Get with the program

Peter Clausman came up with a good idea: a framework for his company to listen to employees with good ideas. They didn’t listen to him. So he quit and started his own school.

“We need people like you! We need a young impulse, new ideas to stir up our organization. We are moving in a new direction, and your fresh input is essential.”

That was what the recruiter woman said when they hired me, and I believed her. So in 2007 I started a Rabobank Corporate Management Traineeship and after a happy year seeing all different aspects of the company, I started in a sales position. After a few years (I had since moved on to the strategy & innovation), I realized the recruiter lady had made it sound better than it was in reality. They didn’t know what to do with mavericks.

To be honest, I had a hard time adapting to the logic of the company. Sometimes in the morning I’d tell my girlfriend: “Today I’m playing Mr. Banker again”. But I hadn’t figured out what else I wanted to do, so I just stayed put to get more experience in the banking system.

Funny story: Remember the beginning of this crisis? Started off by structured financial products, right? I was a trainee and had just learned how these ingeniously structured financial timebombs were supposed to work, when I saw it break down in real life. I saw the whole dealing room stressing out and the ECB intervening by pouring billions of dollars into the imploding financial system.


View of the European Central Bank from the Frankfurt Office of Rabobank where I took this picture: so the pot of gold is at the end of the rainbow, at the ECB building?

I had a deep feeling that change was needed, but I didn’t know how to approach it.

In 2011 I did the best thing I could have done. My fiancée and I left for a three-month trip that gave me enough space to break free from it all. I vowed that when I got back I would stay true to my intuition and stand up for the things I believed in.

Some time after I returned from the trip I had the chance to temporarily join the Strategy and Innovation team. I was on a roll. Next to my ‘regular’ innovation job, one of my most far out initiatives was the Commission Grundsatzfrage: younger employees asking management fundamental questions. We got a lot of following, even from the Board of Directors. But after my sponsor in the board retired, it all came back like a boomerang when my director made clear to me to ‘quit this silly hobby, and get on with your real job’. Get with the program. I thought this was funny, since my job responsibilities entailed strategy and innovation; questioning the current way and changing direction. Of course the whole Grundsatz thing was a bit outrageous, but seeing the best game changing ideas end up nowhere, it was clear that no one in management position knew what to do with these disrupting fresh ideas.

When I left a lot of people said: “What a shame, we need more people like you”. This is exactly the real dilemma, organizations need independent-minded people, but cannot integrate them and their innovative ways into their way of working.

Same old story

Does this little story sound familiar? It could, because I see it happening a lot. Organizations that have the need to change recruit promising freethinking people, who then get stuck in a tough, old culture.

It’s not only the new hires. There are many people within organizations who have worked there for decades, who are inspired, have a promising vision for the future of that organization and want to make a change. But this potential stays mainly untapped. It seems that companies would rather have you be a nice fitting cog in the wheel than that you address looming shortcomings with good solutions.

It hurts the companies

Many industries struggle because their business is being disrupted, and if you believe Clayton M. Christensen and his book, The Innovators Dilemma, we live in a society where the pace of change is ever increasing. Last century, companies could exploit one business model for more than 30 years. Once a company hit the fortune 500, it stayed there for an average of 30 years. This number is now declining very quickly, meaning business models have increasingly shorter lifespans. Companies need to be more adaptive to new trends in order to stay on top.

So what to do? How can a bank or any other large organization innovate? I believe the essential key for sustainable change is keeping independent thinking alive, by keeping these mavericks on board and integrating them into the organization. I believe that responsibility for the first step lies with the individual. The organization doesn’t change unless someone makes a stand. Of course there is a lot organizations can do, but in this article I’ll focus on what the maverick can do.

For starters, getting the right mindset and setting the right goals is crucial for a maverick. For the right mindset you need to understand what the (real) purpose of the organization is, and align your efforts with it. If you cannot align your efforts with the underlying purpose of that organization, you might question what you are doing there anyway.

The other part of the mindset is understanding that you are part of the whole system and not someone merely who observes it, and therefore judging it is judging yourself as well. This means you are as much responsible for and capable of change as any other person. It is not only the chairman’s or CEO’s job to invoke change. He will need following and most of the time he will not change course until he feels supported enough to do so. You need to support him in feeling secure to change.

Once you get the right mindset, it is time to formulate your goals and make them clear for everybody to understand. Even for people who might oppose. You need to take a clear, but not necessarily provoking stance. You want to help your organization to adapt to a new reality, to a new business model, to survive and stay relevant. This will be only provoking for people who do not want to face the new reality.

In formulating your goal, focus on the need you are solving. If there is no clear urgency, there will be no change. Do it openly so people can join you. You’ll discover you might make some enemies, but you’ll have a lot more allies than you dared to dream. And you will need them.

Next comes proving and testing, making sure you have room to experiment. Be very clear what you want to accomplish in your experiments: These are necessary tests, not a failsafe way to ensure turnover. You’re discovering uncharted terrain and you want prove that there is another way. Your goal is to secure budget for the next phase: more testing and discovering. Make the first project is as small as possible and make sure that it proves to the board of directors that you need space and a budget.

Nowadays you hear a lot about intrapreneurship: behaving like an entrepreneur within an organization. Within companies, everybody is excited about Lean Startup, Business Model Canvas, Design thinking, Rapid Prototyping etc. These are very efficient tools, but only if you know how to use and embed them. If you do not operate strategically and tactically you might as well not implement these tools. No one will listen to your proof, if you’re not highlighting the right motivation, using the right language, and having the right people vouch for you. Also, your timing has to be right.

In order to convince your board, you need to speak their language and know their interest and challenges better than they know them. I’ve seen that the most successful mavericks put a lot of effort in mapping the needs and language of the organization that they wanted to change. They listened a lot, and they listened well. These mavericks understood the challenges of people with other interests so well, they were able to describe these people’s challenges better than they themselves could.

These are just some of the things I found out are best to do as a maverick. But if you do them, things will change, albeit slowly. Perseverance is no luxury in the ways of a maverick, because change happens slowly and mostly when you don’t expect it anymore. And when you do expect change to happen, there are almost always events that turn everything around and leaves you just where you started.

So in the future the recruiter lady can say: “We need people like you! We need a young impulse, new ideas to stir up our organization. We have a special platform for critical thinkers and a program to test, integrate and execute game-changing ideas. We have proven to be truly innovative in a sustainable way.” Wouldn’t that be something? I think it would, so that is what one of the things I want to achieve with the School of Mavericks.