Why every business needs left-eared people

14 December 2015
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We as humans will naturally “lean in” to listen intently when someone speaks. What matters is, which ear does a person lead with? Right or left?

Groundbreaking research done jointly with the London School of Economics (LSE) and University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Australia found that people who inherently lean in and listen with their left ears are those we term “right-brained.” They are creative. Out of the box. Free thinkers. Risk takers. Goal-oriented. Quick decision-makers.

Steve Jobs was left-eared. So is Richard Branson.

In other words, left-eared people are mavericks. And every business needs a few mavericks.

One of the dangerous outcomes of the globalization of talent management is the tendency of global “score-carding” of performance to create a company full of “vanilla” — everyone acts the same. You get perhaps gender diversity and racial diversity, but you miss the most important of all: diversity of thought and approach. In global calibration, I have observed a tendency to force mavericks to the sidelines. They don’t act like everyone else. They think differently. They stand out. They make trouble and ask tough questions. They take huge risks. They are “dangerous,” in a sense. And so, while the company may feel safer by being vanilla, with the mavericks goes an intangible set of elements critical for successful businesses.

In my observation, having a few mavericks on a team is crucial for success, as mavericks bring several key dynamics to the table:

2. They push the envelope. You want more innovation? Hire a few mavericks. These are the folks who come up with the discontinuous and cutting-edge ideas, the ones that are big and scary and yet just might be breakthroughs! They challenge and stretch the people around them, and basically raise the game of those they work with. I have seen one maverick suddenly join a team and single-handedly lift the entire team up through challenging paradigms. At the heart of innovation are people, and left-eared people are mavericks.

3. They keep things fun. Most professionals put in 10 or more hours/day at the office. That’s more waking time spent with coworkers than with one’s family on an average day! Mavericks, just by being who they are, keep things fun and in perspective. They make life just a bit more interesting. Think Dennis Rodman or Charles Barkley or John McEnroe in a business sense. They may infuriate you sometimes, but they also add spice to work life and make it more fun and more endurable to come to the office. When a maverick leaves an operation, the “smell” of the place changes instantly, and not for the better. There is a loss of chemistry that can’t be easily replaced.

When I read stories or hear reports of the struggles of Procter & Gamble, nothing breaks my heart more. It’s a great company with great people. And the theories abound, including perhaps that the company just became “too big” and now has to carve itself up into smaller, more nimble pieces. Maybe. I don’t know.

But I also have to wonder, when I hear the comments from my former colleagues, if it isn’t something simpler. If I have learned anything in business, it is that people, teams, organizations are at the root of success. Size never really matters. It’s all about people. Get the right people, the right team, the right chemistry, and good things happen. Any coach of any sport will say the same thing. And sometimes all a team needs is one final ingredient, one final piece of the puzzle.

When I joined P&G, I heard all the stories of the rigidity, the jokes about “Proctoids” from friends and family. And when I got in, like many stories, there was indeed a degree of truth. There was an inherent “P&Ger” persona and approach prevalent in the office. But also peppered throughout the organization were true mavericks. People who just didn’t fit the mold. The innovative B. Jurgen Hintz was my first group vice president and was an absolute maverick. One of my first bosses, Darryl Mobley, with his suspenders and bowties, was as out-of-the-box as they come, and a huge risk taker and challenger of conventional wisdom. I later worked for the great Herbert Schmitz, the father of the Central and Eastern European business, with a flair for innovation and business instinct like I have never seen. This man single-handedly led the group that added no less than $20 to the share price of P&G, by forging an empire out of nothing from Russia to the Balkans. The risks he took! I really wonder today if P&G, or many companies, for that matter, would have the mavericks to replicate the multibillion-dollar success P&G had in these markets?

Later, I coached some great mavericks: Peter Corijn, my songwriting, guitar-strumming, MTV-star marketing director. The most creative person I have ever met, the man who won global Cannes Advertising awards on laundry detergents! Yes, laundry detergents. Peter is that creative. Or Dor Sela, the ex-army officer who was so entrepreneurial he could build a business out of nothing. Interestingly, as the people-management systems became more and more global, with the latter two I found myself having to defend them more and more. They stood out. They made waves. And global HR systems don’t like this. Global systems hammer down nails that stick up. Global systems don’t see the intangibles that mavericks bring to any team. How absolutely crucial they are.

Smart HR looks at team chemistry and understands the role of mavericks and the intangible impacts they have. Mechanical HR looks at reports and scorecards and conformity and collaboration and fails to understand the dynamics of team chemistry.

Maybe the heart of P&G’s slump is rooted in scale. Maybe. But just maybe one of the key reasons is, the chemistry has shifted. The mavericks have gone the way of the dinosaurs. They are all gone.

Great teams, winning teams, all have good chemistry of different ingredients working together. People who listen from the left, the mavericks, play a crucial role. You don’t need an operation full of them, but you do need a few strategically placed if you want a great team.

If you aren’t happy with your results and you can’t quite define why, start with a simple test. Bring your team into your office. Whisper very softly, to the point they can’t even hear you. As they each perceptibly lean in to try and hear you, take a look around. If you have everyone leaning in to listen from the right side, well, then, perhaps you have your issue framed up right in front of you.

Every great team needs a maverick.

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