Alone and not alone

I just got back from a 5-day creative writing retreat with 10 brave, talented artists. It was an intense, exhausting and exhilarating experience where our extraordinary teacher Ann Randolph gently yet firmly pushed us way outside our comfort zones.

We wrote alone, sitting in the same room. And then we read our stories aloud to one another. 

It felt sacred, being alone and together. Having time to go deep into our own writing and reflection, and then being able to speak our truths among such a safe, caring group of people. 

What does this have to do with being a Rebel at WorK? I "re-entered" the work world wondering:

  • Why are so many work relationships and "team building" attempts so superficial? If there were more ways to share more of the real us, there could be so much more empathy, compassion and psychological safety at work.  And with that, more people might speak up and more might listen. And more of the right things might get done faster.
  • Why don't more people take time to journal about their work to more clearly understand what's happening and put it into perspective? Research shows that when we slow things down and reflect, we're able to be more creative about solving especially challenging problems. Check out this recent HBR post by former CEO Dan Ciampa, "The More Senior Your Job Title, the More You Need to Keep a Journal." (Then insert, "The More Rebellious You Are...")
  • Similarly, why don't more people take time to think? Especially with close friends. One of the articles I re-read every summer is "Of Solitude and Leadership" by former Yale professor William Dersiewicz, based on his speech to plebes at West Point. It's long, but his perspectives on bureaucracy, complacency and conformity speak to us Rebels. His view on how to "find the strength to challenge an unwise order or wrongheaded policy" is especially wise. And something we can all do.
  • Why don't more people do the right thing just because it's the right thing?  Some of my best writing will never be published. Some of our bravest rebel recommendations will never get us a promotion. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't persevere.  Let's stop aiming for the biggest platform to change the world or a bazillion Twitter followers and just do work that matters, however "small" it may seem.  Charles' Einstein's recent piece, "The Age of We Need Each Other" captures this thought brilliantly.

I hope you find some time this summer to reflect, have leisurely conversations with friends about ideas that matter, and keep on. You have more talents and innate wisdom than you probably realize.

First Followers

"Wow, that would be amazing for us to do. It could really change how we work together,"  concurred a group of managers at one of the biggest technology companies in the world last week.

"But it's just not how our culture works," someone said.

Then the grumbling about the culture began until, as the strategy facilitator, I cut the naysaying short and asked, "Why couldn't this group start working differently and then open the way for others to follow?  Change has to start somewhere. Why not you? You view yourselves as creative and innovative."

Someone has to start, having the guts to stand alone.

And someone has to be the first to follow, also an act of leadership.

Both are acts of positive Rebels at Work.

That's how culture changes and movements start.

Dare to start or be the first follower.

10 truths about skeptical employees

I was cleaning my office (!) and came across a speech that a former Bell South leader gave to MBA students at Dartmouth's Tuck School 18 years ago.  Theses truths seem as relevant as ever, and perhaps especially relevant for leaders of rebel employees.

  1. We're smarter than senior managers think we are.
  2. We think senior managers are smarter than they are.
  3. We hate it when you make us feel stupid.
  4. We have short attention spans.
  5. We have long memories.
  6. We're desperate for direction.
  7. We want to be able to think on our own.
  8. We want the company to succeed.
  9. We don't want to leave.
  10. We want to believe.


CEO Nancy Schlichting: find the disruptive people

"Find the disruptive people in your organization. They have the ideas that will drive change," said Nancy Schlichting, CEO of the Henry Ford Health System, a $4 billion healthcare organization with 23,000 employees. Speaking at the BIF8 innovation conference last week in Providence, RI, Nancy shared what has helped her transform an ailing health care system and create innovations in health care such as a new  $360 million health and wellness facility that feels more like a luxury hotel than a hospital.

Transforming healthcare is all about leadership, she said. Her leadership approach focuses on creating an "incredible" environment for every person to reach their full potential.  How she has created such an  environment:

  • Making a large organization feel small.  When the board approached her about being CEO of the health care system she was reluctant to take it because she likes being involved with people and creating working environments that are positive, personal and open-minded. The board assured her that being CEO of a health care would not preclude how she like to lead.
  • Saying yes to unusual ideas, like an employee who wanted to be able to creating fun drawings  on the disposable gowns worn by the kidney dialysis staff. "This woman creates this amazing designs on her own time on the weekends. On Monday mornings the staff can't wait to see what she has that week for them."
  • Helping people who are disruptors. These, she says, are the people with the ideas that can help you change and transform. One example she shared: a surgeon who wanted to put health kiosks in churches in the Detroit community.  Doing so has been a hugely successful way to help people learn about health and wellness.
  • Hiring people in with non-traditional backgrounds to help you see things in new and different ways. "This is essential," Nancy stressed. One example: she hired Gerard van Grinsven, a long time Ritz Carlton executive to be CEO of the new Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital, even though Bernard had no health care experience. His "otherness" has been a significant reason the new hospital has been so successful in its ambitious goals. (Here's a link to a video of Gerard sharing his story about going from high-end hotels to opening a hospital.
  • Bringing together different thinkers. Creative ideas happen at the intersections, said Nancy. Bringing different thinkers together across silos creates better ideas faster.

Hearing her talk I was reminding of the wonderful poem by Kaylin Haught, "God Says Yes To Me."  Imagine if CEOs said yes, yes, yes to more of their employees, especially the disruptive corporate rebels?

Not only would organizations be able to innovate and change more quickly, a wonderful sense of joy would permeate the workplace -- even in high-stress environments in struggling urban areas, like the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit.


Here's a video of Nancy's talk:

The Rebel Life: Random Observations and Learnings

Last week I attended the MIX Mashup in San Francisco. The MIX is devoted to reinventing management for the 21st century and many of the presentations revolved around being mavericks and rebels at work. The titles of the first three sessions capture the general mood.

  • The End of Hierarchy: Natural Leadership
  • The End of  Bureaucracy: When Everybody (and Nobody) is the Boss
  • The End of the "Employee"

Gary Hamel also set the tone when he declared in his introductory remarks that he feared we are not mad enough about how bad our organizations are and not aspirational enough to fix them.  His fiery energy was inspiring and I tweeted his comment at the time, but, upon reflection, I'm not sure anger is ever a productive rebel emotion. (Please feel free to argue the point.) Aspiration is, however.

My Favorite Presentation...

...was by Japanese businessman Tsukasa Makino, who spoke movingly of how his company, Tokio Marine and Nichido Fire Insurance, had humanized their business. You can find several of his blog posts on the MIX. I particularly liked his discussion of the LIGHT and DARK side of the FORCE at work.

That's the slide he uses, which you can see more clearly here. I think one of the dangers rebels risk is that, if they become angry, they begin to flirt with the DARK side of the Rebel Force. I think maybe it looks something like this:

More Good Thoughts


Don't do pilots! Experiment instead. I hadn't ever thought of that distinction and God knows I was involved in lots of pilots during my career. But one of the speakers noted that when a change-oriented management team introduces a pilot to the workforce, the implied message is that the team has figured out the right thing to do and now they're going to test it on the employees, aka the guinea pigs. And employees love to make pilots fail. Boy, did that ring true!! There wasn't a pilot I was involved in that the emails and message boards weren't full of just about everything that was wrong with the pilot. And by launching a pilot, aren't you inviting relentless comparison to the status quo? Bad as the status quo may be, it at least benefits from some internal logic and lots of muscle memory. Think instead of encouraging experiments. When you encourage your employees/managers to run experiments, your message is that you're not sure of the answer and you want them to help figure it out.

The power of budgets. There was a good discussion of how companies need to free themselves from the tyranny of budget cycles because they stifle innovation. All true but frankly, as a rebel, if you are able to change how your company budgets, you've pretty much won the entire war. (more on that later.) But Bjarte Bogsnes of Norway's Statoil did describe how his company abolished traditional budget cycles and even the calendar to boot!! When you're dealing with the BBB's (bureaucratic black belts), there's no doubt in my mind that the power of the budget is their most powerful weapon.

Mobilizing the introverts. There was a lovely discussion of how, if you have a knowledge organization and it's a really smart one, then you likely have a lot of introverts. And mobilizing introverts to get behind change efforts can be awkward. You can't count on them to speak up in meetings. And they may not even do a good job proselytizing their work colleagues. Other than engaging introverts one-on-one, not many solutions or good tactics were offered. (Something for us to noodle at RAW.) I think the whole topic of how rebels and rebel managers in organizations mobilize support is underdeveloped. Perhaps it's something we can tackle at our first ever Rebels at Work Conference, which will be held 18 October. You can find more information on that here.

If you're explaining, you're losing. This piece of advice is not from the conference, but comes from a retired senior government official who was sharing lessons from his mentors at a party I attended last night. I'm sure all the rebels who visit our website have been in the meeting where they, or someone else, are trying to explain exactly how their idea will work. Once you go there, you begin losing your momentum and you're stuck trying to explain how the sausage will be made. A sausage that no one has ever tasted. A sausage, in fact, that you've never even cooked before.

The Integrity of the Rebel

I said I would get back to the Statoil example of an organization that's rethought it's budget process and many other sacred ways of doing work. This got me to thinking about the integrity of the rebel. In your workplace, are you suggesting a new way of making widgets that you think is better than the current way of making widgets? Or are you actually offering a fundamental rethink of how the enterprise operates and makes decisions so that it becomes permanently more agile, permanently more contextual, and permanently more sensitive to its own values. Both of these are appropriate but they are quite different from each other.  At first blush I'm tempted to say that the more tactical change effort is easier than the more strategic one, but I'm not so sure. They can both be difficult, and I find it completely believable that in some cases people will resist tactical changes more than they will oppose conceptual ones. Again, another topic for noodling. But it reminds me of something I always worried about as a rebel at work. What if I'm wrong? I cannot escape the fact that my ideas are creations of my ego and that therefore I can never be objective about them. Difficult as it is, I think the rebel must learn to maintain some humility about their beliefs, even if they are mano-a-mano with a status quo that is cock-sure.

Finally, here is a link to a presentation by Pam Weiss of Appropriate Response, who, along with Todd Pierce of, shared their story at the MIX Mashup of how they brought meditation techniques to the workplace.  The introduction of a meditation practice actually correlated with significant increases in productivity and employee satisfaction. First check out Pam's presentation and then read the details of the practical application at the MIX. Perhaps we really can change organizations by teaching people how to breathe.


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.

Mobilizing supporters by being disruptive

Last week I flipped through the University of New Hampshire alumni magazine when it came in the mail, scanning my class notes to see who died, re-married, got an interesting new job. Another page caught my eye. "Being Disruptive -- in a Good Way" by UNH president Mark Huddleston. Mark explained that he had heard Salman Khan, founder of the Khan Academy, speak at "The Future of Public Universities" conference -- and that speech "wowed" him, and inspired him to begin creating a  disruptive new educational model for UNH. A model that would help more students learn -- for less.

What if we allowed online instruction to provide, where appropriate, the foundational knowledge, and directed students' time on campus toward learning activities that maximize the benefits of these mentor relationships?

As online instruction improves, might we not devote more class time to teaching methods that take real advantage of students' time together, such as team projects, discussions and critiques?

The article went on to talk about UNH's new eUNH initiative to identify ways to use online learning to improve teaching and help students progress faster.

Aside from being intrigued with disruptive models, here's what I liked about Mark's article. It mobilized me to want to write a check to support the university.

Few of us want to work for -- or financially support --  organizations that are plodding along, doing the same things well. We want to be inspired by leaders and organizations that create new ways to support visions we care about.  And who have the courage, leadership skills and discipline to move forward despite often formidable opposition.

(Sadly, last April the New Hampshire chapter of the union American Association of University Professors gave a 129 to 72 "no confidence" vote in his leadership.  The change involved in disruptive innovation inevitably threatens some who would like things to continue as they have been.)

  • If you want to mobilize supporters, do more than more of the same.
  • When a leader has the courage to create disruptive models, step up and support him or her. It's lonely being a game changer.

Now to write that check...