[Life Back West] July 2012 – “Misfit Toys”

If you live in a certain City by the bay, sooner or later little surprises you.

Avengers (comics)

Annoy you? Yes. Delight you? Often. Alarm, disappoint, thrill, and endear? Always.

It’s those differences that make the place so special. Take away those difference and ultimately it leads to one destination; the land of boring, common, even mediocre.

Some workplaces are just like that City. They are home to the ugly ducklings of the world, the people, as KQED perspective’s guest Rhea St. Julien suggested about San Francisco, who make up the “City of Misfit Toys.

It was an interesting segue from KQED to a five person partner’s meeting I facilitated as part of the team coaching side of my consulting practice this week but the flight path was a straight line.

Mick,” the most tenured partner noted about an employee up for partner consideration, “brings some things we wish were different. But for technical chops and the ability to market there is no one at the partnership level who does better. We need more people who bring strengths that are different from the five of ours, not the same, if we’re going to continue to be successful.

Successful is one thing that defines this client. Willing to buck convention is another. While they are very clear about who fits in with the firm in terms of their culture (“strong technical skills, teamwork, work-life balance, high ethics and thinking like an owner“), they have hired and nurtured people others likely passed over.

The results? Billings that continue to be a the higher end of the market, a testament to the value their professional services clients place in what the firm brings to the table. You can get it done for cheaper, partners will offer, but you can’t get it done better.

Part of the mix is a blend of diverse ways of looking at things, excellent technical expertise and a wide range of varied life backgrounds. While they haven’t been following Scott Page’s research and work on the value of diverse perspectives and diverse teams, they might as well been channeling him. Page, a U of Michigan professor, has done research that links diversity in teams (age, background, school, ethnicity, gender, cognitive style, etc.) with superior results.

Purposefully seeking folks who are different is a tough road to how for some folks. “I’d hire ‘them’ (fill in the appropriate phrase for them) if they’d act like us,” is what you imagine people saying.

But as I mentioned earlier this year to Visa’s Global HR Head Scott Sullivan (whose background includes something out of the usual as an undergrad at West Point and a stint on the West Point faculty), you don’t want a bunch of people “like us” if you want superior performance. You want people who bring different gifts that can tackle things from a host of angles you never would have considered; The Avengers, not Stepford Wives.

Part of the challenge with diverse teams though is that because they do have people with differences it can take greater effort and work on the teaming side of the equation to get the team to jell and perform up to their potential. Alex “Sandy” Pentland notes in The Hard Science of Teamwork, great teams rarely happen by accident. While teams of people who are homogenous take less work, their performance is less successful.

The benefit of diverse teams that are nurtured to team well? Performance that is usually superior, and often breathtaking.

Just as biodiversity trumps monocultures in agriculture (but takes more work), the misfit toys approach works not just in US professional sports such as ice hockey (LA Kings) and baseball but in the workplace as well.

Rudolf would be proud. Who knew that those misfit toys could be so valuable?

 

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.

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