In businesseveryone wants to build or ride a rocket. We talk in terms of “moonshots.” Rockets are a symbol of epic human progress. They’re designed to break free of gravity and launch us to new heights and to new worlds. The thing is, a rocket engine is just a containment chamber for a barely controlled explosion. The booster is filled with volatile chemicals that, when combined in the proper proportions, blow up. Brilliant engineers plan, build, and test rocket engines so they can harness the incredible power of this explosion and convert it into planet-defying propulsion, instead of destruction.
As a metaphor for leaders, it’s a juicy one. It perfectly describes the necessity of hiring Rare Breeds in order to grow a culture of explosive, original thinking. With the inherent duality of their most important traits, Rare Breeds are like the explosive chemicals in a rocket: Harness their power in the right way, and you’re at escape velocity before you know it, on your way to someplace. Get it wrong and BOOM. Lawsuits, mass resignations, culture carnage, and worse—people can self-destruct.
If innovation is the lifeblood of any ambitious company, then the next wave of it demands leaders who are outliers, or at least willing to hire and wrangle those historically seen as difficult yet creative thinkers. Even leaders who don’t know how to do this still know it’s necessary. The Conference Board’s 23rd annual survey of global business leaders, one of the chief concerns was the need to build a creative, innovative culture.
We’ve seen it over and over again. Tame, play-it-safe teams where everybody gets along swimmingly lack the creative tension and guts to change an organization’s trajectory with their over-the-edge thinking. You should be courting outliers, and then empowering them with humane, values-based leadership. VUCA, which stands for volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous—a term coined by the US Army War College As shorthand to describe the evolving, unpredictable state of international geopolitics following the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War—has become a business model.
But as physicists know, everything about capturing the chemical chaos of a rocket engine and hurling a ship into space—or, for that matter, bringing one home from orbit and safely back to terra firma—is precarious. The margins for error are razor-thin. An improper fuel mix, a bad seal, a reentry angle a few degrees too steep…you get a catastrophe. So how can front-line managers, departmental VPs, and C-suite execs strike that fine balance between the fiery brilliance of Rare Breeds and their without culture carnage?
Hire with clear, strict boundaries–and equally clear rewards. These firecrackers commonly push against convention and carry provocative opinions. They’re not necessarily difficult people, but they do color outside the lines. It’s essential to let them know where those lines are regarding conduct, courtesy, respect, and so on.
Revise your employee handbook. Iconoclasts bridle at the idea of having to conform to something like an across-the-board dress code. If you have a conventional set of rules and regulations for your organization, tear it up and rewrite it to be looser about things that don’t really matter that much, like attire. A great example of this is the Tesla anti-handbook handbook. Keep the stuff that protects you legally but be creative on the rest.
Create zero-consequence, early-stage development channels. This is a big one. Creative thinkers hate bringing their ideas to their superiors only to have them shot down out of ignorance. Instead, dedicate design, engineering, and other resources that allow Rare Breeds to begin developing their ideas on their own, without approval from higher ups. That way, if the idea flops, nobody’s embarrassed. If it soars, they can bring it to you already tested.
Get people collaborating on equal terms. If there’s a signal trait common to all unconventional thinkers, it’s intelligence. Most are way have extraordinarily high IQs, and when you combine that with their native intensity, focus, or nerve, they can intimidate the more conventional personalities in an organization. Look for ways to engage teams in supervised collaboration, so the more conventional minds and the Rare Breeds can work together on equal terms. Everyone is heard, and nobody feels like they’re contributing just because they’re less flashy or outspoken.
Keep them clear of customers. To be fair, hypnotic charisma can be a primary trait of this crew, making customers swoon. But in our experience, more of them are so focused on their visions, so obsessive about perfection, or so impatient with what they see as silly questions that they can come off as short-fused. Unless you’re blessed with hypnotic charmers who inspire your customers, it’s probably best to keep them clear of the customer-facing part of the business. The one exception: If your customers are largely Rare Breeds tooanything goes.
There. Now you have no more excuses to push outside your comfort zone. Yes, courting “risky” people may seem counterintuitive, but so is stagnation. Rare Breeds infuse organizations with bold thinking, and their ideas rocket those organizations into the stratosphere. Stop worrying about hiring people who will fit into your culture, and start looking for people who will break it…just a little.
Sunny Bonnell and Ashleigh Hansberger are founders ofMottoand authors ofRare Breed: A Guide to Success for the Defiant, Dangerous, and Different.