A Business Survival Guide for Mavericks, Outsiders and Square Pegs
Posted on August 19, 2019 | By Peter Corijn

All of you have seen and loved the fabulous Apple “Think Different” campaign. What the ads fail to state is how hard it can be to do that in a corporate setting. Often, it does not lead to admiration and your picture in an Apple ad, but to ostracism and being blackballed for promotions.

For those who think differently and have the courage to advocate their beliefs, here are five tips:

 

1. Dress like the tribe and speak the same language.

Your company board might look like this: men in Saville Row pinstripe suits. Grey or dark blue. Swiss expensive watch. Mont Blanc pen. Hermes tie. Women tailored in a conservative classy outfit. Expensive but discreet jewellery. Signet ring. Most have a legal or accountancy background. Their language is profit and shareholder return.

If you show up dressed like a rock star with torn jeans and piercings and start your presentation by raving about how the light in South Africa allowed a great photo-shoot, you have already lost your audience. Your look will just reinforce the maverick rebel image. This board will never grant you real power. Never.

But if you look and talk like the tribe, it provides comfort and re-assurance. At least, the board will listen. There’s a reason why clans share a dress code. Why agency creatives cultivate a carefully studied careless alternative look. Why teenagers want to be different by wearing the exact same things as their peers.

People do judge the book by the cover. Is that fair? No. Is it the way it is? Yes. Up to you of course if you are willing to compromise or not. Just know that there is a price to pay.

 

2. Back your thinking up with authority.

If you express a new idea, it might be dismissed as “there we go again…” The trick is to add the weight of established authority.

Examples: “In the latest Harvard Business Review, a different way to look at innovation is mentioned. I was wondering if this could be something for us?”

“This CEO doubled the share price via an interesting strategy. Here’s what could work for us.”

It’s easy to dismiss you as an idiot but a lot harder to say that of an outstanding CEO. You will need to read and study more than anybody else. That’s anyway a good idea.

“There’s a reason why clans share a dress code. Why agency creatives cultivate a carefully studied careless alternative look. Why teenagers want to be different by wearing the exact same things as their peers.”

3. Pick your battles and the timing. Seek allies. Know when to be a good soldier and when a revolutionary.

Not everything is worth a battle. Don’t fight what you are certain to lose. It might be wonderful for your ego but for little else.

Also, when something makes imminent sense, support it loyally. That will make it easier to express scary alternatives to conventional wisdom on other occasions. Simply because you now have a more “balanced” image.

Sometimes it is good to wait with certain ideas until you have more power. Your day will come.

Everybody needs allies. If you plan to come forward with a controversial idea in an executive meeting, cover it beforehand with some trusted others and seek their support. Check the waters, also with your boss. Better not to spring surprizes.

Consultants can be great allies. Why? Your idea might be a threat to the CEO. That same idea expressed by a consultant is not.

 

4. Before being unconventional, make sure to know and understand conventional.

John Lennon is featured in the Apple campaign. Before he created his best songs, he spent “10,000 hours” learning and playing classics from Chuck Berry and blues giants (such as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Robert Johnson). Bob Dylan studied Woody Guthrie’s folksongs.

The same principle was applied by Charlie A. Beckwith, the legendary founder of Delta Force (the US government refuses to acknowledge that this elite unit exists). His commandos first had to go through regular infantry training.

To go against the established order, it is important to understand that order and to build a foundation of expertise and knowledge.

 

5. Join “the special forces of business”.

Delta wanted men who “enjoyed being alone, who could think and operate by themselves, men who were strong-minded and resolute” (Beckwith, “Delta Force”). If that is you, seek a company culture that fits the profile.

Private Equity for instance has a very particular culture. Or a start-up might be the right fit for you.

At 3M company, they had a saying: “every bureaucracy has freedom in it, it’s up to you to find it.” In some companies, it is to be found in emerging markets. It is less often found in HQ’s.

 

To use Steve Jobs’ phrase: “oh and one more thing”. It is interesting that Apple ads never feature a mid-level employee in a major business. Most of the profiles are creators (be it paintings, songs, a movement, a company). They tend to play in “Extremistan”. Nassim Nicholas Taleb sets this concept versus “Mediocristan”.

It does not mean that the people operating in the latter area are mediocre. Far from it. It has to do with the underlying business dynamics. A mid-level manager can earn a good living, drive a BMW, enjoy a solid dental plan. But a mid-level writer cannot. Nor can a mid-level rock star or explorer. These are activities where the top becomes rich and famous. Everybody else struggles.

As the saying goes: “you can make a fortune but you can’t make a living”. Perhaps something to keep in mind as you go about your maverick ways…


Peter Corijn is the CEO of VUCASTAR, a consultancy focused on Enabling Mission Success, even when the going gets tough.