10 examples of unconventional wisdom from 2018

20 December 2018 -

Work emailsThe world’s top leaders reject many mainstream management practices. Here are the leadership trends they have refused to follow

CMI Insights

In 2018 CMI Insights continued to share research and practical advice on productivity, diversity, working culture and professional development. Some of those lessons came from the unusual habits of well-known business leaders who reject conventional management ideas such as these:


Bill Brickson

The worst mistake a new manager can make is to assume everyone else is like them. Obsessing about fairness, says the psychologist and Workforce Science founder Bill Erickson, gets in the way of truly great management. Instead, he says, managers should focus on one powerful word: individualise.

Think about the different ways in which people like to be recognised, he says. Some people crave public recognition, trophies and applause; for others, that might be excruciating. People need to be recognised in a way that suits them. He recalls meeting the renowned coach John Wooden, who told him that “the worst form of discrimination is treating everyone the same”.

As Erickson says in a great interview on the LEADx platform: “My advice is to individualise. Talk to your people but, more importantly, listen to your people. Learn their hot buttons. Write them down. Take notes.”


Emmanuel Macron

French president Emmanuel Macron is the darling of modern centre-left politics, but he’s no fan of modern approaches to management.

In particular, the former investment banker has no time for flat management structures. Responding to criticism that his policies as president are dictated by a small coterie of advisers, Macron told the French literary journal La Nouvelle Revue Française: “I make absolutely no apology for the verticality of power. I am proud of the choices that are being made, and I hate the process that means you have to constantly explain the reasoning behind a decision.”

Macron’s rationale is that his change agenda is urgent and cannot be delayed by unnecessary bureaucracy. But, as history teaches us, French voters can easily turn away from leaders they perceive as arrogant and out of touch.


Pinky Lilani

As the pressures of work mount, it’s tempting to draw a firm line between professional and home life. Pinky Lilani is a successful entrepreneur who thinks differently. For many years, the founder of the Women of the Future programme has regularly invited colleagues and business partners into her home to share her family life and sample her wonderful home-made curries. “Over the years, I’ve seen how simple gestures like this are reciprocated; how doors leading to new opportunities are opened without ever needing to ask,” she says. This year, she’s taken her unusual approach to business a stage further by launching the initiative ‘Kindness & Leadership: 50 Leading Lights’, which will recognise the UK’s 50 kindest business leaders: see kindness.womenofthefuture.co.uk

Read more: 50 business leaders have just been given awards for kindness – here's why it's important


Sergio Marchionne

The world lost one of its great managers this year. Sergio Marchionne, who died in July, led the turnaround of the Italian automotive giant Fiat and then later, against all odds, completed a successful merger with Chrysler, the then bankrupt US carmaker.

Marchionne was famously simple, almost monastic, in his tastes – and particularly so when it came to dress. He once told reporters: “I prioritise in the morning. I made a decision to start wearing black sweaters and pants a long time ago, because otherwise I have to make a choice between spending three seconds deciding whether to wear a blue one or a black one, and I don’t want to spend the three seconds.

“It’s an allocation of time and resources. But it’s clear. I’m not confused. All my pants look the same; all my sweaters look the same. The shirts change; they’re all blue.

“But fundamentally my life is a lot easier. It takes me exactly a minute-and-a-half to get dressed in the morning.”


Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal

Organisations spend squillions on creating comfortable office environments. They might be better off sticking their people in darkened rooms.

In Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work, Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal recount their time at The Mind Gym, the Navy SEAL training facility.

SEALs have for many years been put into sensory deprivation tanks – suspended in water in silence and total darkness, without any reference points – to help study how their consciousness responds.

More recently, however, auditory and content dimensions have been introduced, and the effect has been extraordinary. The SEALs have become ‘superlearners’.

Wheal has explained: “By combining deprivation tanks with next-generation biofeedback, these guys have been able to reduce a six-month cycle time in learning a foreign language down to six weeks.”

The implications for how we receive, retain and learn new content are extraordinary.


Katia Beauchamp

There are no urgent internal emails at beauty subscription company Birchbox. Co-founder Katia Beauchamp instead asks employees to give deadlines for responses in every email. The rule applies even to simple questions. It’s all in the spirit of productivity, she explains: “It makes prioritisation so much faster.”


Ryan Holmes

Millennials change jobs twice as quickly as previous generations, according to LinkedIn data. So, to stave off boredom and retain talented employees, social media firm Hootsuite allows high-performing individuals to transition to new departments.

“Great employees are great employees… It’s not the particular skillset that sets them apart so much as their intrinsic attitude, focus and dedication. And all of these things can transfer readily from role to role,” says CEO Ryan Holmes.

Hootsuite employees spend one day a week for three months training with another team and, if they are successful and it is in line with business needs, the new role can become permanent.


Ricardo Semler

Brazilian company Semco famously empowers its staff to dictate their own salaries. Team members are given details of peers’ salaries and industry averages, as well as the performance of the company. The move is the brainchild of legendary CEO Ricardo Semler, who believes democracy makes employees happier and more productive.

A public payroll helps keep the numbers realistic. A 2016 report showed Semco’s managers were also paid modestly in comparison with those of other companies of a similar size. A smaller gap between the salaries of managers and their subordinates is said to alleviate tension across the hierarchy.


Marissa Mayer

Often billed as the hardest-working CEO in Silicon Valley, former Yahoo chief Marissa Mayer insists on the “value of hard work” – and that means unfashionably long hours with scheduled bathroom breaks.

In a 2016 interview, Mayer attributed her career success to 130-hour working weeks. While few managers would wish to emulate her punishing schedule, Mayer says you can maximise success “if you’re strategic about when you sleep, when you shower and how often you go to the bathroom”.


Richard Sheridan

As with many innovations, an alternative to the conventional job interview has emerged from the US tech industry. Michigan-based software development company Menlo Innovations invites 50 candidates at a time to take part in three simulated tasks. The tasks relate to the job that employees will be doing.

But most interesting is that the candidates are paired up and observed to judge whether they bring out the best in their partner. CEO Richard Sheridan insists these ‘kindergarten skills’ are crucial for Menlo’s collaborative culture.

Image: Shutterstock

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