Now Reading: Mavericks at Work by William C. Taylor & Polly Labarre

This book, touted as one of the best business books of 2006 by The Economist, is about challenging conventional wisdom in business to succeed, with a focus on several companies (and their leaders) who have done that successfully. I tend to be a big fan of the case study because I love a good story, so the read was a very entertaining one.

The book follows the tradition of several of the other business books out there that I’ve read that emphasize the benefit of involving customers in innovation, through user generated content, or in the discussion here, “outside innovation.” There are a few interesting companies out there whose purpose is to bring ideas in house and either partner for development or provide rewards to inventors.

I especially liked the focus on human resources, and the discussion of “stars” versus “systems” in human resources. It’s not an either or, the authors conclude, neither “successful mediocrity” nor the fight for the best talent is a recipe for success:

Organizations that are content to fill their ranks with unremarkable performers aren’t likely to achieve remarkable performance.

They argue that companies should invest in stars and systems. I like the term from IBM, “humbition,” which is a “…subtle blend of humility and ambition.”

One thing the book doesn’t lay out well is the mystery of the “how?” these mavericks become what they do, and I think that rolls up to the read-between-the-lines in several of these books regarding the role of charisma and whether leaders are born or made. I like the idea that you can’t make a star, but systems and stars need each other. Some people have it within them, and I think that’s what distinguishes the leaders in this book. I liked Jack and Suzy Welch’s description:

Good leaders manage and good managers lead. So where’s the dividing line? We’d wager it only comes into play when you don’t want to offend an employee who crosses t’s and dots i’s but couldn’t excite a busload of kids bound for Disney World. In such a case, what do you say? You got it. “You’re a good manager.”

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