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How to lead a conventional team when you’re an unconventional leader

By Sunny Bonnell
Posted on 02/11/23
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In her hometown of Nashville, 40-year-old Odessa Kelly is a walking act of provocation. Black. Queer. Six feet tall. Outspoken. She is running for Tennessee’s 7th Congressional District as a Democrat. If you wrote a computer program and told it to design a fiercely progressive leader for a diverse, liberal, urban part of the New South, Kelly is who it would spit out. How does someone so unconventional build a coalition of voters and lead, particularly in a deep red state? Not by being shy or blending in. Kelly, a former college basketball player, relishes her underdog status as someone ready to show up and fight for the underserved and marginalized. “Running up the hill might be hard,” she says in an interview. “You just prep to run up the hill harder.”

Young, unconventional-style leaders face the same challenge every day. You’re striding confidently along the leadership track in your organization. You’re building a reputation as a sharp, bold risk-taker and an original thinker, and while that’s a high-wire act, you’re doing pretty well. Your superiors are warming to your maverick tendencies because you get results. Then you’re put in charge of a team or department of people who are, for lack of a better word, udoesn’tiring. They don’t aspire to shake the pillars of heaven. On a movie set, they would be extras. They’re essential, but they’re not innovators. Now they’re yours to lead.

How do you lead them effectively? Just as important, how do you prevent their ordinariness from slowing or stopping progress? Hold up. Let’s take a second. What do we mean by “unconventional,” and how do you know when the team you’re leading is the opposite?

Our definition of someone unconventional has three components:

You possess superior skills or talent in essential disciplines.
Depending on your field, this could mean anything from design to coding to electrical engineering. Whatever, you’re in the top 10%.

You have outsized ambitions.
You’re not content with being an extra. You want to be a star. You aspire to the C-suite, to own your own company, etc.

You’re impatient with rules and the corporate hierarchy.
You’ve no interest in climbing the ladder one rung at a time. You’re more interested in testing the limits of norms, leapfrogging past less gifted peers, and solving problems nobody else will tackle.

Sound familiar? It would be to Stephanie Lampkin, chief executive and co-founder of Blendoor, one of Fortune’s “40 Under 40,” and a graduate of MIT and Stanford. In her TEDx talk, “The Lottery of Birth,” she confronts the fact that the deck was severely stacked against her from day one. “I’m Black, I’m female, I’m gay, I’m 4’11”, I literally pulled the short straw,” she says. Weary of the inherent bias that was costing her the tech jobs she coveted, she built Blendoor, a recruiting app that hides candidates’ names, photos, and ages to prevent employers from succumbing to unconscious bias in hiring. That’s unconventional.

By the way, if it sounds like we’re dissing workers with conventional mentalities and average skillsets, we’re not. Such people, by definition, make up the majority of the workforce; without them, everything from commerce to medicine to art would shudder to a stop. But our bread and butter are the Rare Breeds, the outliers, and misfits who often have trouble knowing where they stand partly because they scorn the conventional approach. Senior executives might claim to be seeking such innovators and rebellious thinkers, but are they?

More often, it seems like the path of advancement is designed for employees willing to fall in line. If you have a keen mind, are fond of asking hard questions, and expect serious answers—in other words, if you’re the kind of person the folks in the C-suite are supposed to be eager to find—you might find yourself sitting across from a CEO who shrugs and admits, “We don’t know what to do with you.”

In that case, there’s a good chance you’ll find yourself assigned to a team or task force that’s treading water in the hopes you’ll either perform a miracle or run for the border. But there’s a third way: lead them effectively despite your differences. Here’s how.

Own who you are.
Odessa Kelly knows that in politics, there’s zero advantage in trying to be someone you’re not or concealing who you are (Google “Dr. Oz crudité” if you want proof). Well, the same is true in business. You’re smarter and more outspoken than most, and you’re not mainstream. Own that. Most people want their leaders to be the smartest ones in the room because that means they have a plan. Don’t flaunt or provoke, but show up with the look, attitude, and intention that makes you unique and ask, “Any questions?”

Be the rising tide.
That “being the smartest one in the room” thing is true, but it’s also conditional. The condition is, you can’t behave as though you’re occupying a different tier of reality from your team. Do that, and it’s game over. You can be the Morpheus of your team as long as your words and actions make it clear that everything you have is going toward making the group a success. Your people should see that you’re spending your time, energy, and ideas for their best interest, not just yours. Conventional or not, your people all have individual goals, and if you help them reach them, they’ll walk through fire for you.

Mine for diamonds
Do you know those leaders who refuse to let everyone know about their subordinates’ talents out of fear of having to share the spotlight? That’s not leadership. They let ego stop them from leveraging hidden skills and knowledge that could make them more productive or innovative. Don’t make that mistake. Workers who seem unremarkable sometimes have abilities that can take a project from good to great, or take a team from “Meh” to “The go-to.” Mine those diamonds. Get to know your people, backgrounds, interests, and what they’re good at.

Communicate the vision.
You could have 30 IQ points and a metric ton of chutzpah over most of the people on your team, and you could still elevate their performance and energy level by making them part of a vision bigger than themselves. Meaning is one of the essential pieces of employee engagement, and meaning comes from knowing you’re not just punching a clock. You’re working toward something important, something with impact. Maybe your goal is to reinvent your category with innovation, challenge your organization to be more diverse and inclusive, or shatter a company record. Great. Let your team in on the secret, talk about how you’ll do it, and, just as importantly, talk about why you’re doing it.

Set “Achievable +10” goals.
People evolve. Just because someone’s conventional today doesn’t mean they have to remain conventional. Give your people opportunities to stretch and self-discover by setting “achievable +10” goals—goals that are just a little bit outside of each individual employee’s established capacity. Challenge their speed, precision, comfort speaking before others, and so on. Give them a chance to excel without fear of failure, and even reward bold risks that fail. You might not inherit a team of Rare Breeds, but you can grow some of your own.

It’s important to note that the window to attack convention within companies might be closing, and if so the time to challenge convention is now. With the rise of remote work and the Great Resignation, the rules of work and the workplace inverted for a while, and anything became possible. But today things might be changing, with big companies like Goldman Sachs demanding that their people come back to the office full-time. The old corporate power structure appears to be rebounding, and its tolerance for rebellion and creative destruction might come with it. Build a culture of innovation now.

Sunny Bonnell profile picture
By Sunny Bonnell
Founder & CEO Motto®