Managing mavericks

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.

"They're the ones that know the mousetrap will never be finished," says Andy Wihtol, president of Andrew Associates Executive Search, 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, 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," McCracken says.

McCracken clearly remembers this iconoclast's behaviour 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, a sourcing advisory firm.

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

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