Book Review February 2007
Reviewed by Janelle Gordon
Imagine the president of a fashion retailer firing one of his best salespersons—a woman who on average sold $6,000 worth of merchandise every three hours. That’s precisely what Glen Senk, president of Anthropologie, did after observing the woman sell clothes that did not complement her customers. For Senk, his customers are his friends and Anthropologie’s goal is to help their “friends” look great, not make a quick sale.
This nonconformist way of thinking is a clear departure from the typical retail experience, where the sale is the driving force. Leaders who frown upon business as usual and welcome innovation are who readers will meet in the profiles featured in Mavericks at Work: Why the Most Original Minds in Business Win. In Mavericks at Work, authors William Taylor and Polly LaBarre argue that when it comes to thriving in a hypercompetitive marketplace, “playing it safe” is no longer playing it smart; the only way to stand out from the crowd is to stand for a truly distinctive set of ideas about where your industry should be going. Taylor, founding editor of Fast Company, and LaBarre, a former Fast Company writer, employ a journalistic style to tell the stories of 32 forward-looking companies in a variety of industries, including finance, construction and television. They divide the stories into four parts: Rethinking Competition, Reinventing Innovation, Reconnecting with Customers and Redesigning Work. Each ends with “maverick messages,” sections that condense the ideas presented in the previous chapters into “a set of action-oriented takeaways.”
Who are some of these mavericks at work? In Rethinking the Competition, Arkadi Kuhlmann, president and CEO of internet bank ING Direct USA, stands out. Kuhlmann and the other mavericks profiled not only lead a company, but also a cause. Each has a sense of business purpose that sets them apart from their rivals. ING Direct USA creates simple financial products that make it easy and financially rewarding for its customers to save money. To that end, ING Direct does not issue credit cards, market car loans or provide checking accounts. High-maintenance customers who break bank rules are “fired” and their accounts closed. Rule infractions include calling customer service too many times and conducting large transfers for short periods of time to skim off some interest. The “firings” keep costs low and savings are passed on to the little guy or girl that believes in the bank’s simplicity.
Leaders who embrace the idea that “nobody is as smart as everybody” populate part two, Reinventing Innovation. For example, Rob McEwen, chairman and CEO of Canadian-based gold-mining company Goldcorp Inc., initiated the open source “Goldcorp Challenge” to improve his company’s drilling prospects. Goldcorp posted its mining data online for scientists to download, analyze and later submit drilling plans in a competition. The winners received money and industry recognition, while Goldcorp collected several new drilling targets.
In the current age of overload, building a bond with customers is vital. In Reconnecting with Customers, Taylor and LaBarre present lessons from innovators who find ways to make enduring connections with their customers. Commerce Bancorp executives adopted a “we’re-not-a-bank” method of interacting with their customers. Commerce branches are “stores.” Services include extended operating hours (up to 80 hours per week), one-day ATM and debit card replacement and one-day check clearing. The aim is to “create emotional attachment” with customers.
In part four, Redesigning Work, the focus is on the workforce—how to attract and keep the most talented and action-oriented individuals in an organization. Maverick Jane Harper, director of University Relations and Innovation Programs at IBM, founded Extreme Blue for summer interns. The interns work on a technical project with the IBM goal to “start something big.” For Harper, the goal is to make IBM appear on the cutting edge and a more compelling place to work for the younger generation.
Mavericks at Work will appeal to those with an entrepreneurial spirit in large, small, profit and nonprofit organizations. The young executive ready to make a mark or a seasoned professional looking for fresh ideas on how to retain or gain a competitive edge will enjoy this read. The book ends with an Appendix, intended “to help you out-think, out-innovate, out-sell, and out-work the competition.” Resources include books, monographs, websites and case studies that relate to the four parts of the book. The learning extends online at www.mavericksatwork.com, where innovators share success stories.
This is not the book for those looking for a step-by-step business plan. It is a collection of innovative ideas intended to inspire the 21st-century business leader.