-crushing and mind-numbing places to work. Fortunately I don’t spend a lot of time in those businesses. What I see is much more positive and interesting.

Businesses and leaders are increasingly open to new ideas and experimentation. A positive change brought on by the fact that we live in a global, digital, mobile, open world where everybody has a virtual megaphone on the Internet. And I see it in companies of all sizes.

Change isn’t a re-engineering, top-down project any more. It is built into the everyday life of a company. Once you’ve experienced the rewards of being open, of experimenting with something, of watching a completely edgy small experiment inside your organization turn into a new line of business or a new product you'll never want to turn back. Not every organization has adopted this way of thinking and working, but I see more and more of it all the time. The world is so alive right now with experimentation and creativity.

VB: What has surprised you the most in your investigations into what makes maverick organizations tick?

Polly LaBarre: We learned many new things over the three years spent researching Mavericks at Work and I was almost always surprised by them. One surprise was how generous all the maverick leaders and organizations were in sharing their ideas. They were also generous in terms of what they were trying to do in the world, and in terms of their definition of competition.

We experienced an approach to business that was not the classic zero sum game of if you win, I lose. The attitude we found was the best way to win is to figure out a way for everybody else to win too, whether it is within your industry or your organization. Again and again we saw a spirit of generosity—of generosity begetting prosperity. That was a delightful surprise.

VB: An encouraging comment about human nature, isn’t it?

Polly LaBarre: It is. I am generally an optimist when it comes to human nature. I know there are a lot of violence, strife and horror in the world, but I continue to be amazed by all the wonderful goodness in the world.

VB: In all your traveling and research what has inspired you the most?

Polly LaBarre: My answer is the same as to your last question. It is always fun and exciting for me to travel and meet folks in organizations that are doing extraordinary work—creating the future.

I very much enjoyed spending time inside the magical factory that is Pixar—it was a highlight experience. Meeting people who are incredibly like-minded and progressive in unleashing the best in people in large organizations like IBM. Or meeting a military software company that has some of the most progressive views when it comes to creating mechanisms of innovation. It is inspiring to be surprised and learn from folks who do what they do well.

When you hang out with maverick-type organizations it is always fun, always enjoyable. They are refreshingly not caught up in the language, formality and processes of traditional organizations.

VB: What interesting project are you currently working on or thinking about?

Polly LaBarre: I continue to travel the world looking for exciting ideas, innovative organizations and inspiring leaders. I do a lot of freelance writing and I’m currently working with CNN. Two or three times a week I’m on air talking about these organizations and ideas. Figuring out that new medium of communication has been an exciting adventure.

VB: What program on CNN?

Polly LaBarre: I do a segment on CNN’s American Morning—Monday, Wednesday and sometimes Friday you can find me doing a segment. It is called "Idea Factory" and focuses on exciting new ideas, on what’s going on where, on technology meets business meets culture. I also explore what I see as the ongoing workplace revolution.

VB: Are you writing another book?

Polly LaBarre: I’m just beginning to work on my next book which will look at new definitions for success, ambition and leadership.

VB: When can we look forward to reading it?

Polly LaBarre: I’m not sure yet. Books are long projects.

VB: One last question. Often when we call a company we get an automated telephone system, sometimes never connecting with a human being. I suspect that in many cases this has a negative impact on customer satisfaction. Do maverick companies use this type of system?

Polly LaBarre: Successful companies passionately look out for their customers, including the manner in which incoming calls are handled. Yet many businesses still invest in automated customer service processes that are off-putting to their customers. In the book we talk about customers fighting back. An example is when a customer or citizen activist posts a code in an automated line that allows other callers to break into the system.

Many companies are automating, outsourcing or off-shoring their customer service functions even though it is important they differentiate themselves by providing great service, including a voice their customers can connect with. Again and again we see that maverick companies have decided, often at great expense, to keep customer service in-house. They go the extra mile.

The companies that are going to win in the future are the ones that don’t just say they're customer-centered but which build their companies around their customers.

Conclusion: This book is full of stimulating information, entertaining examples and excellent ideas. The authors’ goal, like many of the companies they describe, is to be helpful: "We will measure our success by how much we contribute to yours." Thus they have organized the book around four key areas, each of which is fully explored throughout the book and then summarized under 4 different sub-headings:

  1. Sizing up your strategy:

    • Do you have a distinctive and disruptive sense of purpose that sets you apart from your rivals?

    • Do you have a vocabulary of competition that is unique to your industry and compelling to your employees and customers?

    • Are you prepared to reject opportunities that offer short-term benefits but distract your organization from its long-term mission?

    • Can you be provocative without provoking a backlash?

    • If your company went out of business tomorrow, who would really miss you and why?

  2. Open-minding your business:

    • Keep the focus narrow and tightly defined.

    • Keep broadening the range of participants.

    • Keep it fun.

    • Don’t keep all the benefits to yourself.

    • Keep challenging yourself to be more open to new ideas and new ways of leading.

  3. Building your bond with customers:

    • There’s always a demand for something distinctive.

    • Not all customers are equal.

    • Brand is culture, culture is brand.

    • Advertising to customers is not the same as connecting with customers.

    • When it comes to creating brand value, dollars-and-cents thinking doesn’t always make sense.

  4. Practicing your people skills:

    • Why should great people join your organization?

    • Do you know a great person when you see one?

    • Can you find great people who aren’t looking for you?

    • Are you great at teaching great people how your organization works and wins?

    • Does your organization work as distinctively as it competes?

A quote from the book: "We’re innovating on how we innovate." Ed Getty of Proctor & Gamble.

Polly LaBarre has worked as an editor, and conference host, and currently speaks and writes about strategy, creativity and personal success in business. She is a regular contributor to CNN's American Morning.

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