December 3, 2019

Working with the Rare Breed in Your Organization

by Wendy Ryan in Leadership

Silicon Valley tends to attract an interesting, often eclectic, workforce that likes to experiment with new ways of working and unusual office spaces. And many of these leaders pride themselves on being unique—a rare breed, if you will.

I recently read the book Rare Breed: A Guide to Success for the Defiant, Dangerous and Different by Sunny Bonnell and Ashleigh Hansberger. Just a few pages in, I was hooked and knew I needed to share some thoughts about it here. It’s a fantastic read about leadership and an alternative roadmap for how to grow a business or movement outside of the traditional mold. Challenging our thinking around how a leader looks and acts in the process.

According to Bonnell and Hansberger, rare breeds are talented and gifted people, but they’re cut from a different cloth than buttoned-up C-suite executives traditionally are. And sometimes it’s because of their perceived talents and rare gifts that their behaviors, though sometimes unproductive, may be overlooked, justified and ultimately forgiven a little too quickly. As leaders, we are often afraid to correct non-productive behavior for fear of losing them our rare breed in the process.

Let me pause for a moment to clarify what I mean by “productive” vs. “non-productive” behavior. By non-productive I’m not referring to downtime, or the non-linear nature of the creative process or how people may get into flow at odd hours. I am talking about the impact our words and actions have on the people we work with and with whom we may share interdependencies.

Here’s the thing: You can be your biggest, baddest, rarest breed self—be authentic, different, creative, weird, dress how you like, do your best work between midnight and 4 a.m. and work well with others. It’s possible to be both and as leaders, it’s time to start expecting this of ourselves and others.

How to Encourage Non-Rare Behaviors

Rare breed employees don’t fit into a standard mold, and we miss out on so much greatness when we expect them (or any employees) to fit one. But we can, and should, expect behaviors that don’t intentionally offend others.

  • Expect them to follow basic organizational norms. Your organization has policies and guidelines, norms for how to behave that support your unique culture. Brilliant minds don’t get to ignore those norms simply because they think differently. Expectations should remain high, though they may benefit from some coaching around this.
  • Encourage them to lean on strengths. Creatives and other rare breeds tend to get tunnel vision when in the flow of their work, forgetting or ignoring other routine responsibilities. Facilitate this flow, but help them identify ways to maximize flow without negatively impacting others around them. Routinely skipping team meetings and missing project deadlines can drag down the team’s performance and morale. Work with your rare breed to develop systems to mitigate that.
  • Avoid passing them by for opportunities. It’s important that leaders don’t penalize rare breeds when they don’t look like, talk like, act like us. If what makes someone different isn’t controllable (race, gender, etc.), or their self-expression is authentic and not offensive, stay focused on helping them develop their talents and sponsor them to make a bigger difference in the organization.
  • Encourage leadership. Rare breeds can be fearless, standing up for movements that challenge cultural and organizational norms that no longer serve us well. They encourage us to think differently, in a way that only they can. Change is not the enemy; stagnation is. Invite those who are different to lead so they can help the organization to grow and innovate.

In the end, rare breeds can be part of the secret sauce that makes your organization wildly successful. But so are the other employees in your charge. Balancing the natural tension that exists when we simultaneously seek to establish or maintain norms and controls while we also encourage disruptive ideas and innovators is part of the job of leadership.

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