Co-authored by Danielle Harlan
Have you ever started your “dream” job only to find yourself feeling bored and unmotivated a few months — or even a few weeks — in?
As consultants who work extensively in strategic culture and employee development planning, we see this common scenario time and time again: New employees join an organization (small or large) with high hopes and big expectations, but the reality often falls short of their ideal, and instead of experiencing opportunities for growth and impact, they often find themselves stifled by the monotony of routine and uncreative tasks, a lackluster organizational culture and/or a general inability to create improvements in their work or the larger organization.
If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. In fact according to a recent Gallup survey, 85 percent of employees worldwide are not engaged or are actively disengaged in their work.
Nevertheless, there are a small group of people whom we’ve observed who seem to have the exact opposite experience — no matter where they work or what role they’re in, they somehow always manage to optimize their experience in order to create positive change in their organizations — while at the same time, having fun and advancing their careers.
We call these people “workplace mavericks” — and here are the most successful strategies that we’ve observed while working with them across organizations around the world:
1. Be an improvement addict.
When we spoke with Jodi McLean via email, she shared her experience as a new employee at a global brand accelerator: Rather than guessing at what her clients needed, or poring over the existing research, she simply asked to go through the company’s accelerator program with the clients in order to understand their journey. She was the first employee in the entire company to experience the product firsthand, which gave her unique insight into how it could improve and grow — an experience that ultimately helped her to innovate around the organization’s product line and increase their revenue streams.
Workplace mavericks don’t wait for inspiration to strike. They’re vigilant about finding products and processes that aren’t working — and turning them into opportunities for innovation.
2. Don’t ask for permission.
Danielle has a consulting client that’s a high growth technology company in Silicon Valley. Because of its rapid growth, the tools, resources and products that employees rely on to do their work are often useful one day and obsolete the next.
Whereas we’ve seen this kind of situation cause high levels of confusion and frustration in some organizations, in this case, the workplace mavericks within the organization simply build out solutions that they think will work, test them and then pitch them to the appropriate team or functional area. For instance, faced with high levels of employee turnover due to a lack of advancement opportunities within the organization, one program manager built out a career development path for his team, tested it and eventually pitched it to the people operations team, who gave additional feedback and are now rolling it out across the organization.
The point is, workplace mavericks don’t waste time navigating byzantine organizational politics and processes in order to get permission to innovate. Instead, they develop and test solutions, share the results and get their organizations excited about next steps.
3. Make it easy to say yes.
A major problem faced by workplace mavericks is resistance to change and the inconveniences it causes. In an email from Eugene Gamble, he describes how he tackled this common resistance by instituting a “no commitment” strategy. He approached the staff at his company by explaining that they would be trying something new for a limited time, and if there were problems, they’d revert back to the old system. Gamble “didn’t see this as a risk as once started, the staff would clearly see the upside far outweighed the issues.” He says the key is getting the initial commitment to change. “Once that inertia is overcome, you can then move forward at pace.”
4. Find champions.
A few years ago, Melissa Kennedy, now chief innovation officer at 48Innovate, was working at corporate tech giant Cisco, when she had an idea for a web syndication content system that would better support Cisco’s clients and drive increased business for the organization. However, as Kennedy explained to us via email, getting “this simple project through the complex ecosystem of Cisco was no small feat.”
Rather than struggle with the red tape, Kennedy decided to start with a pilot and she found an internal “celebrity” endorser. According to Kennedy, “I called him my Office Lebron James. He vouched for the idea and offered to participate in the pilot … the project was easy for everyone and drove more business across 4,000 reseller partners.”
As Kennedy’s story demonstrates, workplace mavericks realize that when you’re trying to “sell” a product or service, relationships matter — and if you want to create real change, then finding your internal champions or “sponsors” is just as important as the quality of your product or idea.
5. Embrace failure.
We’re all familiar with the common adage “fail fast and learn fast,” but as we’ve seen in our executive coaching practices, for people who are typically high-achieving, this is often easier said than done. In fact, for many people we talk to, especially those who’ve always been rewarded for their successes, the idea of “embracing” failure can feel not only counterintuitive, but also terrifying.
Nevertheless, whether your ultimate goal is to claim your seat in the C-suite or launch your own organization, at some point, if you want to advance, you’re going to have to learn how to take intelligent risks. For workplace mavericks, this means giving up any attachment to being perfect, accepting failure as a given, learning from mistakes and even finding inspiration and motivation in what doesn’t work.
At the end of the day, you don’t have to adopt every single one of these strategies in order to be a workplace maverick — even following just one of them (or the particular combination that feels most natural and authentic to you) will help you to reinvigorate your work and increase your success and happiness — while also creating positive change in your organization and advancing your career.
*Originally published in Entrepreneur