Tag : Corporate rebels

Lotus Mud

No Mud, No Lotus

My husband and I were hiking in the Orkney Islands and spotted a run-down, Stonehenge-like cluster of rocks on the other side of the expansive field. Rather than try to find a road, which could take hours, we opened the pasture gate and started across the field. Despite the cold rain. Despite the cows and that one big bull who gave us the evil eye.

After about 50 yards we started sinking into the mud. Past our hiking boots, halfway up our shins, soaking our pants. With every step came a loud sucking sound as we pulled our feet out of the mud.

As we slowly, slowly made our way across the field we became discouraged. Was mucking in this rain and mud worth it? What if the stones were just a pile of big rocks and nothing historically significant? Might the field become firmer and less muddy up ahead? Should we turn back? Once we make it to the rock Cairns, how do we get back to the inn? And, oh yeah, are you sure this is just mud and not cow dung, too?

Mucking in mud vs. failing fast

Pursuing a new idea at work usually means a whole lot of uncomfortable mucking about in the mud. And the most effective rebels and change makers at work are both idea people and skilled mud sloggers.

While many entrepreneurs urge us to experiment and fail fast, that’s not realistic when you’re trying to create change inside a big company, government agency, hospital or school system. Things just don’t move at start-up speed, and failure is rarely looked upon as a badge of honor.

Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist spiritual leader, has said, “No mud, no lotus.” Without suffering through the mud, you cannot find the happiness of the lotus. Without grit, there is no pearl. He also believes that when we know how to suffer, we suffer less.

When we’re creating change there will be mud and all its discomfort and messiness. Perhaps this is a more useful wisdom than “fail fast” for those creating change inside of big organizations.

Of course we all yearn for for predictability, and faster if not instant-gratification. It would be nice to fail fast because we would minimize the duration of the “making something new work” suffering.

Creating change requires doing the homework, building alliances, forming a realistic picture of what’s possible, standing up to the naysayers, and steadfastly moving forward, planning the next step and the one after that. Many days sinking up to our knees in mud, others restraining ourselves from angrily tossing cow flaps at people who resist what we’re trying to accomplish, and some laughing and commiserating with our co-workers.

Ban the heroes. Together, it’s less uncomfortable

Our relationships with people at work may be the only way to suffer less. The comfort in being able to talk through a problem and have someone listen intently without judgment. The trust in being able to ask difficult questions and get honest answers. The kindness of an unexpected latte on your desk after a tough meeting. The surprise of hearing belly laughter floating above the cubicles.

The optimism from the human spirit lifts the suffering and injects new energy to keep going. Even though you may still be in the mud.

No one person can or should try to be the big idea change hero. We need our co-workers, collaborators, compatriots. They improve on our ideas and help us figure out how to sell it and get it adopted. As importantly, they ease the suffering of that goes with most change efforts.

It took us hours to get across that Scottish field that day, and neither the rain nor the mud ever let up. We did find a magical standing rock formation thousands of years old, and the bath that night was one of the best in my life.


This article originally appeared in Forbes on 1/18/15.

In a world without rebels

Our systems — be they companies, government agencies, schools, churches or healthcare organizations — become brittle, rigid, bureaucratic, and sometimes even dangerous when there are no rebels or change makers who have the courage to say, “This isn’t the right way.” Look no further than General Motors’ recent debacle. This inspirational post reflects on what might happen in a world without rebels.

CEO Nancy Schlichting: find the disruptive people

“Find the disruptive people in your organization. They have the ideas that will drive change,” said Nancy Schlichting, CEO of the Henry Ford Health System, a $4 billion healthcare organization with 23,000 employees.

Speaking at the BIF8 innovation conference last week in Providence, RI, Nancy shared what has helped her transform an ailing health care system and create innovations in health care such as a new  $360 million health and wellness facility that feels more like a luxury hotel than a hospital.

Transforming healthcare is all about leadership, she said. Her leadership approach focuses on creating an “incredible” environment for every person to reach their full potential.  How she has created such an  environment:

  • Making a large organization feel small.  When the board approached her about being CEO of the health care system she was reluctant to take it because she likes being involved with people and creating working environments that are positive, personal and open-minded. The board assured her that being CEO of a health care would not preclude how she like to lead.
  • Saying yes to unusual ideas, like an employee who wanted to be able to creating fun drawings  on the disposable gowns worn by the kidney dialysis staff. “This woman creates this amazing designs on her own time on the weekends. On Monday mornings the staff can’t wait to see what she has that week for them.”
  • Helping people who are disruptors. These, she says, are the people with the ideas that can help you change and transform. One example she shared: a surgeon who wanted to put health kiosks in churches in the Detroit community.  Doing so has been a hugely successful way to help people learn about health and wellness.
  • Hiring people in with non-traditional backgrounds to help you see things in new and different ways. “This is essential,” Nancy stressed. One example: she hired Gerard van Grinsven, a long time Ritz Carlton executive to be CEO of the new Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital, even though Bernard had no health care experience. His “otherness” has been a significant reason the new hospital has been so successful in its ambitious goals. (Here’s a link to a video of Gerard sharing his story about going from high-end hotels to opening a hospital.
  • Bringing together different thinkers. Creative ideas happen at the intersections, said Nancy. Bringing different thinkers together across silos creates better ideas faster.

Hearing her talk I was reminding of the wonderful poem by Kaylin Haught, “God Says Yes To Me.”  Imagine if CEOs said yes, yes, yes to more of their employees, especially the disruptive corporate rebels?

Not only would organizations be able to innovate and change more quickly, a wonderful sense of joy would permeate the workplace — even in high-stress environments in struggling urban areas, like the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit.


The appearance of diversity vs. the impact of diversity

Carmen Medina and I are on a mission to help rebels in the workforce be more successful. We believe these outsider thinkers inside big organizations have the answers leaders need to adapt, grow, thrive, even survive. As part of our journey into helping rebels we’ve been asking ourselves all kinds of questions to understand why leaders don’t listen more to rebels. Yesterday Carmen posted about her recent epiphany on Rebels at Work. Here’s her “aha” about diversity initiatives and rebels.


As most of you know, I served for 32 years at the Central Intelligence Agency. During my last ten years there, I would attend recruiting and outreach events where I would answer questions about my career at the Agency. Given who I am, I was often asked this question: “Could you talk about what it was like being a woman and a minority at the Agency?” And I always gave the same answer: “Actually, neither of those was as much of an issue for me as just being a different thinker. Somehow I often saw things differently from everyone else.”

I was recalling this last week when I was thinking about what I might say at a couple of events I’ve been invited to speak at associated with Hispanic Heritage Month, which starts this coming week. (It’s actually not a month, but a 30-day period from 15 September to 15 October.) And as I said out loud the previous paragraph, it came to me like the most gigantic “DUH” moment you can imagine. POW! A giant fist bopped me on the  head.

I had gotten it exactly backwards. It wasn’t that being a different thinker was more of a career issue than being a woman or a minority. I was a different thinker in large part BECAUSE I was a woman and a Latina.


Q. You mean that it took you until one month before your 58th Birthday to figure that out!!

A. Sadly, yes.

Many sincere attempts to diversify organizations fail because the organization’s leadership does not appreciate that any significant diversity effort is in fact an organizational change effort. It could very well end up being transformational for the company.

When different types of people enter the workforce–women, minorities–many actually become default Rebels at Work, although they often are not aware of their dual identities. People with different backgrounds should bring different perspectives and ideas with them. (Although truth be told, many learn as early as high school to stop volunteering their different ideas when they realize they are not welcomed.) And yet you often hear leaders say: “It’s a shame about so-and-so. Some interesting ideas but he doesn’t quite know how to fit in.” or You have great potential but you need to learn to be more corporate.”

And that’s how diversity initiatives degrade and become more about the Appearance of Diversity than about the Impact of Diversity.

The organization has made space for people who are different but no space for their different ideas. Helping Rebels be more effective at work is in fact a diversity initiative. And increasing the Impact of Diversity on an organization is in fact a Rebel initiative.

Anger: when you’re mad as hell at work

Anger is powerful in a good and bad way.  It can motivate us to act and it can derail our good intentions and credibility.

Carne Ross, former British diplomat and founder of the Independent Diplomat, quit the British Foreign Service due to his anger over how issues in Iraq and Kosovo were handled by official powers.

The Museum of Modern Art’’s Paola Antonelli nailed an interview that led to her position as senior curator at MOMA by angrily addressing an interviewer’s dismissive statement on design. “Anger can make you do interesting things. Beneficial good can come from positive anger,” she has said

Jay Rogers, CEO of Local Motors, started an open source automotive company based partly on his anger with America’s dependence on foreign oil – and his tour of duty as an elite Marine sniper in the Middle East.

Anger helps us see what we deeply care about, and it pushes us to act on those beliefs.

How anger derails, hurts our credibility

Anger can also trigger us to say and do things that make us say and do stupid things.

Frustrations can grow so acute that we lash out when we and our bosses, colleagues and/or task forces least expect it, surprising everyone, especially ourselves.  We feel momentarily victorious finally saying what needed to be said.  The outburst relieves pent-up stress. Then we realize that we have damaged ourselves.  People have paid attention to our anger, but not necessarily our point.

When someone or something sets us off our heart starts racing, our jaw clenches, we sweat, our mouths go dry,  and the voice in our head barks at us like a drill sergeant, “Set the record straight right this minute, damn it.  Don’t be a sissy.  Give it to them.”

In a rage we say things that attack. We come across as judgmental and hot headed.  When we spew our anger, people usually run for cover or shut down as they wait for us to finish our rant.

Nothing good comes from these outbursts. Most damaging is that our anger gives others the ammunition to discredit us, labeling us as loose cannons, blowhards, short fuses, temperamental, overly emotional, hot headed, immature, unstable, lacking judgment, and maybe even an ass.   It is all code for implying not so subtly that we are not a person the organization can, or should, trust.

What a mess.

When you feel you’re about to erupt, call on behaviors that help you cool down before spouting off.  This requires enormous discipline and much practice. While I’ve  gotten better at doing this through years of experience, there are times I err.

Techniques for managing anger

Here are some techniques to consier. See what works for you, and practice, practice, practice. By controlling your anger while also finding motivation from it, you’ll be able to act with more credibility, calm and effectiveness. You’ll also be more receptive to understanding the real obstacles you need to deal with.

  • No personal attacks. Never, ever attack the person and use hurtful, rude, derogatory language towards them.  Personal attacks cut the deepest and are the hardest to recover from.  Go after the issue,  but not people.
  •  What’s it like to be them?  Try to understand what it’s like to be the person (or group) you’re angry with. What are they trying to protect? What makes them uncomfortable?  What are they afraid of?  How people talk about something conveys more information than the words themselves.  Listen for the emotion beneath the words. This empathy will help neutralize some of your anger and help you see things more clearly.
  •  Find the data: Related to the above point, consider the upsetting idea, opinion, decision or person as a piece of data to be examined. Even if it makes your bile rise, there’s something to be understood in why the view is making you angry. Put on your anthropologist hat and try to observe what the real issues are.  This calms down the negative anger and prevents you from lashing out. You’ll glean valuable insights by taking this approach, and you’ll earn credibility by showing people that they can express ideas without someone dismissing them or biting their heads off.
  • Everyone is right:  When angry we often believe we’re right, the other side is wrong.  No helpful conversations can happen when we hold this belief. Everyone’s views (and underlying emotions and threat triggers) are valid.   (Unless there is some excellent research proves otherwise. If that’s the case, show them the data and get onto objective territory as fast as you can.)  If you acknowledge that the other side’s view is valid, they are more likely to appreciate that your views may be valid. “Your views on this topic are valid.  It is risky to change a process that’s been in place for years.  Similarly, my views are valid too. There are other types of risks if we don’t begin to change this process.”   This sometimes works, and sometimes doesn’t especially with the Bureaucratic Black Belts. But it’s a practice worth practicing.
  • Acknowledge the tension and disagreement Disarm yourself and the situation by acknowledging that tensions are high and disagreements are real.
  •  “We’re all feeling frustrated and on edge abut this.  How about we go around the room and everyone shares what they’re feeling in a sentence or a couple of words? No interrupting, just everyone calmly telling us his or her position.”
  • Or, acknowledge that you’re at an impasse and suggest, “We’re not making progress because emotions are running high, even those that are unstated but bubbling under the surface.  Should we adjourn so we can all cool off?
  • “Are there any data or research or subject matter experts we could bring into the conversation to help us see more clearly?”
  • “Should we get an objective outsider to help facilitate our conversations so that we can resolve this situation?
  •  These questions recognize the tension and take an active approach to finding ways to address them.  Often people suppress their anger, going passive while the frustration continues to build, increasing the chances of a harmful emotional outburst when you least expect it.
  • Quarantine your email and your mouth: Impose a 24-hour no-email, no furious phone call quarantine on yourself. Take a walk, get out of the office. If pressed by the other person to respond, say “I have to reflect on this before being able to respond in a helpful way.” In other words, quarantine your mouth.
  •  Make a list:  Go someplace away from people and write fast channeling your emotion and trying to find answers about what to do next that would help you move forward. Writing while angry cools you down, while also capturing potentially valuable ideas. (My best ideas come when I’m angry or feeling vulnerable. The head turns off, the smart heart kicks in.) Some prompts that have been helpful to us:
  • What 10 things worry people most about this idea?
  • What 10 pieces of objective data or credible anecdotes would help people open up their thinking around this?
  • What are 10 things I can do to move the idea ahead that don’t require approvals and meetings with people who oppose the idea?
  • What 10 people could I talk to who could help me see a way to move ahead?
  •  What are the 10 worst things that will happen if I abandon this idea?

The paradox of anger

Lastly, accept that some anger will always be present and powerful for rebels, change agents and innovators. .  The secret is being aware of  the paradox of anger. It can power and it can derail. Use the power, and find ways to stop yourself from doing and saying stupid things when angry.


Neutralizing Bureaucratic Black Belts

Never, ever publicly embarrass, threaten or upstage a Bureaucratic Black Belt (BBB), those protectors of the status quo, upholders of processes and procedures, fighters for following the rules without exceptions, righteous minimizers of risk.

Similarly never start a fight with them. You will lose.

BBB’s can be formidable foes. You may never win them over or convince them to approve your idea.  The best case is to neutralize them so that they don’t fight you and your rebel ideas.  By neutralizing you’ll have a better chance of finding a way to work around them.

This is an important lesson for rebels, mavericks, change agents and innovators. The BBB’s are often our greatest obstacles. Not necessarily the official decision makers, but the people who can drain our energy and derail our plans. Selectively involving these gatekeepers is a necessary step in removing obstacles.

BBB’s hold all kinds of positions, though you will find more in Legal, Finance, and Human Resources, Customer Service, IT, Quality Management, and Environmental departments.  If a person’s job involves any sort of regulations, compliance, product quality or public reputation risks, they are more likely to be a BBB of some degree.  They have to, really. Don’t blame them for doing their jobs.

Which brings us to the first technique for neutralizing BBB’s.

Understand what it’s like to be them. 

Put yourself in their position. What are they held accountable for?  What happens if they make a mistake? Don’t properly enforce a government regulation?  Not follow a standard procedure and get audited?  They succeed by being fearful of what could go wrong. If they mess up, public humiliation for the entire organization is at risk.

If they’re not born that way, they become wired to say “No” to anything even slightly out of the norm.

We rebels see opportunities, they see danger.

So empathize with them. Feel their pain. (We know this can be challenging especially if you’ve been foiled continually by BBB’s, which is likely.)

Bring this empathy to your conversations with them, letting them know that you get how difficult it must be to be them.  “It must get frustrating and lonely being the person who has to always remind people of the risks,” you might say.  All people want to be seen, to know that people understand what it’s like to be them.  Especially BBBs, who may have an even more difficult role at work than rebels.

This empathy is likely to ease the tension, perhaps put them at slightly more ease with you.

Who is The Person Most Revered?

Also helpful is to understand who in the organization the BBB respects, fears, wants to please. There is always someone.  Find out who that person is, what’s important to him or her, and who or what influences him or her.

Then  invoke the name of the Person Who Is Revered when dealing with the BBB. Better yet, figure out how to get support from the Person Who Is Revered, and tell the BBB that so and so supports your idea.  The tiger is likely to back down a bit. Not entirely, but enough that you’ll find more space to navigate.

Ask questions vs. sell your ideas

BBB’s, like most of us, like to be recognized as smart and influential, so do feed this need by asking the BBB for advice. (This also helps you figure out what this person most wants or fears, more data points to factor into your neutralizing strategy.)  You might say, “Diane (The Revered One) is interested in seeing how we might be able to make this idea work. If you were in my shoes, what would you do?  What advice can you give me that might be helpful?”

If the BBB says something annoying and unhelpful like, “Diane should know better. That idea will never work here,” The next question to ask,  “What would have to be in place for the idea to have any outside chance of working?”   This data will help inform what you need to do, or how to position the idea.  Questions are your friends in dealing with BBBs, as is listening. 

Selective disclosure and conversation goals

Know, too, that you have won some points by involving the BBB. These people get angry and become stronger foes when you ignore them. Which is what we’d like to do because they can be so unpleasant and FRUSTRATING.  Understand when and how to keep them in the loop. Disclose what you must, but not everything.

It’s also important to not wing it when going into meetings: Have a goal in mind whenever you have a conversation with a BBB. What do you want them to do, or not to do, after the conversation happens?  The more clear and precise your goal, the more likely you’ll achieve it.

Free flowing, unstructured conversations with BBBs can be dangerous because we rebels tend to get passionate and excited about what’s possible.  Passionate possibilities send warning signals to the BBB. “Danger! Danger!  This person is not staying inside the lines; they are even talking about painting the lines orange instead of regulation blue. Beware of what she is saying. Stop thinking about what she is saying and launch into why this is not possible. Shut her down. Now.”

Lastly, thank BBBs when they are helpful. Public recognition for their efforts, especially with The Person Most Revered, will go a long way in making sure that they leave you alone.

Remember, BBB’s  are unlikely to EVER fully support you. You just don’t want them to stop you.


You cannot win over Bureaucratic Black Belts.

Your job is to neutralize them so they don’t try to kill your idea.



Without an irritant there can be no pearl

Thanks to Michael H. Samuelson, author and founding CEO of The Health & Wellness Institute, for allowing us to share his 5th observation from his eBook, ” Wellness in the Workplace 2.0: 10 Key Observations from 35 Years in the Field.” His current title is one we love, “Chief Irritant.”

Let’s be honest. It’s much easier—and certainly safer—to sit back, complain, and wait for others to take action than it is to do something. That is, of course, unless you have passion, commitment, laser determination and God on your side.

Well, actually, skip that last one. She’ is on everyone’s side. At least that’s the pitch that supports the military-industrial complex (we should have listened to Ike) and looks nice on all of the banners.

Let’s just stick with passion, commitment and laser determination. When these three driving forces are present you can’t sit still, you can’t wait for someone else, and you can’t shut up. You stir and spit, shout and stomp your feet. You seize the torch that has been passed to you and your generation. You are Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. You take the crown out of the Pope’s hands and you crown yourself. Time is fleeting, daylight is burning, there are causes to advance and worlds to conquer!
“Emperor” too much? Okay. How about CI? Chief Irritant. You are the sand that produces the nacre that builds the pearl. So, let someone else sit back, complain, and wait for others to take action…just below the surface there are pearls in-waiting and you are the irritant that makes it all happen.

Let the spitting begin! Caution:

Sophocles was right, “No one loves the messenger who brings bad news.” As I have stated before, there are times when the boon, the prize, the newly found wisdom you bring to “fix things” is rejected. No matter the treasure, it is still disruptive in a world that knows not, or little, of its existence or value. What you may view as “The Answer” may well be viewed by others — particularly those in control — as the newest problem (read: YOU) to be dealt with, swiftly.

It’s no fun being spat upon. Trust me, on this one. I’ve been there. I’ve stimulated copious amount of spray, toweled off, and lived to irritate again. Being a CI is not always an easy ride but I like to modestly think—modestly—that along with picking up a few dents in my armor, I’ve also triggered the formation of a few pearls here and there…

10 Ways to Succeed as a Chief Irritant…Without Really Trying

1.    Fasten Your Armor (you’re going to need it)

2.    Pursue Your Need for Popularity Elsewhere

3.    If You’re Not the Boss, Find a Champion in the “C” Suite

4.    Practice “No-Oblique-Speak”

5.    Compromise on Tactics…Not Ethics or Integrity

6.    Irritate Without Judgment or Arrogance

7.    Beware the Ides of March (et tu ______ )

8.    Have a “No Jerks Allowed” Rule…Embrace the Spirituality of Imperfection

9.    If you think everyone around you is a jerk…Look in the Mirror

10. Repeat after me, “Spit is Good”

5 questions about rebel thinkers

Eric Pennington recently interviewed me for his Epic Living blog. Here’s the conversation. Click here to see the original.

Why do rebel thinkers so often feel miserable inside of their organizations?

Three overwhelming reasons. Restlessness, loneliness, and self-doubt.

We’re a restless bunch, always seeing new ways to do things better, easier, faster, better. Yes, I say better twice because we’re wired to keep raising the bar on excellence. Needless to say our ideas and relentless energy often exhaust or threaten our colleagues and bosses. So people often keep us at arm’s length, even those who appreciate the value we bring. This can feel lonely and lead to self-doubt, “Why aren’t they moving now on  this idea? Am I off base? Am I not communicating the value well enough? Is it me or is it the idea? Why can’t I just slow down and take it more slowly like everyone else? Do I belong in this organization?”

What value do most rebel thinkers bring to the table?

 Rebels have the courage to name the elephants in the room, see new ways to solve problems, bring outside ideas into the organization, and be the first to try new approaches.  My research has found that rebels call out problems others are afraid to (92%) and challenge assumptions and sacred cow practices (92%), both of which are essential to real innovation, but often shunned in organizations.

The other overlooked value rebels bring is devotion to duty. Rebels care more about their organizations than most people. That’s why we ask the difficult questions that most people feel more comfortable avoiding, and risk being snubbed for suggesting unpopular ideas.  We want our organizations to be the very best and we believe that our colleagues and we have what it takes to achieve more than our competitors.

(see the following chart for more)

Why are many managers afraid/intimidated by rebel thinkers?

We tend to trigger three threats that are wired into every person’s pre-frontal cortex, including those of our bosses.  Our ideas often threaten managers’ sense of status, certainty and autonomy.

An overwhelming number of managers believe that they are supposed to create the strategy and have the answers — and employees are meant to execute on those ideas. Not question them. I’m the boss. I’ve got the senior vice president title. Hence, I know more and you should respect me for it.  It sounds silly in this day and age of empowerment and collaboration, but protecting our status can lead all of us to act in illogical ways.

We humans are also wired to crave certainty. So when we rebels present innovative ideas that have no best practice precedents or haven’t been Six Sigma’d we trigger fears about certainty. Managers worry, “How will we know this will work? What if we make a mistake?” You get the picture.

The last threat is autonomy. Our managers like doing things their way. To suggest something different is to violate their sense of control and autonomy over what they know and like.

What are the consequences of not engaging with the rebel thinker?

Missed opportunities, a complacent corporate culture, and a talent deficit.

Rebel thinkers see risks and opportunities earlier than most people. This is a tremendously valuable competence in age of such rapid change and smaller windows to seize and capitalize on opportunities. One way to look at rebels is as your “intrapreneurs” bringing entrepreneurial thinking, speed, and competitive instincts inside the organization. They spot ideas and see ways to make them real.

The other consequences are that shutting out rebel thinking sends a signal to the organization that creativity, diversity of thinking and change are not welcome. When that happens, your best talent usually leaves, and the culture becomes complacent. Not rocking the boat. Accepting good enough as good enough.  In today’s hyper competitive world, few organizations can survive with a “good enough” approach.

What is most surprising about corporate rebels?

Rebels are not motivated by formal recognition or financial incentives, nor are they “troublemakers.” They’re self-motivated to want to make a difference to their organization and to solve things that are not working as well as they could. My research found that just 27% want formal recognition. What they do want is to be asked their opinions more often and be invited to work on teams to solve specific issues. They don’t want to just talk about ideas, opportunities and problems, the want to make things happen.

The second surprising thing is how many closeted rebel thinkers there are in companies. People are yearning to do more – and they know more about what to do than most executive teams realize.

Mobilizing support by being disruptive

Last week I flipped through the University of New Hampshire alumni magazine when it came in the mail, scanning my class notes to see who died, re-married, got an interesting new job. Another page caught my eye. “Being Disruptive — in a Good Way”  by UNH president Mark Huddleston.

Mark explained that he had heard Salman Khan, founder of the Khan Academy, speak at “The Future of Public Universities” conference — and that speech “wowed” him, and inspired him to begin creating a  disruptive new educational model for UNH. A model that would help more students learn — for less.

What if we allowed online instruction to provide, where appropriate, the foundational knowledge, and directed students’ time on campus toward learning activities that maximize the benefits of these mentor relationships?

As online instruction improves, might we not devote more class time to teaching methods that take real advantage of students’ time together, such as team projects, discussions and critiques?

The article went on to talk about UNH’s new eUNH initiative to identify ways to use online learning to improve teaching and help students progress faster.

Aside from being intrigued with disruptive models, here’s what I liked about Mark’s article. It mobilized me to want to write a check to support the university.

Few of us want to work for — or financially support —  organizations that are plodding along, doing the same things well. We want to be inspired by leaders and organizations that create new ways to support visions we care about.  And who have the courage, leadership skills and discipline to move forward despite often formidable opposition.

(Sadly, last April the New Hampshire chapter of the union American Association of University Professors gave a 129 to 72 “no confidence” vote in his leadership.  The change involved in disruptive innovation inevitably threatens some who would like things to continue as they have been.)

  • If you want to mobilize supporters, do more than more of the same.
  • When a leader has the courage to create disruptive models, step up and support him or her. It’s lonely being a game changer.

Now to write that check…

So I read the board the rebel riot act…

“I was so frustrated with the board and executive team’s resistance to new ideas that I finally read them the rebel riot act,” an insurance executive told me.

“What happened? What was in it?”

“I told them that we’re losing our internal entrepreneurs, the very people we need if we want to be able to innovate. We’re at great risk at falling behind the competition. We either change the culture by seeding innovation rebels throughout the company or our best people are going to continue to leave.

“Then I told them what I wanted. A one-year funded pilot to help put innovation rebels in place. I showed them a plan, expected results and how we will measure results.”

Paul had been talking about the need for culture change for a couple of years. But it took reading a rebel riot act to wake the executive team up.

The reverse rebel riot act?

The origins of “The Riot Act” were an English law, enacted by Parliament in 1715. If more than 12 people “tumultuously” assembled and refused to disperse within an hour of a magistrate reading a proclamation, they would be charged as felons.

In the last century “reading the rebel riot act” has come to be a common expression. It means the boss was setting an employee straight, or giving the whole team a necessary kick in the ass, a wake up call to stop whining or slacking off.

Reading the riot act is like a high-intensity intervention because no one seems to be listening.

In 1915 the coach of the Kansas City Rebels baseball team read his players a riot act.  The Pittsburgh Press reported:

“Manager Oakes, a conservative, peaceful manager, has dropped the mask of easiness and is fighting mad…instead of delivering heart-to-heart talks, for which he is famous, he delivered a flow of cutting southern eloquence that sunk deep into the hides of his players…It was all to the point — very much so — and in plain words meant that the men on the team would have to play baseball and play it right or there would be several checks shy when payday rolled around.”

Today we’re starting to see a different kind of rebel act. Corporate rebels reading the riot act to management to wake them up to needed changes.

Greg Smith certainly read the riot act very publicly to Goldman Sachs when he published his “Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs” Op-Ed a couple of weeks ago.

If your company  has a transparent corporate culture, people can read the riot act as a way to create positive change, like Paul at the large insurance company. Reading the riot act means that you still care about your organization. You want to help change and be part of the change.

And if your culture is  closed culture, not willing to listen? Well, that’s when you get lambasted in The New York Times and throughout social media. Like Goldman Sachs. Like the controversy at the Susan G. Komen Foundation.

What makes a good rebel riot act?

  • Succinct summary of the problem and its risk to the business. No mincing words.
  • Data, or at least several credible anecdotes, to support the point. This can’t be viewed as your opinion. It is you showing a pattern that has negative consequences.
  • A proposed plan to correct the problem. If you’re going to read the rebel riot act, be prepared to ask for what you think can solve the problem.
  • Willingness to lead the change. What you expect to accomplish and by when.

The more a rebel act hits on what the organization really values, the more likely people will be to listen to your proposed alternative approach.  The successful “reverse rebel riot acts”  I’ve seen that hit a chord zero in on:

  • Hurt revenues
  • Lose talent (especially talent that generates revenue)
  • Fall behind the competition
  • Break promises
  • Hurt the company’s reputation
  • Potentially embarrass high-profile executives

Be ready for potential fallout

Reading the rebel act to established powers that be is risky.  Paul succeeded in getting a one-year innovation rebel pilot funded. But he knows that if he is unsuccessful, he will likely be asked to leave the company.

In trying to do a leveraged buy-out of an employer,  I read the riot act about needed leadership changes. I lost, and felt the need to leave.

In other cases, rebels are labeled as “trouble makers” after reading the rebel riot acts. A lonely place to be.

Yet it is often possible to rebuild bridges, especially if your riot act was in support of the organization’s vision and goals, which  always makes good sense.

Take a deep breathe, and remember what Thomas Jefferson once said: “On matters of style, swim with the current. On matters of principle, stand like a rock.”

Sometimes it takes reading a rebel riot act to stand like a rock.


Inklings: a rebel alliance at Oxford

Forming a rebel alliance within your organization is one way to find the support to accomplish important work. Work that is outside the cultural norm of the overall organization. Or, that challenges the assumptions of the larger organization.

One example of a rebel alliance is The Inklings, a group of Oxford University  professors and writers who felt stifled by the academic seriousness and solemnity of that revered institution. Feeling a bit alienated from the English Dept in 1926, Professors C.S. Lewis, J.R. R. Tolkien and other friends started meeting at a local pub.

Their intent, in Tolkien’s words was to explore “vague or half formed intimations on ideas.” (Note: many rebel ideas begin in an  unformed way. But a feeling exists that there must be a different or better way. Explore that feeling.)

In other words, these Oxford rebels wanted to experiment with new ideas that didn’t fit with what Oxford viewed as proper literature. Rather than feeling rejected, they came together to share ideas, experiment, get support from one another, and ultimately to create some of their best work.  For Lewis it was “The Chronicles of Narnia.” For Tolkien it was “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings.”

They didn’t try to change Oxford. Rather, they found a way to do create fascinating new work while still teaching at Oxford.

This same approach can work today in large organizations.  The secret is finding people who have similar interests, making time to talk about observations and what if’s, and supporting one another in a safe and enjoyable way.

Amazing things can happen when people who care about possibilities and one another find time to just hang out.

“Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.” C. S. Lewis

“Courage is found in unlikely places.” J. R. R. Tolkien






Better techniques for throwing employees under the bus


Managers are so sloppy when it comes to throwing employees under the bus.

Usually they are so damn angry with the employee that they botch their technique.

They are irrationally rough, their aim is imprecise and messy, and they end up running over the body with such force that it causes more damage to the employee than they intended. But it does seem a relief to have gotten rid of that problem.

Few think about an important follow-through skill: contact with the other employees still on the bus. Just as a baseball pitcher throws a pitch and then needs to be prepared to field the hit, you can’t just throw someone under the bus. You need to be ready for what comes next.

Alas, most get sloppy here. Despite carefully throwing someone under the bus at discrete places or times, or telling employees that the person asked to get off the bus or jumped out of the bus, annoying glitches happen.

Employees on the bus are shaken up when the bus unexpectedly hits and runs over something strange, like their colleague. They get scared and distracted from work; many update their resumes.

Then they see their ex-colleague outside of work, bruised, angry and victimized, stumbling around in disbelief. The water cooler gossip goes wild, people wonder aloud why bosses throw people under the bus, and they secretly fear it could happen to them.

What a mess. Not even HR does a good job cleaning it up. For being so precise with financial spreadsheets and quality standards, why can’t managers be better at throwing employees under the bus?


Why managers throw employees under the bus

First, let’s review reasons why they throw employees under the bus:

1. They are irate that the employees questioned their decisions in a public forum. How dare they! Being humiliated by that subordinate? I’m in charge, goddammit.

2. The employee has been meeting with people in the company to stir up ideas and support around an area that is not one of your five key strategic imperatives. Who gave them permission to do that? Why do they think they are entitled to be creating new strategies outside the standard  chain of command? Bet their parents coddled them. Probably were on those  sports teams where every kid gets a trophy.

3.  Fairly new to the company, the employee just doesn’t get how things work. They seem to miss all the obvious social signals and are getting on people’s nerves. Can’t they see that they’re suppose to informally socialize new ideas before bringing them up in monthly staff meetings?  What’s with the talk, talk, talk with the junior people? And strolling into the office at 9:30? Geez. Do I have to explain how everything works around here?

4. They are upsetting your boss and to save face with the big cheese, you need to act decisively and swiftly to eliminate the problem and calm your boss down. Like having an odd-looking mole removed from your face before it develops into full-blown skin cancer. I’m not going to jeopardize my career over someone making waves. She did bring some fresh thinking and energy we could sorely use around here, but after finally making it to senior vice president I’m not going to jeopardize my career.

Those in category #4 are the sloppiest at throwing people under the bus, yet seem to do it more often, too.  When insecurities twist a person in knots, they get reckless and irrational. Despite throwing more people under the bus than most managers, they really make a mess of it. Insecurity is a killer.


Improving your skills at throwing someone under the bus

So how to improve your skills in throwing someone under the bus?

Well, before even getting to those skills I’d suggest that first you might want to consider a refresher course in bus driving.

If you get better at focusing on your destination and getting the right people on your bus, you might not have to throw many off the bus.  The focus will also help avoid distractions when employees on the bus get rowdy or restless, or someone starts hogging everyone’s attention even when you’ve told him to stay in his seat.

The refresher course will remind you to pay attention when employees on the bus yell at you from the back of the bus. They probably aren’t criticizing your driving.  It may be that they see a giant pothole ahead, or know a great short cut, or even want to drive for a while so you can get some rest for what you all know is a challenging journey.

And if your boss calls demanding an explanation about why you’re taking a different route than planned, drivers ed will teach you to stay calm and explain to you boss that several employees know this territory well and saw a better way to get to the destination. Sure he may fume and make threats. But your employees on the bus are with you, ready to fix the flats, pump gas in the rain, figure out ways around detours.

Who is going to go the extra mile for you? Them, or the boss?

Drive safely.


NOTE: Please see part two of this post: what to do if you have been thrown under the bus at work.  It has some pragmatic ideas on how to recover.

Why leaders subconsciously reject change

When our brain senses that our status is being threatened, our thinking shuts down.  We avoid the person or situation making us feel so uncomfortable, and we often stay away from any activity or idea about which we’re not confident. Worse, we label the other person as “wrong” so we can be “right.”

We don’t necessarily do this consciously. It’s just our brains’ natural response when our status is under attack, say the neuroscientists.

So when  corporate rebels and mavericks challenge an organization’s status quo and executive decisions, leaders’ brains go on high-alert. Their decisions, their plans, their position feel threatened and under attack. The neuroscience research says this threat to status activates the same brain regions as physical pain.

The leaders’ knee-jerk reaction is often to label the people with the fresh new ideas as troublemakers. Or not having enough experience to really know what they’re talking about. And jeez, that kid isn’t even a manager, what could she  know? (See how put downs can make you feel better and restore your status?)

Guess what this reaction does to people with the fresh ideas that you need to lead? They run for the hills. Maybe they try to approach you or another executive again, but you’re likely not to welcome what they have to say.  Through words, tone or body language you broadcast the message throughout your organization: your ideas are NOT WELCOME.

And then you wonder why the culture isn’t more innovative and creative. Why too few people speak up with substantive comments at meetings.  Why it seems like you’re the only one with the answers.

Time to get your brain in line and recognize your “threat” triggers so that you can control them —  instead of them controlling you.

Who needs to change their ways: leaders or rebels?

Some executives have told me that “rebels and change agents need to learn how business works. You can’t just disrupt things and expect everyone to change.”

But should the corporate rebels be the ones to have to adapt their style? Or should leaders find ways to better understand how to control their threat triggers so that they can create a safe, welcoming climate for new ideas?

To me, this is the responsibility of the leader. All people can benefit from understanding and managing what trips them up. But with the prestige and financial compensation of being a leader comes the responsibility for first and foremost managing oneself. So your head is ready to be in the game of leading.

Humility and reappraising

This is why so many great leaders are humble. Humility reduces the status threat. It puts people at ease talking with you. It clears the leader’s mind of emotion so that he or she can really understand what people are saying.

Another way to manage the brain is to reappraise situations that start to trigger your emotions. What’s  the other person’s perspective? What does he want me to understand? What does she want me to do and why?  Look at what’s being said as data and nothing more.

Economic and competitive threats are relentless, causing their own set of threats and associated behavioral responses. But to succeed companies need new ideas and the best ideas are likely to come from the rebels and mavericks inside your own organization.

As a leader, help those people who can most help you succeed. Even if they make you uncomfortable. Maybe especially because they make you uncomfortable.

Help yourself by seeing challenges to the status quo as possibilities not attacks on your position.

Effective corporate rebels turn to one another

People who change the world in small and big ways, rebel FOR change they believe will make a difference.  They are also keen observers and want to work with others to make the possible real. Over the holidays I had the luxurious pleasure of re-reading author and leadership activist Margaret Wheatley’s book Turning To One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future.

Here’s an excerpt that captures the behaviors of those with a desire to lead.

Turning to one another

Ask “what’s possible?” not “What’s wrong?”  Keep asking. Notice what you care about. Assume that many others share your dreams.

Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters.

  • Talk to people you know.
  • Talk to people you don’t know.
  • Talk to people you never talk to.

Be intrigued by the differences you hear.

  • Expect to be surprised.
  • Treasure curiosity more than certainty.

Invite in everybody who cares to work on what’s possible.

  • Acknowledge that everyone is an expert about something.
  • Know that creative solutions come from new connections.

Remember, you don’t fear people whose story you know.  Real listening always brings people closer together.

Trust that meaningful conversations can change your world.

Rely on human goodness. Stay together.

Margaret Wheatley

Five questions for finding the right boss

Hi Lois,

I love your Foghound website and specifically your concept of rebels in the organization. Guess what, I identify with this and am the rebel. It has not always been with a positive outcome. I am wondering if you have any ideas on how to find the “protectors” within an organization for these people. Specifically, if one was to interview for a job, how would you know if this potential boss would give the rebel freedom and protection?

Any thoughts are appreciated. This is definitely something I think about.


Finding the right boss is crucial for corporate rebels. With the right “protector” you can feel safe in creating change and new ideas that will make a difference. Plus, a good boss can help guide you through the complexities of organizational politics and decision making.

Here are some job interview suggestions to help you figure out whether the person would be a good boss:

1. What is the organization trying to achieve?  This reveals whether a clear organizational purpose exists. When there is a clear purpose, rebels have a much easier time because they can link their  new ideas to how they support the big organizational goal or purpose.  When goals and purposes are fuzzy, rebels can get caught in an unproductive eddy of questioning the validity of the proposed idea.

2. What’s possible that hasn’t yet been done in this [field|company|organization) or  What are the greatest opportunities for the organization? This helps you see if the potential boss is a forward-thinking idea person. (Aside: A corporate rebel recently told me that her new CEO  told the top execs to stop thinking about new ideas and focus their energy on executing his strategy (which they disagreed with).  That no-possibilities boss is losing some of his best talent.)

3. What do you especially like about the organization’s culture and work environment? The response to this will uncover whether the person is positive and appreciative of the strengths of the organization, or a Debby Downer who defaults to problems and negativity.  From my observations, positive, optimistic bosses are more open to –and appreciative of — rebels.

4. What’s the best assignment/project you’ve ever been involved with?  What made it so fulfilling? Does the person  most value implementation or creating new things? This idea helps you understand what makes the person tick.  Rebels need a boss who veers more to the creating new things mindset.

5. How do you support people who question approaches that may no longer be effective and see alternative ways to do things?  How a person answers this will be more telling than the words themselves. Is the person comfortable with the question?  Does the answer flow easily and naturally — or does it take a bit  to find the words? Does it sound like the person truly values truth-telling idea people? Or do you detect some annoyance? Does the response indicate that people regularly bring up ideas and the boss has a genuine and comfortable way to support those people and ideas?

Lastly, look around the work environment.  Do you sense a lot of energy and positive buzz?  Or is there a hushed, disengaged feeling? I know this is a bit touchey-feely, but the environment speaks volumes about whether it’s a place rebels can thrive. After walking around the offices of a big ad agency last year, I instantly knew the company was not steeped in creativity.  It was too quiet. People were heads down in their cubicles. There were few fun things tacked around cubicles and common spaces. Sure enough, eight months later I heard the agency had lost three big clients.

Ask your potential boss good questions, and find time to walk around.


Rebels at work: Interview with Janet Swaysland of Monster.com

What fun to be interviewed by friend and client Janet Swaysland, senior vice president of Monster Worldwide, for the Monster corporate blog. Here’s what we talked about.

1.    When you told me you were doing research on corporate rebels my first reaction was, “Why look at the troublemakers? To what end?”  What attracted you to this work?

I heard Carmen Medina, recently retired CIA deputy director of intelligence, talk about how she was part of an informal Rebel Alliance of employees at the CIA, and how questioning assumptions and the status quo helped two rebels at the agency create the Intellipedia, a groundbreaking approach to intelligence that was awarded a Service to America national medal.

I began wondering how innovation and change happens in big organizations. You hear about innovators in start-ups all the time. But not so much in big companies. I was curious about the people in big organizations who blaze new trails and find ways to change business as usual. What are their characteristics? What makes them tick? How do you find them? Could they be an untapped resource for creating more innovative, engaged corporate cultures?

Carmen graciously let me pick her brain for a day about her personal experience as a “heretic” and about the Rebel Alliance at the agency. Then I had to know more.

2.    Are there “good” rebels and “bad” rebels?

There are always those people who are frustrated and bitter, more focused on stirring things up than making things better. Unfortunately those “bad” rebels get noticed while so many of the good rebels do not. The good, or what I call benevolent rebels, aren’t looking for attention. They want to help their organizations succeed, and fix things that aren’t working as well as they could be.

In my quantitative and qualitative research about rebels, I’ve found that these benevolent rebels are creative (88%), curious (82%) people not afraid of risk (88%). They are motivated first and foremost by wanting to feel like they’re making a difference. (92%).  They also tend to be positive, which has led Carmen to say, “Optimism is the greatest act of rebellion.”

3.    What’s most important for leaders and HR executives to understand about rebels?

Rebels have the courage to name the elephants in the room, see new ways to solve problems, bring outside ideas into the organization, and be the first to try new approaches.

However, these change and innovation rebels will make you feel uncomfortable. They call out problems others are afraid to (92%) and challenge assumptions and sacred cow practices (92%), both of which are essential to real innovation, but often shunned in organizations.  They also tend to go around the rules, question executive decisions, start projects without all the official approvals, and ask a lot of questions.

4.    What has surprised you the most in your research about rebels?

Rebels are not motivated by formal recognition or financial incentives. They’re self-motivated to want to make a difference and to solve things that are not working as well as they could. The research found that just 27% want formal recognition. What they do want is to be asked their opinions more often and be invited to work on special teams to solve specific issues.

I was also surprised by what I call the 90/30 conundrum. Approximately 90% of the survey respondents agreed that activating rebels can improve corporate culture and create a more innovative company. Yet only a third said they were very satisfied with rebels’ ability to provide that value in their organizations.

5.    Is there a rebel inside everyone? Should there be?

I think there is a rebel in everyone, but our rebel spirits has been suppressed. We have a couple of generations of people in the workforce who have been rewarded for keeping routine things going and for conforming.  That goes for everyone from CEOs to front line workers. The result is complacency, fear of doing things differently, and resistance to change. People complain but don’t act. Rebels are the kind of people who act.

6.    How can organizations bring out the inner rebel-ness of their people?

There are many ways. The most essential is creating more collaborative ways to lead and manage. The days of leader-as-hero are over. No one person — or handful of people –has all the answers or the best answers.

To activate the inner rebel in their people, leaders need to set clear purposes or missions, ask questions that challenge people to think in new ways, and then create safe, collaborative ways for people to get involved in creating the ideas that support the mission.  When I guide collaborative sessions where people dig into meaty issues, real magic happens; the power of diverse thinking coupled with people’s desire to create something bigger and better than they could alone or in their departmental silos is pretty amazing. No surprise, this type of involvement and collaboration is what rebels most want with their companies.

7.    Can people really afford to be rebels – making change can be risky — when they are just trying to hang on to the jobs they have?

If you are a “keep the routine going” person you face far greater risks than someone with the skills and courage to question the status quo and create new approaches.  When things get tough – as they always will — who do you want to keep on your team?  The benevolent rebels who see ways to improve and have the fearlessness to pioneer new ways? Or the person who keeps the engine running? Who do your most talented people want to work for?  Safe, complacent Charlie or innovative, risk-taking Charlie?

Rebels are proactive thinkers and creators.  There will always be a market for those skills in capitalistic economies.

8.    Are you a rebel?

All my life. Like Lady Gaga, I was just born that way. Sometimes my velocity for seeing emerging patterns and opportunities — and wanting to do things in new ways — has put people off. A boss once told me, “You’re always three years ahead in spotting what’s next. You have to help us catch up with you.”  I wish someone had taught me early on how to more effectively introduce new ideas and navigate organizational politics to get those ideas adopted.

My struggles as a benevolent rebel is one reason why I’m so intent on helping rebels learn how to be more effective change agents inside big organizations. Similarly, my admiration for leaders who embrace and empower rebels is why I’m driven to help leaders be more effective and courageous.


Good vs. Bad Corporate Rebels

How can you tell the difference between a “good” corporate rebel and a “bad” rebel?

This question has come up quite a bit during recent speeches and interviews.  Here’s a chart to help clarify.  The “good rebels” provide tremendous value to organizations — and are needed more than ever before as organizations look for ways to innovate and adapt to change. Check out my recent ebooks about research on corporate rebels and how to become a more effective rebel.


Speaking the truth: protesting a sad leadership story

A physician friend recently told me that she was depressed about her work.  It wasn’t just that her hospital was focused more on financials than healing, it was something much, much more serious to her.

Hospital executives no longer valued the physicians’ opinions. In fact, a passionate and respected department head had just been fired because of remarks made during Grand Rounds in the presence of an executive from another hospital.

“So if we speak the truth to try to improve medicine and our medical institution, we get axed,” she said. “How are we ever going to change health care if we can’t talk about the real issues? How are we going to be able to care for patients when we feel under-appreciated and demoralized? I’ve given my professional life to this institution, but seeing how we get treated for our commitment makes me think it might be time to leave.”

Today when I saw this photo from a Wall St. protester, I realized how dangerous it is for well-meaning people to speak the truth. And yet, how will we improve and grow without new ideas and the benevolent rebels with the courage to challenge assumptions and the status quo? You can’t just keep firing the rebels who speak up and expect that the rest of the organization won’t be deeply affected, which in turn affects business outcomes.

Do executives even realize that their companies have turned into fearful corporate cultures? If not, why? If they do, how are they stepping up to lead in ways that acknowledge fear and uncertainty — while recognizing bravery and truth telling in service to the organization’s vision?

In the coming months I’ll be talking with executives about leading in an age of disruption and uncertainty, as well as with benevolent rebels who have walked out of corporate positions to walk on to new organizations where their questions, opinions and passions are valued.

Is there someone you think I should interview? Suggestions gratefully welcomed!

Yes, the times are a changin.  We need great leaders and truth tellers now more than ever.