Being a communications consultant working with C-level executives has given me a courtside seat to view talent development from a different perspective. Both in running a boutique firm and while working as a managing director at a publicly-traded conglomerate, I’ve hired many hundreds of people and made my share of bad picks. One of my biggest challenges has been recruiting and retaining unconventional talent.
These are the hires that some would call non-traditional: mavericks, disruptors and change agents. They are less compliant and more free-spirited than typical colleagues and offer employers great opportunities alongside certain risks.
The job market has been upended by COVID-19, and there is suddenly a surge in qualified applicants. I urge employers to not take the easy path of choosing the most obvious candidates and easy fits. The onus is on senior hiring managers to look even more closely at how to attract and engage the high-octane employee who might take your organization to new heights.
Early in my career, during another difficult economic time, I saw how a big organization bent the rules for just such a non-conventional executive. It was 1992 on Park Avenue South at the then-largest PR firm in the world, Burson-Marsteller.
His name is Michael Claes and he became one of my mentors. Claes stood out for several reasons. Even though he continued to dress in conservative white shirts, only blue or red ties, and suits (even after business casual became routine), he refused to manage people the accepted way. He needed to be constantly reminded to fill in his timesheets and his office looked like the aftermath of a tornado. Yet he was constantly in demand by the top clientele.
Possessor of iconoclastic and creative perspectives, he took pride against going against the grain. He described himself as a “hunter” surrounded by “farmers.” He’d bring in the big kill: a new piece of business to the village. The groups would divide, manage and service the bounty.
Rather than declare these types as not “team players” or not a “cultural fit,” I saw how an organization accommodated diversity of thought and behavior (which despite eccentricities always remained ethical). The tent was big enough for a complementary cast of characters.
You don’t have to be a wildly extraordinary character like Claes to tap the part of yourself that’s “primitive”—a term I use in a positive sense to mean what’s genuine and instinctive.
I like to say that unlike their more “civilized” colleagues, primitives are always roaming, like our ancestors tens of thousands of years ago. Think of the coders or copywriters who march to their own drum. They can be a handful, but they’re often worth it. And they generally share some, most or all of these qualities:
Relentless: This does not just mean being persistent and working hard. It means knowing when to pivot, be flexible and nimble rather than driving straight into a brick wall. These types are hell-bent on the big prize and embrace the risk.
Oppositional: Many equate this with defiance, but it can actually be the key to success. One of the greatest entrepreneurs that I ever worked with, Danny Lewin, had it in spades: he is the co-founder of the Internet giant Akamai Technologies, a company that would never have developed as it did had Lewin not had the oppositional spirit to buck trends and often butt heads.
Agnostic: Many of us have experienced the tradeoff between hiring for expertise and experience in mind versus going for the candidate with raw talent. Primitives retain childlike curiosity about new fields and can succeed in many careers without attachment to any one of them. It’s unwise to penalize them for what can be an advantage.
Messianic: Many people seek purpose in their work but to primitives, it is a mission and a calling. Give them the opportunity to wave a magic wand that expands the scope and importance of what they do, like when hospital janitors see themselves also as healthcare workers taking special care to notice the needs of patients.
Insecure: COVID-19 has shaken our sense of security. While it’s a difficult pill to swallow, it’s also a reminder that sometimes a bit of anxiety can be useful. We all want to put on a confident face, but demonstrating some vulnerability, humility and even worry can have its place.
Nuts: Have you ever noticed that some of the most paradigm-shifting executives have been … a bit nuts? I mean crazy in the good kind of way, offbeat—like the art director who throws out the PowerPoint presentation and writes his entire presentation on both sides of his white T-shirt and wins the business.
Gallant: Looking out for the other is not just the job of the folks in social responsibility—it’s everyone’s responsibility. Being noble and focusing on the needs of the other is needed now more than ever before.
Think about mavericks like Elon Musk and Steve Jobs, like Oprah Winfrey and Arianna Huffington. How many would have been shown the door by HR? Let’s not make that mistake. Let’s find a way to harness the amazing energy and talent of such characters for the benefit of our organizations. It may be more necessary now than ever.
The post-COVID-19 world, shaken to its foundations, may truly be the era of the primitives.