When You Manage Rebels: A Long Overdue Blog Post

I promised I would share my lessons on how to be a manager of rebels more than two months ago, which just goes to show you how fast time flies....PERIOD. Time's a wastin', so let's get started. Here's the scenario: you have somehow reached a position of authority and some flexibility in your organization. You have some kind of bully pulpit and control of some resources, and you find yourself drawn to some kind of change agenda. Perhaps you, like I at my previous employer, were a rebel when you were just a worker bee and you would like to encourage and support the colleagues you know who are rebels and change agents too. Or maybe you have never described yourself as a rebel but now that you're in higher management you believe it's time to encourage some new energy and new ideas in your organization. What should you do? What shouldn't you do?

(Methodology note: these comments are based on my personal experiences, what I've observed in almost 35 years in the work place, and the many conversation I've been having with others who know more.)

DO:

  1. Find a way to meet regularly with random people throughout the organization.This may seem unrelated and a strange place to start, but my reasoning is this: if you are going to use your time at the top to support rebels, you need to keep informed on what's really going on in the organization. It's absolutely amazing how quickly power isolates you: my sense is that you become compromised within six weeks of assuming a senior position.My approach at the Agency was to try to have dinner with random groups of analysts at least every other month. When I say random, I mean random. I would somehow run into someone who worked for me (once I ran into a fellow at one of the reststops on I-95 for example.) I would ask the person to gather a group of people he or she knew; I nor anyone else would vet the names. And we would have dinner. There were just a couple of rules. You could not be critical of a person, although you could be critical of a position or type of person, like branch chiefs. And we at some point had to talk about something other than work. That was it. I probably had dinner with close to 100 analysts in two years. The amplification affects of these conversations were incredible.Another "trick" I used was reaching out to everyone on Instant Messaging on their birthday. (I actually had HR run a list of the entire workforce by date of birth (but not the year to stay clear of any equity or discrimination issues, although I did get to figure out everyone's horoscope sign that way.) This activity, which maybe took ten minutes on an average day, turned out to be an absolutely fascinating psychological experiment. Some individuals were embarrassed and/or couldn't wait to end the conversation; others engaged me in small talk; and a very small group--I suspect all rebels or rebel aspirants--engaged me immediately in a conversation about some aspect of how work was done. My rule was that if the issue required more time than we had then, they would get a followup meeting.
  2. Give Rebels real work to do. Once the organization identifies you as a rebel (and let's be truthful, most smart leadership teams cultivate one or two "house rebels"), then they'll start assigning you to these special rebel tasks. I can't tell you how many different task forces and working groups I served on during my Agency career on some aspect of Change and the Agency. While the first one or two of these assignments was interesting, they soon became moderately depressing. Being asked to do "rebel work" is also a career killer. Most rebels are already distraught at having to choose between speaking their mind and stoking their career. Rebels often hear in performance appraisal sessions how while their work on such-and-such change initiative was admirable, it did distract them from the mission. Don't make this phenomenon worse by heaping more such assignments on them. So what's an example of real work?
  3. Bring your rebels into key support positions in your organization. Make them your Chief of Staff, for example. Encourage others on the Executive Team to do the same. Every organization has key positions that lubricate all the other processes. Executive Office, Chief of Staff, many other names. These are usually filled by classic high-performing, hard chargers. Try a different approach. Bring someone who is known for having different ideas into these positions. The benefits and down-the-road payoffs will be huge, I guarantee. The rebels will learn to be much more realistic and effective in their approach to change. The executive team will benefit from a more nuanced and forward-looking perspective.
  4. Something Concrete in support of your rebels. If you're at the top of an organization, saying that you support change or an idea espoused by a rebel is significant, but not significant enough. Everyone in the organization will look to see if you intend to support your words with concrete actions. One clear step is to provide money for implementation, but sometimes, for example in most governments, shifting resources is not that simple, or can only be done at certain times of the year. When I was at the Agency, I was known as a supporter of Intellipedia. I made a point of speaking at as many of the Intellipedia training sessions as I possibly could. My memory is these were held every other week; my executive assistant knew it was a priority. By showing up at well over half of the sessions and spending an hour talking to each class, I demonstrated my commitment extended beyond pronouncements.

DON'T:

  1. Mistake bellyachers and troublemakers with rebels. This is a problem that can particularly afflict non-rebel managers. You want to promote change and some change agents, but you're not sure who's the real deal and who's not. We have a useful chart that is of some help that you can find here. I also think it's useful to remember that most "good rebels' are reluctant rebels. The mantle of rebellion does not rest easily on their shoulders. So if you want to know who the real rebels are, keep your ears to the ground and talk to everyone not just the self-appointed change agents.
  2. Assign rebels to the New, High-Profile Center for Innovation. This is a cousin of Do #2 above, so I won't repeat what I said there. But I will add that nothing can be more dispiriting for many rebels than to be asked to lead the organization's new Center for Innovation. As my colleague Lois Kelly discovered in her survey of corporate rebels a couple of years ago, most rebels are at best lukewarm about being asked to serve on special innovation projects. Too many innovation centers pursue change for the sake of change or new for the sake of new. Innovation needs to be centered on and central to the mission.
  3. Force your rebels to behave heroically. Although organizational heroism is a useful tactic, it is not, in my view, the basis of a long-term strategy. What are some ways that a well-meaning manager can unintentionally force a rebel to behave heroically? How about asking her to make a solo presentation to the executive team about a new change initiative? Ouch!! Or asking a rebel to write a critique, just for the manager, of an organization's new strategic plan. Both of these examples resemble realities I have observed. Most serious rebels have survived by mastering the indirect approach. As in the military, asking the rebels to take the point position is like asking them to step voluntarily into the ambush. It's really just a more sophisticated way of throwing your rebels under the bus.