The Rebel Trinity: Culture, Mission, Tactics

Last week I gave a talk at the Defense Intelligence Agency as part of their month-long commemoration of Woman's History Month. In preparing my remarks, I reflected back (for the upteenth time) on my career as a rebel at work at the CIA. Much of that career is described in one chapter of Adam Grant's new book: Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World. Adam talks about how my quest to bring the Agency into the digital age had two distinct stages--the first where I all but self-destructed and the second where I actually made some progress in large part because of many lessons learned. What Adam Grant didn't discuss but which I included in a my talk was the story of a much earlier rebel period, while I was still a junior analyst at the Agency, when I held a minority view on an important and controversial substantive issue. My espousal of that minority view didn't hurt my career; in fact, it probably in the end helped it. What was the difference, I asked myself?

It soon became clear.

During that first rebel period, I was arguing for a different analytic judgment but not for a different approach to performing the mission. Although my analytic views were not widely shared by the organization, my analytic methods were familiar to all. It's usually less risky for a rebel to suggest a different solution to a mission problem confronting their organization. It's much harder to convince your organization that its basic approach to the mission is wrong-headed or, even worse, that you're tackling the wrong mission altogether.

Lois and I write in Rebels at Work: A Handbook for Leading Change from Within that, for our own sanity, we need to be careful about rebel causes that run counter to the culture of an organization. It's hard to change organizational culture from the bottom up. Similarly, it's hard  to disrupt an organization's operating manual and its operational theories. We know of many domains where rebels are trying to do that exactly that: health care, consulting, government to name a few. We don't want to dissuade you from trying; but we do want you to understand the steepness of that climb.

I'm in Texas right now. The bluebonnets are in bloom.


Brainstorm Better, Bring Diversity to your Team, and Let Others Change your Idea--Answers to your Rebels at Work Questions

I've been participating the last few months in a new web platform--wiselike--where people can ask questions of practitioners in other domains. I've been answering Rebels at Work questions and I thought I'd post some of the answers here, unedited.

What is the best way to get an idea across to top management in a big company without antagonizing your immediate boss or those who will be affected by it?

Well, I don't recommend going over your boss's head. It may work once in a while, but the odds are against you.

The best way to get an idea across in that situation is to demonstrate it. Is their part of your idea that you can start under your own power so that people could see how it works?

Another important step is to get others to support and in fact change your idea. People will support an idea that they have contributed to. Your idea needs to grow and develop, and it will do so when you share it with others. You need to remember that it's about improvement not necessarily about your sacred idea and certainly should never be about your ego?

Do you think a corporation could succeed if all its employees are 'Rebels at Work?'

Nope, not every employee can be a rebel at work, but it would be good if every employee felt that they could express their ideas at work, within reason, without fearing penalty. Of course, just because you have an idea doesn't mean it's good. But too many organizations have a top-down mentality and don't really want employees to do anything other than execute the plan. This is why so many American workers don't feel engaged at work. In fact, something like 50% of managers report not feeling engaged.

Even though I was a manager for several decades, I actually think that the traditional practice of leadership is broken. I never liked to think of myself as the leader who "called the shots." I much preferred to facilitate conditions that would lead everyone to provide the mission their discretionary energy. A leader can never make people give their discretionary energy; it is only ever volunteered.

What can I do in a company where all the managers are against a 360 feedback?

Geez. This is a tough one. Presumably the President is setting the culture of the organization and it is always tough to change a culture top-down. Couple of things I would suggest.

Is there a small thing that you can do under your own authority that moves you along the path you think is better? Seth Godin has a nice video about this

He notes that in organizations where you don't have the power you have to get people to copy good ideas.

Given that he suggested people go to HR, I would see if there is a good person you could talk to in HR not about whatever your issue is but how can to turn this "go to HR" into a process, option that could actually have impact. For example, does HR report to the management team the issues they hear from employees. I bet they don't. But that could really help. The problem with going to HR is that they will treat each complaint as an individual performance problem rather than as a symptom of an issue in the organization. You want the latter and not the former.

As an advocate of positive Rebels at Work.. How can we encourage diverse thinking within our teams?

It's important to have a team composed of diverse individuals. This isn't easy to do in the short term. So one way to encourage different thinking in the team, or at least implant it, is to invite guests to your team meetings. For example, someone from another office that you have to collaborate with. So they can share what will likely be their different perspective. When you do brainstorm, don't jump into group thinking right away. Give people a few minutes by themselves to come up with ideas/answers. Research shows that this helps generate better ideas. Otherwise the whole group follows lemming-like the first few ideas generated. If there are many people, have several tables work individually on their suggestions, and then have each table report one idea at a time. This forces people to come up with a different idea from the table that went before them.

The manager or leader of a discussion has to say things and ask questions that invite different ideas and disagreement. What am I missing? What are we getting wrong? What is the opposite of this point?

Have a process for deciding which ideas to pursue. For example you could brainstorm a whole bunch of ideas and then bucket them by safe ideas and dangerous ideas And then commit to pursuing one idea from each bucket.

Rebel Dangers: When your Boss Leaves

Readers of Rebels at Work: A Handbook for Leading Change from Within keep providing us with ground truth and new insights about life as a rebel at work--many of which we wish we had included in our book. One of my favorites is this lament from a reader who is a longtime rebel at work. When a new boss took over his unit, he got the distinct impression that the new boss wasn't fond of his work suggestions. As this reader wrote,

I feel like I'm being told to go sit in the corner and shut up!

Although it shouldn't be this way, in most organizations rebel fortunes are tied to the personality and management style of a boss. As we discuss in our book, understanding your boss and gaining credibility are the first things rebels need to do. Life as a change agent is hard, and it gets even harder if you don't have a plan and an order for your actions.

When your boss changes, you almost certainly will need to start over. New leaders are likely to be at least a bit insecure and therefore reluctant to continue activities they're not comfortable with--i.e. they consider uncertain and/or risky. Don't assume your new boss won't have issues with what you're doing. She will and it's your job to gain her confidence. In our reader's case, he senses that his boss is not comfortable with the "creative ideas that spill over into other domains than the one I'm technically responsible for."

And that brings up another interesting dimension of being a rebel at work. Sometimes you're shut down not because you have ideas for changing your own particular job, but because you have the interdisciplinary skills to offer ideas to help other parts of the organization. Rebels at work are often constrained by one-dimensional job descriptions and dysfunctional stovepipes. Rather than encourage individuals to contribute on issues they're passionate about, many organizations prefer employees to stay in their own lanes. They do so so they can hit targets and have predictable results, but their "success" comes at a price: disengaged employees and unrealized potential.



Jill Abramson: Rebel at Work?

Most of our focus at is on employees trying to make change from below. They have it rough and don't have many resources to help them. But we recognize that not infrequently the Rebel at Work can also be a manager, even a leader of an organization. Steve Jobs, of course, comes immediately to mind. Often leaders try to prod their organization to a better future by painting a vision of a new business model only to struggle to push everyone there. When I was in the Intelligence Community trying to do something similar, I would often refer to the Keystone Kops to illustrate our challenge. In the silent Keystone Kops one-reelers, there's often a scene where a truck of Kops in pursuit of dastardly criminals turns a sharp corner and several of the Kops fly off. My goal, I would tell people, was to turn our sharp corner but keep everyone on the truck. We're all getting there together.hungarian20cops1 Easier said than done. Last week the New York Times fired their editor, Jill Abramson, and charges have been flying around ever since as to the reasons why. I don't know why, of course, but I was struck by the analysis provided by another prominent female editor, Susan Glasser, editor of Politico Magazine. In her article, Glasser posits that Abramson, and the editor of Le Monde, who was also forced out last week, were caught up in the strong backlash that can often beat down a leader trying to take their obstinate organization to a place it doesn't think it needs to go. Glasser can't prove her conjecture, but she writes convincingly of her own predicament when she tried to lead the Washington Post to a digital future. Glasser's description of what confronted her is painful to read.

"In the course of my short and controversial tenure in the job, I learned several things, among them: 1) print newspapers REALLY, REALLY didn’t want to change to adapt to the new digital realities; 2) I did not have the full backing of the paper’s leadership to carefully shepherd a balky, unhappy staff of 100 or so print reporters and editors across that unbuilt bridge to the 21st century;"

She goes on to write:

"I have no wish to relitigate a painful past episode by writing this, except to say what I learned about myself: It was not the right fight for me, and I didn’t really have the stomach for waging the bureaucratic war of attrition that is the fate of the institutionalist in a time of unsettling change. I had always chafed at the constraints and processes and internal politics of a venerable and proud place. Was I the right person for that job at that time? Clearly not, and I was happy once the ordeal was over, and grateful for the support I received from so many people. I learned that I liked to invent more than reinvent, that it is a better fit for me to create something new than to try to save something old."

That last sentence brought tears to my eyes. I would rather create something new than try to save something old. This realization occurs to so many rebels just at the moment they decide to give up. But I suspect most rebels, perhaps even Glasser, are not being completely honest with themselves. My guess is that they really would rather save, revive something old, but that the personal cost of it just becomes unbearable. Or they are removed because when it comes right down to it, too many people expect change to be easy and not controversial. Even when rebels get "top cover", it is flimsy and easily blown away by the complaints from those who will not be moved.

Much of the criticism of Abramson reminds me of our now almost infamous Good Rebel, Bad Rebel chart. Lois and I have mixed feelings about the chart because it oversimplifies a complex subject. Many rebels have qualities on both sides of the spectrum. And sometimes rebels do have to employ the black arts. Lacking the ability to change minds, they focus instead on trying to create immutable facts on the ground. Rebels who are not also leaders almost never succeed this way. And what we've learned once again is that being a rebel leader doesn't guarantee success.

gd. vs. bad rebels July 2012


Aarrr!! Talk Like a Rebel

If you follow me on Twitter, (@milouness) you may have noticed this great piece I linked to last weekend on The Origins of Office Speak. It appeared in the Atlantic and was written by Emma Green. It not only fills you in on Management Lingo but also serves as a quick tutorial on the history of scientific management and the consulting profession in general. One theme that runs through this history is the slow realization over the last 100 years by business managers and consultants that human beings are most productive when you treat them as real people, not resources. What a concept!! My favorite quote in the piece was from Professor Joanne Ciulla of the University of Richmond.

Attempts at engineering appropriate attitudes and emotions can actually undercut genuine feelings for a company.

The article got me to thinking whether there is such a thing as Rebel Lingo. You know things that Rebels at Work say when they are trying to win support for their change initiatives that actually have the opposite effect. As Lois pointed out on our Facebook page last week, it is vital for rebels to paint pictures of where they want to go in a succinct way that appeals to what is most relevant to the executives in your organization. That is not compromising your principles by the way; this is understanding human psychology and keeping it real.

So here is my short list of phrases rebels need to try to avoid. Do I avoid them all the time? No! As I’ve learned, most cliches became so because they contained a kernel of truthiness. But as a general practice, Rebels need to talk about specific ideas and changes, not high-falutin’ concepts. We welcome any additions to the list.

Burning Platform: Call the Fire Department! This phrase was born out of the belief that people will resist change until you give them a compelling reason to do so. But I’ve learned that what you think is a burning platform is often their sunny beachfront property The Rebel has to have some compelling arguments to prove that the status quo completely lacks feck. It rarely does. The truth is most people resist being changed...period.

Working Group: “Let’s form a working group!” is that seemingly innocent phrase that brings the 2+ hour meeting to a close when no one has any other good ideas for what to do next. Managers often resort to the working group tactic as well, which alone should give Rebels pause. Remember: Working Groups are groups that do NO work.

Ostrich, sand, head, butt: Never put these words together in a sentence. They don't win you any supporters.

Change Agent: Never introduce yourself in meetings as a Change Agent. Don’t let anybody call you that either. Rebels at Work do not get a 10% cut off the top of all change initiatives. We aren’t agents at all. We actually believe in what we are doing.

End State: This always makes me think of Death. Also it reflects an unattractive hubris on part of the Rebel. The rebel’s ideas are not the end state of the organization; in a few short years (months) your ideas will be overtaken by much better ones. It is the way of the world. Innovation (another word to use infrequently) is not about a program to implement one new idea or even a set of new ideas; innovation means permanently removing the barriers to entry for all new ideas.

Think Out of the Box:  Aaargh! Please don’t ask people to think out of the box. I once heard a senior leader say that he enjoyed being in a box. It was a much safer place to be.

Paradigm Shift: It is a shame that Thomas Kuhn’s useful concept is now so tired and overused that its deployment in any meeting immediately chills the air and causes butts to shift in their seats as if perhaps an ostrich were involved. Remember: Change agents use working groups to shift paradigms.


How to be a rebel in the workplace and survive

This post was written by Tom Siebert for Aol Jobs. Rebels are sexy. Rebels are cool. Rebels are not always welcome in the workplace. In fact, if you're a rebel in the workplace, it's often a small step to becoming a martyr for the workplace, says Lois Kelly.

"Rebels' velocity scares people," says Kelly, an author (Beyond Buzz) and former PR professional, who runs the website, with the former deputy director of intelligence for the CIA (!) Carmen Medina, now a Deloitte consultant.

The pair appeared together at South by Southwest last month to "show rebels how to lead change from within [a company or organization] without committing career suicide."

Kelly and Medina offer these 20 ways "to be a more effective rebel," and effect positive change without ending up roadkill for a cause:

1. Be positive: People may listen to a nag, but no one will follow them.

2. Frame it: Don't just make a point. Build a narrative around it.

3. Stay out of drama: Life isn't a television show. The more straightforward your cause, the less you dramatize it, the better off your message will be.

4. Judge ideas, not people: Someone you dislike may well have good points to be made; listen to them.

5. When angry, stop and wonder why: Are you angry for the right reasons? Are you personalizing what's made you angry?

6. Strive for influence, not power: In the end, influencers carry the greater power.

7. Start the flame, tap into the collective brilliance of others to fan the flame: The whole object of being a rebel is to draw others to your cause; when you do, don't be greedy.

8. Share the glory: See above.

9. Communicate in ways that create clarity from complexity: Keep your points simple and easy to understand. Once the basic points are grasped, you can go deeper.

10. Address the cost/value tradeoff: There's no free lunch. Even if your idea is genius, there will be repercussions. Don't flinch from them; people will appreciate the honesty.

11. Let ideas breathe: A good idea can be made better by room to roam.

12. Pick the right boss or executive sponsor: A powerful ally is a wonderful thing. Conversely, a manipulative or weak ally can sink you.

13. Ask good questions; become a good listener: Hearing people out builds alliances and may evolve a good idea to a better one.

14. Learn how to facilitate messy collaboration: Working together ain't easy, but great things can come from it.

15. Address the fears: Change scares people. Reassure them.

16. Show how success can be measured: This puts your money where your mouth is, and can provide indisputable proof that you should be heard.

17. Learn how to have constructive conversations: Get to the point. Take criticism in good faith.

18. Be thoughtful in all you do: Rebels need to watch their words and actions, because there'll always be someone looking to trip them up for the status quo.

19. Know when to walk away: You'll live to fight another day.

20. Believe you are enough: No one's perfect, but you can be your own hero.

The Rebel Penalty Box

The other day I was having lunch with a friend, a rebel at work and she was telling me that she was finally out of the Rebel Penalty Box at the office. Immediately I knew what she meant. "How did you get in the Rebel Penalty Box?"Alexander_Sazonov_2011-09-26_Amur—Heftekhimik_KHL-game

"Well, actually the year it happened I thought I was doing the best work in my career. I thought I was really getting things done that would make a difference, implementing change. But I guess my boss didn't see it that way. And I received a lesser ranking in my performance review that year."

"Whoa!! What did you do then?" I asked.

"I decided to just go low profile. Just do exactly what was expected of me. And wouldn't you know it, that worked I guess. This year, my performance rating was raised to its previous level. So I guess that means I'm out of the penalty box."

That story was so familiar to me and I bet to most of the rebels reading this post. At some point in your work life you will get a minor penalty or a 5 minute major, and you will need to find a way to get through it without losing your sanity or your rebel core--they're kind of one and the same thing, right? In my friend's case, it came as a complete surprise--she thought she was excelling at doing the right thing and was jazzed up about her performance. Only to find that, in her case, a change in upper management meant a new definition of success. My time in the penalty box was longer, I think. Most of a decade. A five-minute major. And I kind of knew it was coming. I wasn't doing the best work of my career. I had let myself become cynical and negative and eventually people just became quite tired of me. I deserved that time in the rebel penalty box.

So, if you find yourself in the penalty box, how should rebels think about it? What can help them get through the period?

Try not to dwell on the fact that it's unfair. Of course it's unfair... in a way. But you're probably in the penalty box because you broke a rule of the organization--either explicit or implicit. In my friend's case she did not factor in the likely behavior of a new boss. They almost always reconsider the priorities of the previous regime--it might as well be a rule. We're not saying don't ever break the rules, although we do think changing rules is a much better strategy for the long term. But just keep in mind that if you're out doing something new, the chances rise that you'll be called for a penalty. It's the risk you run.

Take your helmet off and cool down. In ice hockey, players are advised to remove their helmets so they can release more heat and cool off from the exertion of the game. Not a bad idea for us rebels. The relative peace and quiet of the penalty box can be a great opportunity to think things through, replay the moves you made, and think about how your future strategy. In my friend's case, she minded her p's and q's to regain her footing with the new boss. We know some rebels might find that distasteful, but remember that in ice hockey, fighting when you're in the penalty box will probably get you ejected from the game.

Be thankful you weren't ejected. Unless of course that's your goal. Maybe you're so tired of trying to make people listen to your ideas that you've decided to leave. Getting thrown out is your grand fireworks finale. But just be careful how that plays out. Your firing might be the example that sets back change efforts in the organization for years to come.

Look for an opportunity to score when you leave the box. There's no more exciting play in ice hockey then when an aware teammate passes the puck to the player leaving the penalty box. It usually creates a scoring opportunity. Perhaps you can look for a new position where there's more tolerance for new ideas. Or maybe new leadership arrives that's more amenable to change. Having been in the penalty box, the rebel is more likely to observe larger patterns at work that he can begin to take advantage of.

This blog, of course, was also inspired by the Olympics and the exciting men's hockey game between Russia and the USA this weekend.


While You See a Chance, Take It!

I attended an informal meetup of Rebels at Work earlier this month. About 15 individuals all working in the same outfit gathered to share ideas, particularly about strengthening the rebel and innovation spirit in their organization. It was a great meeting judging by how well over schedule it went and the quality of the ideas we harvested. Here are a few of them; I bet many of you will find one or two useful.

  • The importance of the First Follower to any Rebel at Work. I’m tempted to say that, perhaps after mastering the bureaucratic landscape, attracting your first follower(s) is the top priority for rebels at work. In fact it’s probably ideal if your First Follower is in fact a Bureaucratic Black Belt. (Ideal but probably unlikely. But we can dream!) If you want a good example of the importance of the first follower, watch this great video.
  • Pay attention to what happens before and after you get your great idea. Identify the people who will try to stop you. (One person at the meeting had attended the Creative Studies Program at Buffalo State University--according to him the only such program in the country. At this program they stressed that too many innovators spend too much time and effort on the ideation process and nowhere near enough on the sticky aspects of getting it done. Here’s the link to the Buffalo State program. It looks absolutely awesome.)
  • Strike a balance between the need to deal with reality and the desire to create a new reality. No great insight yet on exactly how to achieve that balance but everyone in the room had felt that tension. I guess what I would say is that you must resist the temptation to only do the former. Tactically there will be moments, perhaps even long periods, when you will need to deal with reality but you must always discipline yourself to return to your creative impulse.
  • Encourage the protectors of the status quo to take a chance. The meeting ended with what I thought was a quite useful conversation about the need to reframe conversations around the idea of taking a chance rather than around avoiding risk. All situations, including the status quo, involve risk. The advantage the status quo seems to have is that it has a known risk rate or error rate. Leaders clearly prefer the error rate they know over the error rate they don’t know. One attendee at the meeting reported having luck by reframing the question around the idea of taking a chance. It was important to acknowledge that he was asking the leader to take a chance. That rang true to me. Sometimes rebels can oversell their change idea. Perhaps we need to be more honest about what we are asking of the powers that be.

Which reminds me of this old Stevie Winwoodsong:

While You See a Chance

Happy Thanksgiving to all the Rebels at Work.



Am I a "minority" or am I a "rebel"? Both!

As most of you know, I served for 32 years at the Central Intelligence Agency. During my last ten years there, I would attend recruiting and outreach events where I would answer questions about my career at the Agency. Given who I am, I was often asked this question: "Could you talk about what it was like being a woman and a minority at the Agency?" And I always gave the same answer: "Actually, neither of those was as much of an issue for me as just being a different thinker. Somehow I often saw things differently from everyone else." I was recalling this last week when I was thinking about what I might say at a couple of events I've been invited to speak at associated with Hispanic Heritage Month, which starts this coming week. (It's actually not a month, but a 30-day period from 15 September to 15 October.) And as I said out loud the previous paragraph, it came to me like the most gigantic "DUH" moment you can imagine. POW! A giant fist bopped me on the  head.

I had gotten it exactly backwards. It wasn't that being a different thinker was more of a career issue than being a woman or a minority. I was a different thinker in large part BECAUSE I was a woman and a Latina.

Q. You mean that it took you until one month before your 58th Birthday to figure that out!!

A. Sadly, yes.

Many sincere attempts to diversify organizations fail because the organization's leadership does not appreciate that any significant diversity effort is in fact an organizational change effort. It could very well end up being transformational for the company.

When different types of people enter the workforce--women, minorities--many actually become default Rebels at Work, although they often are not aware of their dual identities. People with different backgrounds should bring different perspectives and ideas with them. (Although truth be told, many learn as early as high school to stop volunteering their different ideas when they realize they are not welcomed.) And yet  you often hear leaders say: "It's a shame about so-and-so. Some interesting ideas but he doesn't quite know how to fit in." or "You have great potential but you need to learn to be more corporate."

And that's how diversity initiatives degrade and become more about the Appearance of Diversity than about the Impact of Diversity. The organization has made space for people who are different but no space for their different ideas. Helping Rebels be more effective at work is in fact a diversity initiative. And increasing the Impact of Diversity on an organization is in fact a Rebel initiative.


Only Good Rebels Die Young

It seems like it's appropriate to follow up that last post by Lois on the anger of rebels with what to do if and how to notice when your Rebel energies are getting out of control. The passion--and sometimes the anger--that sharpens the courage of Rebels at Work enough for them to seek to change the status quo does not easily dissipate. But my experience and the conversations I’ve had with many other Rebels at Work tells me we need to be careful to heed the warning signs of rebel flameout. Even good rebels can self-destruct; perhaps it is good rebels that are most in danger of self immolation. So what are some of the signals that a Rebel should pull the plug, at least for a while? What are some particularly difficult scenarios?

  •  The potential for the greatest disappointments comes just after you thought you were about to make progress, about to get a hearing, and you didn't or it all fell through. Most organizations will make several failed runs at initiating real change, pursuing new directions. At these moments, they come looking for those individuals they know have different ideas and ask them to participate in all sorts of task forces and working groups. (My years in government taught me that working groups are groups that do no work but that’s a topic for a different time.) These are parlous days for rebels. They can become giddy with the potential for influence and drop, for a moment, the masks of studied skepticism or nonchalant bantering they wear to conceal the intensity of their feelings. Once the organization discovers that the recommendations for change steer it into uncharted territory, most will abruptly cut the task force off. This can happen multiple times and is crushing for Rebels. So if you can, manage your anger and disappointment, take weeks of deep breaths, go on a vacation, and, for God’s sake, don’t do anything rash.
  • Be mindful that it’s difficult to handle the emotional load of being a rebel when there’s something else going on in your life. And, of course, there is always something else going on in your life. In my case, I was dealing with career disappointments at the same time as I was thinking of myself as the person who could see the future better than most. I couldn't help but compare myself to peers who were advancing more quickly by, as I saw it, choosing to ignore reality. This kind of cognitive dissonance was not good for my soul or my common sense. If you’re experiencing such feelings, walk away.
  • Rebels should also walk away when they begin thinking they have become smarter than everyone else in the organization. This may or may not be true...(cue wry laughter) but it’s just not healthy when your mind starts obsessing over it. It means you have begun to personalize every skirmish and battle in the Long War of Change. Time to retreat and take a break.
  • When you start arguing with people who are your best work friends, then you know you’re reaching an unhealthy breaking point. If you’re a Rebel it’s likely that your good work mates are people who share some of your ideas. When they start looking at you strangely or when you find yourself snapping at them, find a way to recharge and recover before you lose important friendships.
  • At some point as a Rebel at Work, you may find yourself not recognizing others’ descriptions of yourself. This was certainly the case for me during my Agency career when people began to describe me as being cynical and negative. I remember thinking, whom could they possibly be talking about? And yet, unbeknownst to me, that was in fact the person I was projecting and in danger of becoming. When that happens to you, my advice is to divert your energies elsewhere for a while. Find a direct mission-related job and go do it. Look for a rotational assignment outside your own department. Be wary of sacrificing who you are in an attempt to get a troubled organization to become something it’s not ready to be.

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.)


  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.


  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.

Pretend you're someone who can

There was much to love in writer Neil Gaiman's recent "Make Good Art" commencement address to the University of the Arts.  His advice about pretending to be someone else has been swirling in my mind for days.  Not to be someone else or copy someone else, but to behave like another person to do the thing that you think you cannot.

"Someone asked me recently how to do something she thought was going to be difficult, in this case recording an audio book, and I suggested she pretend that she was someone who could do it. Not pretend to do it, but pretend she was someone who could. She put up a notice to this effect on the studio wall, and she said it helped."


To find more courage to do the work you really want to do, who might you pretend to be?

As you pretend to be that person, how might your work change?

When I was  in high school I sometimes pretended to be the late actress and writer Ruth Gordon.  At 15  I felt like an outsider and misfit in my huge, urban high school. Yet I had drive, confidence and a hope that things would be different once I got out of that adolescent jail.  After performing the role of the prostitute Kitty Duval in William Saroyan's "The Time of Our Life" my sophomore English teacher Mr. Roberts suggested I read Ruth Gordon's rambling autobiography "Myself Among Others."

Gordon, also a five-foot average looking girl from Boston, wrote of her determination, her perseverance and her "screw them" kind of attitude.  The Ruth Gordon line that sang to my young self was,  "A Star is Born was the movie, but that's fiction. A star is not born, a star makes himself or herself a star." I loved that book. I loved the Ruth Gordon that I had conjured up in my mind. She was my young rebel heroine.

In my freshman year of college I entered a talent contest. Panicking that I had none, I channeled Ruth Gordon and did my Kitty Duval monologue. I won.

Years later I bought Gordon's autobiographies at a used book store.  Re-reading them I was disappointed.  Her advice and writing seemed so flippant and superficial.

But I'm going to start pretending to be Ruth Gordon again.  In my mid-50's with so many ideas and exciting projects yet to be done I sometimes sabotage myself by playing a "you're too old to do that now" narrative. What's with that?  Using ageism against myself?

Ruth Gordon worked steadily on Broadway  and in movies, and then her career took off when she was 70, becoming a star in movies like "Rosemary's Baby" and "Harold and Maude," and winning an Emmy for her guest appearance on the television show "Taxi."

Her grit, her vanity, her love of her work (and herself) kept her relevant and thriving.

When she died at 88 --  still working -- The Los Angeles Times wrote:

Gordon was unique among actresses, not only because she defied the passing of time but because she used it like a bonus, a spiritual annuity paying off...Gordon's salty, uninhibited, sexy, sharp-witted, energetic, convention-snubbing, life-celebrating and joyous assertiveness on the screen obviously reflected what we might call her own soul-set...But she was above all a woman whose whole life, the bruises and the triumphs alike, informed and enriched her performances. She was a life force who became a symbol of the vigorous and even riotous possibilities of the upper years.

So on the days that I need a little push to take on all that I dream of doing, I will be pretending to be Ruth Gordon exhibiting all of her joyous assertiveness, and trying to dress as well, too.

And you? Who will you pretend to be so that you can stretch and do the work that only you can do?