Managing Mavericks

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First Published on SPORTING EDGE

Every team has at least one and increasingly our careers as managers and coaches will be defined by how well we manage them.

The label ‘maverick’ was first coined in relation to the unbranded and independently minded cattle owned by Texan lawyer and cattle baron Samuel Augustus Maverick in the 1860s. His reluctance to bring these wandering animals into the herd became his legacy.

Fast forward 150 years and the modern world of celebrity, social media and personal brands seems to be fuelling the maverick mindset. Before the rise in overnight icons and the tendency to judge our status by number of twitter followers we derived much of our identity from the groups we belonged to.

The leadership climate is changing too. Where previously the leader’s command and control would have set the tone, in the modern workplace engagement is valued over compliance. 

With everyone becoming more accessible and connected, the lines in the hierarchy have blurred. This is positive news for the mavericks, who hate being told what to do and how to do it.

Social scientists call the generation born after 1990 Generation Y and they will make up an estimated 75% per cent of the workforce by 2025. Generation Y has a different mindset from those that went before them: they want a job for now, not a job for life. They also need to see a compelling purpose and be intellectually stimulated at work, rather than be stuck in a routine, no matter how safe.

It is estimated that those in this cohort in the workforce will have between six and nine jobs in their careers, meaning that they are with you for a good time, not a long time.

Understanding egos

Given this rise in self-aware and self-confident individuals, we could see a growing number of mavericks in our sporting and commercial organisations. It presents a challenge to our leaders – how do you manage people who resist branding with the team stamp?

While coaching at the Indian Premier League recently, I visited the McLeod Ganj Monastery, home to the Dalai Lama and exiled Tibetan monks and had the chance to meet one of the monks. I had so many questions. “Did ego exist in his spiritual mountain retreat?” I asked. “Yes,” he replied, “we have ego clashes here in the monastery, when people want to show their importance. But ego is emptiness and although we see big gestures and words, perhaps they are trying to cover their inner emptiness.”

My mind raced from the Himalayan foothills around every dressing room that I had played and coached in before settling back with the conversation. He was right; it is the people who are desperate to be understood that seem to make the most noise.

Many coaches will see a maverick as too hot to handle and expect each conversation with them to be potentially volatile. Their natural reaction, therefore, is to delay those situations.

This is counter-intuitive. Mavericks need to be understood and if you don’t give them sufficient informal air-time away from the group they will take centre stage at the most inopportune moments.

Mind games

Ego often gets a bad press; the label is synonymous with trouble. But, when the pressure is really on, it is often those players with bullet-proof confidence who keep their foot on the gas because they don’t wait to take their signals from their doubt-ridden peers. It is this single-minded drive that makes them so valuable to the team.

Mavericks differ from other people in not being driven by steady improvement. Their goal is to prove people wrong, so they are prepared to take higher risks to achieve great performance. The best way to manage them is to set them challenges that fit with the team tactics – things they ‘can’t’ achieve – then watch them prove you wrong.

The key is to ‘look’ frustrated that they did it and the cycle continues. Managing mavericks may feel like playing a game but just make sure you are calling the shots.

Keeping mavericks close is key and a central tactic is to consult with them early on about any new ideas. They hate surprises, so asking for their opinion is a good way to keep them engaged and saves them losing face in the team.

Leadership and conflict go hand in hand, because leaders find ways of testing people to deliver beyond their comfort zone. Mavericks exist in every team, but the true test of leadership comes when dealing with a number of them at one time.

The leader needs to have his or her finger on the pulse and stick to their convictions. Everyone in the team, including the wild ones, must feel that the team comes first.

The leader must identify whether an individual’s genius is adding more to the performance of the team than they are taking away. A good way to monitor the situation is to see what others in the team think; everyone will have an opinion on the trade-off between cost and reward.

Ultimately a leaders’ belief in what the organisation or team stands for and where they are going will give them the courage to make bold decisions.

Being ahead of the game when managing mavericks is key, because when they start to slide into destructive mode, they are often very difficult to pull back. If you have a maverick who refuses to be branded with the herd, get to know them early on or one day you will have to grab the bull by the horns.

10 Tips for dealing with Mavericks

1. Get to know a maverick in their environment - they may be more vulnerable than you think 
2. Keep them informed; mavericks hate to be the last one to find out
3. Give them responsibility; mavericks often carry influence so better that it’s a positive one
4. Pick your battles, there is a time and place (the time is early and the place is in private)
5. Be specific, concrete analysis and evidence moves from opinion to fact
6. Empathise. Use their name and relate things to their personal goals and aspirations
7. Straight-talking works. If they are clear of the boundaries and penalties there is no excuse
8. In conflict use ‘I’ not ‘you’ so, ‘I saw the incident with..’ rather than ‘why did you do…’
9. Illustrate how their behaviour can negatively impact on the team
10. Watch out for the tipping point when they take more from the team than they give

By Jeremy Snape, Founder and Director of Sporting Edge and former England International Cricketer

Follow Jeremy on Twitter - @thesportingedge 

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