Mavericks at Work: A book review by Bob Morris

Mavericks at Work: Why the Most Original Minds in Business Win
William C. Taylor and Polly G. Labarre
Harper Paperbacks (2008)

How an organization can prosper in a “hypercompetitive marketplace”

As William C. Taylor and Polly LaBarre explain in this book, Samuel Augustus Maverick (1803-70) was a wealthy land speculator in southwest Texas who cared little about cattle. “When someone repaid a debt with 400 head of cattle rather than cash, Maverick’s caretakers allowed them to wander unbranded. Over time, locals who saw unbranded cattle would say, ‘Those are Maverick’s’ – and a term was born that today refers to politicians, entrepreneurs, and innovators who refuse to run with the herd.” Until reading this book, I did not know the origin of the term and tended to define it too narrowly as a descriptive of those who are by nature unconventional, eccentric, odd, etc.

One of the basic arguments in this book is that, “when it comes to thriving in a hypercompetitive marketplace, ‘playing it safe’ is no longer playing it smart [and in business] mavericks do the work that matters most – the work of originality, creativity, and experimentation. They demonstrate that you can build companies around high ideals and fierce competitive ambitions, that the most powerful way to create economic value is to embrace a set of values that go beyond just amassing power, and that business, at its best, is too exciting, too important, and too much fun to be left to the dead hand of business as usual.”

That is certainly true of the decision-makers in the 32 organizations on which Taylor and LaBarre function in this book. The strategies, practices, and leadership styles may in some respects seem “unconventional, eccentric, odd, etc.” However, they help to explain how organizations as diverse as Anthropologie, Commerce Bank, DPR Corporation, GSD&M, IBM’s Extreme Blue, ING Direct, the Pixar Animation Studio, and Southwest Airlines have achieved extraordinary success in the “hypercompetitive marketplace” to which the authors refer.

However, and this is a key point, Taylor and LaBarre correctly note that there’s a significant difference “between learning from someone else’s ideas and applying them effectively somewhere else.” Presumably Cirque du Soleil’s founder, Guy Liberté, and his associates rigorously examined dozens of other organizations while formulating and later refining their own strategies, practices, and leadership styles. In fact, that process never ends in “maverick” organizations such as Cirque du Soleil as their leaders continue to learn much of great value, especially what would not work and/or would not be appropriate for their organization. This really is a key point for those who read this book: by all means pay close attention to the various “Maverick Messages” that Taylor and LaBarre provide and explore the various “Maverick Material” they identify, then adapt — rather than attempt to duplicate — whatever will help make their own organizations more competitive.

I was especially interested in the material provided in Chapter Ten, The Company You Keep: Business as If People Mattered. Specifically I was curious to know how various “maverick” organizations recruited, interviewed, hired, and then developed the people they need to achieve what Jim Collins would describe as their “BHAGs,” their Big Hairy Audacious Goals. What kind of people do they look for? Here’s one response, from Jane Harper, founder of IBM’s Extreme Blue: “This is about finding people who could run the company someday. What we offer is cool projects, small teams, and dynamic places to work. We look for virtuoso skills, unique life experience, and genuine passion. Our people groove on this work. They love it. And you can’t fake that.” IBM describes Extreme Blue as an incubator for talent, technology, and business innovation. Its manifesto is “start something big.” Taylor and LaBarre observe, “In the long term, the aim of Extreme Blue is to demonstrate new ways for IBM itself to work – to accelerate the turnaround strategy unleashed by the now legendary Lou Gerstner and advanced by his successor, Sam Palmisano.”

Later in this chapter, Taylor and LaBarre pose two questions that address the challenge of what they describe as “enhancing the character of competition”: (1) Why would great people want to be part of this company? and (2) Where and how to find great people in the first place? Consider these brief comments about Cirque du Soleil:

“Our mission is to invoke the imagination, provoke the senses, and evoke emotions.” Lyn Heward
“Talent is everywhere. That is why we look everywhere. If we want to reinvent ourselves – which is what everybody at Cirque is trying to do – then we have to constantly bring in new things. We never close off any avenue where we might discover new talent. Out responsibility is to have our eyes open.” Line Giasson

“There are no stars here. The show is the star. That’s why our evaluation goes deeper than a talent evaluation. We need to learn about the person behind the artist. How many somersaults you can do is not as important as open-mindedness to our process, the tough-mindedness to get through the job, and what we call a `fire to perform.’ That’s what we’re looking for.” Lyn Heward

In the Introduction, Taylor and LaBarre promise to provide a book “that aims to be true to the maverick spirit of the agenda that it champions and the leaders it chronicles.” They fully deliver on that promise as they examine with rigor and eloquence 32 organizations that exude “an undeniable sense of purpose. But it’s a sense of purpose that provokes: each company’s strategy tends to be as edgy as it is enduring, as disruptive as it is distinctive, as timely ass it is timeless.”


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