Mozart, Einstein, George Patton: All were people who lived far from the average, “middle-of the bell-curve” and accomplished incredible things. These outlier team members help make so many start-ups exceptional. But these same outliers run into challenges that extend from their out of the box thinking. Founders often fall into this category as well. So, ourselves and our clients, how do we manage exceptionally talented weirdos (I include myself, here)?
First – Define the deal-breakers and stick to them. If you’re not clear on what you’ll allow in terms of eccentricities and tradeoffs in your company, how will you get anyone else to feel like you’re being fair to them? Don’t tolerate certain behavior around your team or clients and be ready to fire those who step over that line. Besides the obvious/legal deal-breakers, there are cultural cancers: talking behind people’s backs, passive-aggressive behaviors, always being late or forcing others to step in. We tend to focus more on technical skills and “chemistry”, but these cancers kill morale for the responsible team members who feel like they have to carry the burden of the others. Once you clarify the deal-breakers, let the other, smaller stuff go and don’t beat people up about it.
Second – Give unique people a bigger voice in the projects they are involved with on a day-to-day basis. When people know that they’re perceived as different – especially introverts – they will tend to not speak up because they’ve heard about their uniqueness once too many times. I include team members in project meetings and take lunches with them from time to time. Some of the most valuable insights into our company have come during those lunches or small project meetings because someone had permission to speak and they would warm up to the idea. A bigger voice also means asking them for project input outside of their job-description. I’ll admit that this can backfire if someone lacks social perception in a situation where restraint is required. But mostly, you’ll benefit from their input. We’ve solved many problems by letting people who are uniquely gifted bring their opinions to the table.
Third – Lead from the big picture. I’ve often pulled a couple team members into our conference room, given them a quick “No one may have told you this very directly, but this is what makes or breaks this project.” My employees have later told me, “That was the ah-hah moment where I switched strategies and the project came together.” You have to continually go back to this vision – the large objective. Even clients forget their own objectives. In the heat of battle, we all are prone to tunnel vision. Some of our most talented, focused people are also the most prone to tunnel vision. Even if an individual is not, the further out on the bell-curve that individual is, the more likely their viewpoint far exceeds our own.
Try explaining the big picture from different views (for example, from that of a competitor or a vendor, or a government regulator) rather than just a prototypical end user.
Fourth – Get a “readback” – a tip from the flying world. Again, very unique individuals hear things very uniquely. These team members should read back the objectives and explain what they think they hear in their own words. I’ve paid a much steeper price than the cost of the readback by neglecting my own advice here. To one person, the “frontend” often means something very different than to another.
Good luck and please feel free to share your ideas and experiences!