Misfits: Why We Need Them!

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“I don’t feel like working here anymore. I feel so stifled and out of place!” cried my client who called up to seek career advice. She had been working for this reputed company for three years. While there was nothing principally wrong about the place, she felt claustrophobic. This lady is known for her cheerful outlook and a whacky sense of humour. However I have always known her to be an exemplary performer and a go-getter. Apparently her co-workers find her overwhelming and her boss has on more than one occasion, asked her to tone down her enthusiasm and “calm down”.

We are born free. And then fettered by bonds of compliance, obedience, and subservience, so much so that we dare not be different. The few, who dare to be different, are penalized or worse, ridiculed. Even in kindergarten, we are taught to color inside the lines, and are reprimanded for daring to color outside!

Unfit or a Misfit?

I felt like a misfit for the first time when I attempted to resume work after a long break. While applying for jobs I was told, “You are too senior!” The truth as I realized was, that I was overqualified for the job in question. Thereafter I was declared a misfit (indirectly albeit!) on more than one occasion. I was either inadequately qualified (not an MBA) despite my years of experience, or overly experienced, or too old for a position.

I remember having a healthy debate on this topic many years ago with one of my bosses when I wanted to hire a trainer. I found the candidate quiet and understated and his answers very forthright and earnest. I felt he would be an ideal fit for one of our training centres that was plagued by attrition. My boss however had another opinion. He felt that the candidate lacked ambition and therefore would be a misfit in a team of strong and dynamic trainers. I stuck to my guns and requested my boss to trust my instinct. Sure enough over the months when the centre lost some of their star performers, this individual emerged as one of the most solid and dependable players who helped the centre weather the toughest of times.

The question we really need to ask while hiring is, “Is this candidate Unfit for the role, or a Misfit with respect to what we usually look for?” It’s one thing to reject someone who lacks the necessary vital skills for a position, but another when their profile or personality is perceived beyond the norm. I have had my share of hiring blunders where I hired “different” people who more than shook up the still waters in my team, but I have never regretted it! They have always left behind a legacy of “out-of-the-box” thinking and creative ideas in their wake, even those who lasted for less than six months.

The Round Pegs in a Square Hole

There are plenty of examples of misfits from The Ugly Duckling, to Mumble the tap-dancing penguin from the movie Happy Feet, or even Santa’s legendary Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer. They are ridiculed because they are different from their ilk. I remember a coworker who was at least 10 years older in a team of 20-somethings. To her credit she did her best to mingle but I remember a distinct sense of awkwardness her team lead felt in interacting with her. The team lead was palpably relieved when this employee resigned. I guess this happens to most women who resume jobs after a substantial break. We either report to managers younger than us, or become part of a younger team that just doesn’t know how to freely interact with us.

One of my clients-in-coaching hailed from a different state of India and did not know to speak Hindi very well. He felt excluded from the rest of the team because they cracked jokes in Hindi and he did not understand them. At the end of our session he came up with an idea to organize a team outing where he planned various activities and games to help the team get to know one another informally. During our next session, he sounded delighted about the outcome of the activity. Apparently he was learning to speak Hindi from his colleagues while he was teaching them his native language! More so, his manager started taking notice of him and started appreciating him.

Why are we wary of misfits?

Right from the time we start schooling we are taught to discriminate and comply. How many of us remember alienating or ostracizing that one kid who seemed different from us? How about those with a learning disorder or speech impediment or an unusual personality or physical appearance? Why are we judgmental towards those we perceive as “eccentric”? Why do we reject misfits?

We are uncomfortable around them

We are so comfortably used to interacting with a certain profile of people that we feel out-of-depth while dealing with a different type. It is easier to reject a candidate who seems different from the rest of the team than taking the trouble to accept and understand her.

We don’t want to change status quo

I remember a senior leader asking me to reject a candidate because she seemed overqualified when compared to the team. He felt having her in the team will disrupt the balance and make others insecure.

We are afraid of their outlandish and rebellious ideas

I firmly believe that startup teams need more mavericks who can find their way and get things done among the haziness and disorder. However, mavericks are not necessarily considered nice people! Their tendency to break rules causes others to perceive them as overly ambitious, rebellious, and selfish. Then there are people who question everything around them such as policies, processes, or methods. They make the rest of the compliant population nervous.

We are envious of them

Aha! What’s the real reason we reject some smart candidates? This happened to me as a hiring manager when I wanted to hire a team lead. I found one candidate particularly smart and more qualified than me. My first instinct was to reject him as I felt he had a superior attitude. The fact was, I felt threatened by him and mistook his self-confidence for superiority. I finally hired him as I realized he would be the best person who might help me achieve the goals for the team. Everything in the team changed for the better after that. I was pleasantly surprised to see him flourish and grow in a few years. He and I are still in touch, and I have learnt a lot from him. Ever since then, when I feel like rejecting a candidate I ask myself, “Am I envious of him/her?”

Want to see change? Then get more misfits!

One of the topmost issues plaguing our corporate world is the need for change. Change in our attitudes, change in our processes, change in our mind-sets, and change in the way we work. To get there, we need to seriously look at all of our job description definitions once again. If we want game-changers, we need to look out for misfits who will disrupt the current order of things. Think Galileo, Christopher Columbus, Larry Page & Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and the likes.

Let us look at all positions where the gender ratio is skewed. How about the people in our company? Do they speak different native languages? Do they come from different ethnic backgrounds? What about the age-groups and the generations – do we have a healthy ratio of Gen X to millennials? Diversity and inclusion is not only about hiring women, it is also about looking at women we seem to ignore and assume that they are “out of practice” and “out of the game”.

There is no other way to look at it. Misfits bring to the table radical thought pattern and ideas. Having them in the team shakes up things around quite a bit. It helps existing teams to come out of their comfort zones.

Of course, this does not mean that we hire rebels just for the heck of it. We need to shed our preconceived notions and prejudices when we hire them. Misfits are humans after all, and they too need guidance and direction and most of all – acceptance and an opportunity to prove their worth. It is time we embraced the risks of hiring misfits – we need to create round slots for round pegs!

As Apple Inc. said in one of their “Think Different” campaigns:

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

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Empowering and Engaging Mid-Level Leaders

A few weeks back, I met my friend (who is also a coach) for lunch where we exchanged our coaching experiences. Our topic gradually moved towards increasingly unhappy and discontent employees who also happened to be managers. These weren’t your eager and new managers, or those at the executive level, but the ones caught in the middle. At least over 70% of these managers in question were those who grew up the ranks through their commitment and high performance in their companies. Incidentally, they also happened to be those “loyal” employees who gave some of their best years and (tenure) to their companies. Here are some of the common challenges these middle managers shared during our coaching sessions. (Of course we never share our clients’ information, but only share common observations and statistics.)

“I’m caught in a rut and don’t find my job exciting anymore.”

“I’m the King of Approvals. After being a technical innovator for 10 years, all that I do is check and approve documents.”

“I’m a referee arbitrating petty disputes and conflicts within the team because our communication system sucks.”

“I attend boring meetings where everyone talks but no one decides.”

“I have no power to execute big ideas or make high impactful decisions. I was happier at the trenches. At least I could add value.”

“Change management? I’m the checklist queen! All that I do is follow up, follow up, and more follow up!”

“I am the bearer of bad news. I hate appraisal time!”

“Our top management is busy attending conferences and leadership summits, and has no time for us. Heck! They don’t even share with us what they discussed in those meetings!”

“Help! I’m trapped in a toxic shark infested sea where politics rules!”

We also observed that a majority of these concerns were voiced by people working for large companies with handsome salaries.

The hazy level

According to a recent survey conducted by Forbes, middle managers typically constitute 5% of the unhappy/disengaged workforce population. Now why should we even bother about a paltry 5%? That is because these are the people who manage bulk of the remaining workforce that comprises junior level managers and front-line team players, most of who interact directly with our customers.

If we look at this whole situation logically, a company’s top line is maintained through its marketing and revenue. While the top management drives these strategically and externally, the frontline management executes the day-to-day sales and services operations at an internal tactical level. Both these roles being very clear and well-defined, the middle management layer remains one of the haziest and fuzziest. A case in example is the key performance indicators (KPI) for top and front-line management performance. They are clear-cut and visible. What about the middle management? What are they clearly accountable for?

When we throw in the global and matrix organizational structure into this mix, the middle management is cornered between a rock and a hard place in a no-man(ager)’s land!

A middle manager’s role is pretty indirect. Not only does a middle manager report to another manager, they also have managers reporting to them. While a frontline manager has a mix of inexperienced and fairly experienced team members, and goes through a myriad of basic leadership training programs, a middle manager already has a seasoned bunch of leaders reporting into him or her. Unlike a frontline manager who has her calendar packed to the full with meetings, reviews, and reports, most middle managers barely have a concrete agenda (unless they have newbie managers who need their hand held through their initial startup period.) This is truly the dilemma of the middle manager as nicely articulated in this article.

Breeding ground for discontentment

If enthusiasm is contagious, discontentment is an epidemic! Imagine middle managers coming to work day in and day out in this state of mind. Their enthusiasm diminishes, their energy levels deplete, and over a period of time, there’s a toxic buildup of negativity that eventually gets transmitted by them (knowingly or unknowingly) to their subordinates, teams, and colleagues. What’s one of the biggest reasons for employee disengagement? Bad bosses. So now you know.

The real role of a Mid-level Leader

Perhaps the biggest bone of contention for a middle manager in most organizations is that they barely get a leadership role. After spending a minimum of 10 to 15 years of their career, all that they seem to be doing is giving approvals, attending meetings, signing forms, following up on top management mandates, mediating in discussions, moderating compensation proposals amongst others. All of these are mere tasks with little scope for leadership. So what are we missing here?

The middle layer actually acts as a channel between the strategic and tactical levels of the organization. Where the top level defines the strategy and high level objectives, the middle layer has to make it happen through the lower layers in the form of concrete goals and action plans. A mid-level leader is actually 4 roles of leadership all played by one person.

  • Change Management Champion—For companies to grow in size and adapt to the external market dynamics, they need to constantly keep evolving, creating, and changing. Here’s where mid-level leaders can take ownership by demystifying the HOWs of the change, and converting them into tangible sets of WHENs by working closely with their frontline leadership. As champions of change they would also need to kick-start and mobilize new projects and processes and see them through completion across the span of different teams under their supervision.
  • Collaboration and Cross-functional Facilitator—Matrix structures are a necessity in today’s complex multicultural work environments. Mid-level managers can help break interdepartmental silos by making cross-functional teams work together, besides keeping a bird’s eye view on the larger scheme of things. As collaborators, they also need to ensure their teams are not encumbered by red tape and naysayers.
  • Culture Evangelist—A frontline leader’s role by definition is all about keeping a close eye on the money and operations side of things. However a mid-level leader can focus on people through skip-level meetings, monthly group meetings to recognize good workers and share the bigger picture, besides planning activities to promote a better work environment. A mid-level leader could also address his group during crisis proactively to bolster their spirits and offer them encouragement.
  • Coach and Mentor—Another huge reason for employee dissatisfaction is lack of visible growth opportunities in the horizon. Succession planning is one of the key responsibilities of a mid-level leader. In fact I believe it should be the responsibility (and KPI) of every manager in a company to identify their high potential staff and build a succession plan in collaboration with HR. Mid-level managers would be the best kind of coaches and mentors to make that happen.

Strengthening the Middle

While top management is the head (and brains) of the organization and frontline level the limbs, the middle level leadership is the heart and core. If an organization wants to gear itself up to meet the market demands of customer service, technology, and innovation, they would need to empower their mid-level leaders with necessary resources, and motivate them to fulfil all four roles effectively. If mid-level leaders are expected to plan their succession, then it is top management’s responsibility to do the same and coach and mentor their mid-level staff. Ultimately, the heart and core need to be strengthened and nourished for the limbs and brain to survive!

Big Idea 2015: Coaching – the key to change and innovation

Peter Drucker once said, “If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old.” I would like to add that, “If you want new ideas, you need to stop old practices.”

Our personal and work lives and habits are cluttered with mindless activities and rote practices. When was the last time we ignored the chime of our incoming emails or notifications? Here you are, trying to think of a new marketing plan, and “ping!” goes your smartphone! Rather than ignoring, you pick up your phone to check what it’s all about. You get sucked into yet another never-ending quagmire of responses and actions triggered by that communication. When you get back to the marketing plan, you are back to square one, struggling hard to get started. We run our lives exactly like that in the autopilot mode, dancing and reacting to external triggers and distractions. Over a period, we accumulate a whole pile of useless clutter into our brains and realize we have wasted a huge chunk of our times and lives without a second thought.

Organizational versus Organic change

While organizations struggle to introduce and implement change at a macro level, our old habits, thinking, practices, and judgement continue to remain the same at a micro subconscious level. While the organizational system wants new technologies and new processes to bring about the change, the organic system operates as a monotonic congregation of robotic actions and habits. The result? Acute discomfort leading to total rebellion against changing status quo.

Two of the top burning issues over the past few years include severe talent scarcity and lack of innovation. Could it be because we have stopped thinking too deeply and simply comply with everything around us? How do we attract the right people into our lives and our teams, and how do we attract great ideas?

2015 – A turning point

2015 would mark a significant milestone in corporate history. Baby boomers will be close to retirement, most leaders and mentors will be from Gen X, while the mainstream will be flooded with versatile, technology-savvy, and multi-talented Millennials. There will be a shift of power and roles between these generations. As the population of Millennial will be more than ever before, here’s where bulk of the talent would lie. What worked for Gen X may not work simply because the technological and economic landscape is different. The motivating factors for Millennials to stick around is different as Anne Fisher has explained in this article. It is exactly because of this reason that we need to bring about change at a fundamental in the way we think, work, and achieve results.

Why Coaching?

For successful change management, every individual part of the exercise has to consciously and willingly agree to change either their mindsets, habits, or behaviours.

For change to occur at a micro level, it is more important than ever before to dedicate exclusive time for the brain. Coaching is a unique process where an individual works with a coach to articulate, analyse, detail, and plan their future actions. The coach asks purely open ended questions and facilitates the entire process through activities and exercises to help the individual look at the situation objectively from all angles and perspectives. It is sort of an “out of body” experience where the individual is encouraged to look at problems and challenges without judgement or external influence. The individual arrives at his own ideas and solutions during this process. This makes decision-making a completely mindful exercise. As the individual gets regularly coached, she gets more insights and awareness into her behavior and becomes a willing participant in change.

Benefits of coaching for the organization

  • Promotes a culture for change—Imagine this process happening across the organization where every employee is encouraged to get coached. Rather than pushing changes down employees’ throats, coaching could be a way to get employees to embrace the change after considering all aspects and benefits. This change in mindset leads to an organizational culture that intelligently participates in the entire change process.
  • Builds synergy within all generations of workforce— As millennials take center stage in the next decade, they will need to extract the best out of the more experienced and seasoned Baby Boomer and Gen X workforce, who can be deployed as coaches and mentors.
  • Develops emotionally intelligent leadership—A large part of EQ comes out of self-awareness and mindfulness. Coaching helps leaders and managers to reflect and improve their behavior and actions by enabling them to become more empathetic people leaders and better decision-makers
  • Drives empowerment and active innovation—Innovation already exists within individuals as a tiny unexplored glimmer of an idea. This idea usually gets clouded and eclipsed by legacy processes, assumptions, and indecisiveness and as a result, dies a quick death. As coaching is all about exploring the mind and heart towards newer solutions and behaviours, it automatically helps employees manifest and expand their ideas, and gives them the courage to take first steps towards implementing new solutions. Latent skill transforms to active talent, leading to active innovation.
  • Increases employee engagement and loyalty—It is now known that employee engagement largely depends on an employee’s emotional connect with the company management, brand, and organization. Through coaching, employees not only work on their career progression, they also take responsibility for their overall well-being and self-development. Leaders and managers too demonstrate a willingness to participate in their employees’ overall development and career planning. Coaching at the executive level helps organizational leaders to think beyond quarterly business results, and outline a more holistic and people-oriented vision. Once coaching becomes an intrinsic part of the company culture, over a period of time, employees begin to see a better alignment between their individual goals and the organization’s vision, and feel more invested in the company.

If a company needs to change its strategy, it has to get buy-in from its employees and customers. Unfortunately getting stakeholders to participate in the change process is easier said than done. If questions and ideas are not encouraged at an individual level, any change management exercise becomes an expensive promotional campaign followed by a “my way or the high way” stance.
That said, developing a coaching culture is a fairly long-term strategy and involves whole-hearted commitment from the company’s top management. Merely training managers to become certified coaches is not enough. 2015 should hopefully see companies building, driving, and executing a concrete talent management strategy using coaching and mentoring as key drivers.

Leadership during Adversity

James Lane Allen, the famous nineteenth century novelist once said, “Adversity does not build character, it reveals it.” This is true of leadership as well.

Look at the leaders we admire. Would they have been able to garner so much popularity and admiration by success alone? Whether it’s Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi, it’s these leaders’ response to adversity and challenging times that has revealed their true character to the world.

The Acid Test

We get many opportunities to display our energy and dynamism when the times are upbeat and the cash registers ring. The energy around is contagious and team spirit is high, and it feels great when our teams are fully engaged and productive. However the real acid test is when the times are not so great, the people aren’t that talented, customers are unhappy, or business isn’t just picking up. When things don’t work out according to plan, these challenges and changes could eventually snowball into disastrous setbacks. This is really when leaders get an opportunity to set an example.

5 Cs of Winning Leaders

Great leaders exhibit the following 5Cs of behaviour when faced with adversity:

  • Charge: Ability to positively mobilize their teams and “pulling” them to perform rather than “pushing” them
  • Courage: Ability to take the bull by the horns and do the right thing no matter what the repercussion
  • Change: Ability to change, develop, and grow by learning from the challenge
  • Contemplate: Ability to think and deal with the situation calmly
  • Clean: Ability to withstand negativity and stay positive

Here’s a great article that explores adversity in detail.

As leaders when we buckle under pressure, our employees can easily spot it a mile long. Whether we let the situation go downhill, or bolster our team’s spirits, or set an example by doing the right thing in the right way, our teams get to witness our true leadership spirit.

An adversity could be a life-changing experience on the personal front, or calamitous experiences on the professional front. The way in which we deal with what life throws at us without breaking down, is what makes us into shining leaders.

(Posted on LinkedIn on Oct 9, 2014: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/article/20141009124935-11623865-leadership-during-adversity)