Managing Mavericks

Are they treasured resources or pains in the neck? It may depend on your ability to channel their energy.

mav-er-ick One that refuses to abide by the dictates of or resists adherence to a group; a dissenter.

That's what the dictionary says, but there's so much more to mavericks, especially if you have to manage them. IT managers who have dealt with mavericks say they are easy to spot. They're nonconformists who challenge the status quo. They're passionate about their work; creative, curious and energetic; willing to take risks; unafraid to stand alone or fight for an unpopular position; evangelical in their passion for change; and at once insightful and annoying.

Mavericks provide essential reality checks. Because they may refuse to follow a process they consider stupid, mavericks might be described as complainers, irritants and dissidents. But smart managers recognize their value. "Mavericks help people think differently, and they do it by just showing up," says Richard Schroth, who directed strategic technology initiatives at various companies for nearly 30 years and is now CEO and president of Executive Insights Ltd. in Olney, Md.

"They're the ones that know the mousetrap will never be finished," says Andy Wihtol, president of Andrew Associates Executive Search in Lake Oswego, Ore., and an officer of the Society for Information Management. He says that average employees are "potential energy," but mavericks are "kinetic energy" that just needs to be harnessed. "The maverick is not comfortable with the norm and is very comfortable influencing change," Wihtol says.

You'll find mavericks in every field, but some IT managers suspect that there are more per capita in technology than anywhere else. And they may be right, since IT attracts analytical thinkers who can spend their careers building and tinkering. If IT is a maverick magnet, that's good news. Mavericks keep an organization honest, and they're catalysts for change. But by their nature, they also challenge managers.

Tim McCracken, a former CIO who now leads the technology leadership practice at Tatum Partners LP, a consulting firm in Atlanta, describes a maverick he once supervised as "both frustrating and frustrated."

"He questioned everything that could be questioned and challenged every position, yet he was an incredible talent and could see opportunities and risks. As a devil's advocate, he kept the rest of us out of potential disaster, and he could take a program from just being effective to extraordinary," says McCracken.

McCracken clearly remembers this iconoclast's behavior when IT was building a complex worldwide system to support a build-to-order manufacturing environment. "He would ask a lot of questions [and] was almost annoying in demanding an answer he could really understand," he says.

The maverick thought the system was being overdesigned. He was promoting simplicity. Gradually, his repeated questioning began to have an effect. "He would take us down paths through that questioning process," McCracken recalls, and ultimately his simpler design was implemented.

Despite mavericks' contributions, IT leaders are often clueless about how to manage them. "I see this over and over again. People say they want that person who is truly creative but then force the person into a very structured environment and criticize them for not being process-oriented," says Dennis McGuire, founder and chairman of TPI Inc., a sourcing advisory firm in The Woodlands, Texas.

If their energy and ideas aren't properly channeled, mavericks can become bored, unhappy or disruptive. Or they might just leave the company, taking their insights with them.

Here are some tips on how to work with your mavericks.

Engage them. Draw out their ideas, listen to their questions, and provide them with the information they need to fully understand initiatives rather than brushing them off, says Jody Berns, managing director of business systems at HSBC USA Inc., a New York-based financial services firm. "Good technology people do question what they're told, because a mistake can cost millions of dollars," she says. "You want people who question things. As management, we have to embrace that."

Berns has some personal insight into maverick behavior. She remembers a meeting early in her career where she peppered the CIO with so many questions that he later asked her boss whether she was a team player. "I realized my intentions were misinterpreted," she says. "The reason I was questioning these things is I had a passion for doing what I do, and if that's misinterpreted, then I had to change my communication."

Coach them. Help mavericks learn to navigate office politics and present ideas in ways that are appropriate for the company's culture. After the CIO's wake-up call, Berns' supervisor taught her to be a more effective communicator -- to listen better and bounce ideas off her boss or close co-workers before presenting her thoughts to large groups.

Enlist peers. Ask a colleague to do some peer mentoring. "You want somebody who is a little senior in the organization who has an open mind," says Schroth of Executive Insights. Peers can provide a range of help, from information on projects and company expectations to tips on focusing the maverick's energies and controlling his impulses -- even if that means finding passions outside the company. Schroth knew one tech worker at a major pharmaceutical company who took up classical guitar and became a comedian on the side as a way to channel his excess energies.

Work with their strengths. Schroth suggests giving mavericks "their own place to play" -- a role where their restlessness and skepticism can be channeled to good use, such as working on a team that's dealing with an intractable problem.

He tends to assign these people to groups where the work is dragging, as a way to stir up some new ideas and insights. Mavericks tend to be uninhibited, Schroth says. They'll give the group the nudge it needs to get the job done.

Give them space. Mavericks need challenges and the leeway to meet them, McGuire says. But set clear expectations early. Let a maverick know, for example, that he can develop an idea to a specific point but then must turn it over to others who may be more detail-oriented and thus better suited to completing it.

Beware of the Peter Principle. Mavericks often find that the demands of management don't mesh with their style. McCracken recalls one developer who was constantly praised for coming up with creative solutions. Based on that, McCracken promoted him to a management job, but it wasn't a good fit. His staff complained that the maverick was too hands-on, sometimes pushing them aside so he could do the work himself. "Within months, he became unproductive and frustrated," McCracken says. But once he returned to his developer's job, he became successful again. McCracken has since concluded that many mavericks prefer and indeed thrive in hands-on "build and fix" roles.

Show respect. Don't label mavericks as complainers or troublemakers, Schroth says. Don't ignore them, either, by passing them over when making assignments to key committees and the like. "By ignoring these people, managers set a tension in the organization. It sends a message to other people that this is not a particularly tolerated way of behaving here," Schroth says.

Draw the line. Decide how much maverick behavior is too much. Wihtol remembers managing a female programmer who occasionally came to work in a Girl Scout uniform or a cheerleading outfit. He and her co-workers respected her technical skills enough to let her get away with it.

Clamping down or letting behavior slide depends on the situation, Wihtol adds. Assess your goals, your company's culture and your department's objectives when deciding how much eccentricity -- or annoyance -- you'll tolerate. "If the manager wants to encourage thinking off the edge, if they want to have people step up and be more exploratory, if they want more innovation and testing of the system in a positive and constructive way, they may allow the behavior to continue," he says. On the other hand, managers working in organizations where IT workers have more interactions with business people or where shaking up the status quo isn't valued might need to rein in some maverick behavior.

Once you strike the right balance and learn to work with your mavericks rather than against them, you may find that they're a secret weapon in the war against mediocrity.

Pratt is a Computerworld contributing writer in Waltham, Mass. You can contact her at marykpratt@verizon.net.

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Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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