Want to add value to your bottom-line quickly?…Hire a Heretic!








In Art Kleiner’s book titled: The Age of Heretics , Kleiner‘s definition of a heretic as: “a visionary who creates change in large-scale companies balancing contrary truths they can’t deny against their loyalty to their organizations.”He discusses how managers get stuck into a rut and need heretics to point out new points of view to get past the deadlock and move forward. Later he describes some as “rebels unwilling to kowtow to the corporate bureaucracy.”

One example of a heretic (and there are many in the book) is Jack Welch who gained a reputation as he climbed the ladder at GE as “ignoring or pushing back against, the bureaucratic strictures of his parent corporation.”

In Art Petty’s recent post this week titled : Help Wanted: Visionaries and Dreamer-Safe Return Doubtful Art refers to individuals who create great works of art on a blank canvas, they run towards adventure instead of away from it. Art goes on to say how we should channel our inner-Shackleton,(after the leader and explorer Ernest Shackleton ) and provides four lessons that apply to the adventurers called Heretics today. It reminded me that some people are cut out for adventure and some are not.

Having played the role of heretic in most of the companies I have served, let me tell you what to expect if you have the guts to hire one. A heretic is someone who will not take the easy road agreeing with key influencers throughout your organization. Obviously if what your key influencers are saying and or doing is in alignment with market needs they will, but if they hear something that is inconsistent with the vision of the organization or market needs they will tell you. Team members may feel this is a lack of loyalty. However to the contrary a heretic is singularly focused and loyal to one objective and that is adding bottom-line value to the team he serves, to aligning the organization to win profitably in their market. They will tell the CEO for example that his recent directive to the troops is not in alignment with market needs nor the core values and mission of the organization. He will remind the CEO that the mission statement is as much about what you will not do as much as what you will focus on.

A heretic does not know, or more importantly does not care, your VP of Marketing is your sister in law. He does not know or care that your VP of Sales was your fraternity brother at Ohio State, but he will tell you if that VP is not demonstrating the ability to lead his team in a direction aligned with market needs and your vision. A heretic will come into your organization and ask a lot of questions. Some of his questions will make you uncomfortable and definitely rock the foundations of some silos that have built throughout your organization. How will you as the leader of your organization know? You will recognize incoming torpedoes when you see them. If key influencers and leaders in your organization start using their relationship with you to shoot torpedoes at “the new guy” you know he’s asking uncomfortable questions.

The heretic will then want to spend a great deal of time in your market finding what he does not know. They may ride along with sales people, and often may engage with your customers on their own…LET THEM! Sales will balk, marketing will object, finance may say it’s too expensive, but let him dive into your market asking questions. What you will find if you shadow him ( and I strongly encourage CEO’s to do so) is he has an innate ability to make people feel comfortable and get customers talking. When you listen to him you will hear open ended questions, not questions to validate a current corporate understanding. He will seek to get to “why’s” much more that “what” and he really does not care about “who” . Who did that? Who said that?…He’s not out to find who did things wrong, but he seeks to gain an understanding of the market and its problems.

After spending time in your various departments, (and I should mention he will not just speak with leaders, but every level throughout the team) and spending time in your market with customers, non customers and market influencers… the fun begins.

The easy part is they will share with you what you are doing well, but not in his opinion, but the voice of the markets’. He will also share gaps, misalignments like poor positioning, branding, or a lack of sales tools to support the buying process he observed. He may hold your customer service or quality department’s feet to the fire over interruptions he found in speaking with your team and your market.

Heretics reshape organizations to be market focused and thus the organizations become market leaders. Market leading companies are over 30% more profitable, grow faster, have higher customer satisfaction and higher morale.Their radical thinking throughout history has reshaped corporate management ( and our society) as we know it today, and they will create the market leading organizations of tomorrow.

So how about your organization, how do you know if you need to hire a heretic?

1. Lack of EBITDA growth

2. Your leaders speak in terms like “I think” verse sharing authentic market feedback and data

3. No one on your team challenges you as the leader

4. Your team has many meetings but you do not discuss topics that matter

5. Your salespeople sell your product or service like it is a commodity

6. The last two product launches failed to meet ROI projections

7. Your salespeople are creating their own sales tools

8. Your leadership team spends more time covering their own butts that talking about growing your business

9. If you are on your third advertizing firm in 18 months

10. If you answered a question with something like; “because that’s the way do things here…” in the last three months

11. If your competitor just released something that seems to “be selling itself” instead of your team introducing it

12. If the distribution of marketing funds to various vehicles like; print, web, trade shows, direct, social media, has not changed in the last 12 months

13. If reading this post made you feel uncomfortable

What are some other signs that companies should intentionally hire a heretic?

How would a heretic be received in your organization?

As the CEO, what’s more important …increasing the economic value of the corporation, or being the one who has all the answers?

This Post Has 11 Comments
  1. Right on Mark!

    Balancing a management team is a fine art. You need strategists, executors and yes even heretics. I’m not so sure what your describing is as confrontational as it feels to the heretic, it’s just good balance of perspectives. The trick is in making sure that the heretic’s responsibilities are aligned to serve everyone vs. create tension by making the discipline you put the heretic in charge of (like sales) try to dominate the operation.

    The bottom line though is it becomes pretty easy to create a puzzle palace (corproate officers that think and work like they can arrange all the pieces of the outside world to suit them) without a heretic. It’s the perspective of the customer that matters.

  2. Well said and some rather apt lines of thinking in my honest opinion. There are a number of websites and blogs which state things which are in sync with your statements.

    I will certainly attempt to better understand the angel you are coming from by reading your first (and only?) citation of Age of Heretics by Art Kleiner

  3. Being a heretic in an suckup based culture never works out though and we rarely get recognized for the value we add.

    So recently I was put in an awkward position when my manager stormed out of a meeting after calling me argumentative. Since there was only my collegue, my manager and I received a glimpse into the psyche of immature leadership. Apparently, I was argumentative and disrepectful (her words) because I don’t agree with her 100% of the time. I have been in my field for over 12 years and keep up with the latest technologies, trends and techniques so I can continue to be marketable.

    I was simply asking for an opportunity to provide a different view of the situation and my view point obviously was incongruent to hers. This led to a “discussion” where I was severly berated for being disrespectful and “not understanding her position as a leader” or.. and I quote “giving the respect due to her as my boss, dictated by her position”.

    Prior to being berated, I also offered her an apology, stating that it was never my intent to come across in that manner and if that is how it is being perceived, I apologize for any discomfort I may have caused her.

    I later noticed something, every morning she buys the director she reports to a coffee, she never disagrees with the director or challenges any long held assumptions this director may have.

    I may not be the best employee in the world, but I am an analyst, they pay me to think, to come up with solutions, what happens when that ability is removed from job description without my consent and I am treated like a monkey.

    Bad suck up behaviour is rewarded, I’ve seen it time and time again. People who challenge the status quo and try to change the perception of current state are treated like garbage and move on.

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