Pioneers in Hell: How to Stop Killing Their Potential

*This first post in a four-part series is about a Pioneer (one of four Business Chemistry types), how the wrong work environment kills his potential, and what could be done about it. Stay tuned for posts two, three and four, about a Guardian, a Driver, and an Integrator, respectively (which I’ll tag #BCstories).

Last year, a Pioneer–let’s call him Jack—was being lauded by his company for boldly departing from convention and leading his business unit to new heights of innovation. Shortly thereafter, Jack got a new boss. Before their first in-person meeting, his boss asked him to put together a plan for the upcoming year. And populate a detailed template. In a spreadsheet. With multiple pivot tables and complex macros. 

Jack, a consummate Pioneer, put off completing it as long as he could; he didn’t have a particular aversion to numbers, but he felt they missed the bigger point of his ideas. Not to mention how his eyes would cross and his mind would wander every time he looked at row upon row of inputs and outputs and compounding variables. If he could have used a tool to visualize the data that would have helped. He finally got it done just in time for the meeting, but the process sucked the life out of him. 

On the day of the meeting, Jack entered his boss’s office relieved to have the whole spreadsheet ordeal behind him and ready to brainstorm possibilities for the year. But he barely began to wax enthusiastically when his boss shut him down with the words, “Let’s just walk through the template, shall we?” And they did. Line by line. Cell. By. Cell. And at every stop his boss would question the numbers, the assumptions, the formatting. Every time Jack would ask her to “imagine this” or “picture that” she would simply sit there with a grim expression, whereas she positively lit up when she found a rounding error!

That meeting was just the start of a series of agonizing “interrogations,” as Jack called them, where the intent seemed to be to have him confess to the crime of impracticality with intent to harm. Jack had always thrived under laissez-faire leaders who liked him precisely because he was a bold thinker who didn’t let today’s reality get in the way of tomorrow’s opportunities. He kept trying to bring up some of his ideas in different ways. Maybe if she could just visualize it she would see the potential? Or maybe if he came up with more novel options for her to consider she would become interested? But the bigger and bolder he got, the more his boss tightened in on the questioning. His new boss’s scrutiny impacted him like kryptonite. He felt like he couldn’t flex his creative muscles, while at the same time he was being tortured with a forced march through granular details.

After a few months, came the final straw. HR implemented MEMO #104: REGARDING THE MATTER OF WORKING ARRANGEMENTS AND OFFICE UTILIZATION, requiring leadership, including Jack, to be present in their assigned offices during business hours. Up until that point, he’d had the freedom to more or less work where he wanted, when he wanted. His favorite spot was a bistro table outside the local coffee shop, but he also loved the main conference room with the giant whiteboard, and of course some of his best ideas often came to him during his afternoon run. His euphemistically named “office”, in contrast, was a cramped closet with white file cabinets (never used), white walls (poorly lit), and NO whiteboards. After pacing restlessly in his office cage for a week, Jack gave his notice.

Last we heard, he was trekking in the Himalayas, spending some of the signing bonus he got from joining a venture-backed start-up as their “chief disruptor in residence.”

Jack’s story is an excerpt from our book Business Chemistry: Practical Magic for Crafting Powerful Work Relationships (Wiley, 2018), in which my co-author, Kim Christfort and I have an in-depth, back-and-forth discussion about the strategies leaders and managers can use to create environments where Pioneers like Jack can lean into their strengths and thrive.

Among those strategies are the following:

  • Allow time for free-flowing discussion and idea generation
  • Brainstorm and whiteboard
  • Keep an open mind—even if you can’t say yes, try to avoid saying no
  • Provide options for where, when, and how to work
  • Position them to do what they love and explain how more mundane tasks enable them to do so

Stay tuned for the next post in this series. Subscribe so you don’t miss it!

Dr. Suz

This is an excerpt from our book Business Chemistry: Practical Magic for Crafting Powerful Work Relationships (Wiley, 2018).

Suzanne Vickberg, PhD (aka Dr. Suz) is the Deloitte Greenhouse Experience group’s very own social-personality psychologist, which means she studies how people’s thoughts, behaviors and preferences are influenced by both who they are and the situations they’re in. She uses Business Chemistry to help leaders and teams explore how the mix of perspectives brought by their individual members influences their work together. Connect with her on LinkedIn or follow her on Twitter @DrSuzBizChem

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