No two words can paint a bigger target on your back in corporate America than "change agent." In my last role (as you guessed it, a change agent) this was how someone confronted me in the hallway after a meeting during my first week on the job:
"What do you even think you’re doing here? I’ve been at this longer than you’ve been out of diapers."
In many ways, that summed up the next two-plus years of my work life at a big ad agency. I was hired to build a new service offering (and team) for the business at large which could ultimately nudge us out of our comfort zone and into being a modern player. This was a daunting task even considering I had strong support from my boss.
In the face of resistance, I was determined to strive for epic success (or try so fervently as to achieve epic failure). I set out to build my team and I knew exactly the kind of person I was looking for: someone steeped in an expertise outside of the industry but with an uncanny ability to absorb knowledge and sell their ideas to diverse audiences. Someone that could help me reinvent how the rest of the organization approached problems and designed solutions — and critically, the courage to do so in front of 500 peers who had no interest in being "disrupted." Because I was inherently looking for ridiculously talented sore thumbs, I called them my "misfit toys." (Yes Virginia, just like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer).
Surprisingly, this turned out to be the easy part. Meet Rachel. Meet Christine. Meet Celestine. Knowing who to hire and how to find them was a problem that I eventually solved (partly through luck, partly by acting like a magnet and drawing them in through speaking and writing). What ultimately kept me up at night were racing questions around how to keep my team from burning out, from spinning out of the organization’s mission, and from being rejected by the organization that desperately needed their help.
Advertising as a profession is over 200 years old. In reality, it’s less art and science than it is factory farm. Even in the face of clients taking more work in-house, consumers connecting directly with brands to shape their products and their promotions, and the decentralization of mass communication, the industry is largely focused on fine tuning yesterday’s business model at the cost of inventing tomorrow’s. Moreover, ad schools across the country still churn out cookie-cutter graduates formed to fill roles we should have left behind more than a decade ago.
In its rigidity, however, advertising is no different from a host of other professions and sectors facing upheaval. The web sooner or later eats everyone’s lunch. Entrenched players usually have a bag of tricks to delay the inevitable (farewell, Blockbuster), but when push comes to shove, they’re either leading the charge or being charged upon. Hence the need for some heretics within our walls rather than solely outside of those walls wielding flaming arrows.
In the end, my team and I made considerable headway together. We began as conspicuous outsiders and eventually were recognized by even the most skeptical lifers in the building as more beneficial to any project than looming menace. Our fingerprints were left on multi-million dollar projects, we brought new clients into the building, and we grew a cult of change around us through networking and educational events. Most telling of all, our CEO graciously demanded our presence in every new business meeting and critical client presentation. But did we really accomplish our lofty mission of organizational change? Probably not. Partly because change from the bottom is never swift or sweeping. Partly because while the organization appreciated our efforts, it never sought to adopt our process— it just wanted a misfit on every project.
Eventually, I left my change agent job. I jumped ship for the second-most loathed job in corporate America: the management consultant. In truth, I became obsessed with the process of change, especially in companies facing disruption from all manner of digital threats. And the challenge of a misfit squad in a big company still occupies my thoughts. Unlike organisms with the benefit of random mutation, very few companies have ever evolved without actually intending to do so. Sure, some companies are gifted with belligerent visionaries like Steve Jobs, who are able to change a company through sheer will. But most need a small and passionate group of relative outsiders to nudge them into relevancy. With that on my mind, and after far too much personal rumination, I reached out to the smartest misfit toys I know and asked others via Twitter and Facebook to speak with me privately and candidly about their experiences in different industries, under varying conditions. Here’s what I’ve learned from those conversations and from my own experience.
For managers looking to build a team of misfit toys of their very own:
Remember that misfits by definition don’t fit in
Outsiders are meant to be productively uncomfortable with the status quo, not champions of it. Most of the misfits I interviewed (people specifically hired because of their round-peg-like nature in the face of the organization’s square-like roles) described themselves as "obsessed" with learning and leveling up yet they were hired for an environment focused on repetitive projects and scalable product offerings. Misfits, too, are intensely driven by purpose and many I spoke with found themselves chafing against an organization obsession with the bottom line. These points of friction should be embraced, not erased.
Hire misfits who can create demand for their own talents
So much of your success or failure as a team of misfits depends on the people you hire. Your litmus test for any hire should be whether that person will have the ability to excite and inspire their colleagues, even when they’re saying "No." After interviewing a few dozen candidates, the most basic test I can offer is this: does the person you’re interviewing actually give you intellectual energy back? If yes, hire them immediately.
Resist assimilation for as long as you can
Organizations by nature value assimilation. Like white blood cells attacking a transplanted kidney, misfits can be the victims of organ rejection by even the best intentioned organizations. It can seem paradoxical, but the more success you have as a team, the more the organization will urge you to assimilate. There’s no sinister motive, the organization simply wants more wins. Remember that success is the organization aping your process, not your team integrating into theirs.
Seize a crisis
There’s no better way to demonstrate your value than to save someone’s day. Moreover, dire situations by their nature are an admittance by the organization that the status quo just isn’t working. When our agency couldn’t satisfy a client’s demand for more experimental work, we were able to throw our hats in the ring and create a case study that ultimately benefited both our group and the agency at large.
Make time for making
The fastest way to lose a misfit is to rarely actualize their ideas. If you’re in a service business (like I was) that means giving your team time (nay, give them the requirement) to explore side projects.
As a manager, spend most of your time managing up
If you’ve hired well, you won’t need to micro-manage your team’s output. You will, however, need to clear their way to success. Focus on maximizing your team’s control over their own projects and reduce as much organizational friction as you can. Just remember that to your boss, even though you’ve hired misfits, you can never seem like an isolated island of talent —continue to demonstrate your value to the wider organization.
Be a prolific propagandist
If you’re trying to shake up the status quo, no one but you will champion your wins and brush your losses under the rug. Remember that sometimes the best way to influence internal stakeholders is to create outside noise. In other words, industry press never hurts.
For polymaths looking to start or join a misfit squad within a big company:
Don’t take a job at any place where the CEO feels too comfortable
When I asked other misfits what they would tell themselves if they were able to go back in time to their first day at work, more than a few said, "Quit." All of these misfits took jobs in organizations that viewed them more as shiny objects than lifelines —and ultimately it comes down to the CEO to instill a sense of urgency (and with it, agency) within an organization.
Learn the culture well enough to exploit it
The first mistake most misfits make is assuming that they exist outside of an organization’s established culture. The truth is that knowing the right solution to a problem is 1% of the overall challenge. The real test of any misfit squad is to convince the rest of the organization to fight on their behalf. And as one misfit put it, "Good work needs an audience to recognize it." Build your audience to build your impact.
Demand to be made accountable
This might sound crazy, but most misfits I talked to were given almost no objectives or metrics when they were hired. Managers simply didn’t know how to measure their output or their impact. While most employees would revel in this kind of freedom, it also means there’s no end-zone for your efforts. And with no end-zone, there’s no touchdown. One word of caution: create a relationship with your superiors where you can revise your metrics over time. You’ll never know just how much of an impact you can make until you get in there and flex your disruptive muscles.
Do whatever it takes to stay sane
As a misfit, you’re the literal embodiment of the myth of Sisyphus. Realize that you’ve put yourself in a position to absorb organizational friction and that you’ll need multiple outlets to let go of that stress. Take care of yourself first. For me, this became making time to go for a walk on the beach every morning with my wife and dog.
In the end, hiring the best people isn’t enough—and working for the best brand isn’t enough either. As a friend once put it to me, "You can’t drop a seed on a linoleum floor and expect it to grow." As more organizations face disruption from digital upstarts and more misfits entertain high paying salaries at less-than-inventive companies, managers and misfits will have to explore whether conditions on both sides truly merit a talent match for the long (and prosperous) haul. For both, the road is rarely a smooth one, but it is a situation of daily learning and leveling-up. Take good care of your misfits and help them take care of you.
Bud Caddell is partner and west coast founder of strategic consultancy Undercurrent. He was previously SVP of invention and digital strategy at Deutsch L.A. He helps big companies prepare for and profit from disruption. He blogs at WhatConsumesMe.com.