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Managing mavericks – nurturing the magic while avoiding fallout

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How do you manage big egos and personalities in your organisation? Former head of development at Manchester City FC, Peter Lowe, gives his five winning tips.

Identifying the maverick

Team environments are a melting pot of personalities. Invariably, individuals with a strong desire to win, coupled with huge confidence levels, come to the fore.

Often described as talents with “big egos” (Bill Walsh, 2009), these character types may be identified as mavericks with a streak of genius, or they might also be characterised by a sense of ‘flawed genius’ – capable of pressing self-destruct and acting as a catalyst for fallout in the group. The direction they take is influenced by the strength of leadership.

What makes the maverick tick?

Managing “big egos” or genius talent (Mourinho, 2013) is challenging. It requires tenacity, empathy and the ability to see the wider perspective. It’s important to ask the question: Is this ego really just a selfish one or does it strive for its own challenge? What makes this person tick?

In a football changing room it is critical for the coach to know his players; who they really are and what you can ask of them. Understanding your team members is vital and in itself a demanding leadership task. An ego is a very powerful force, capable of remarkable influence and energy. If not managed appropriately, self-interest can become all-consuming and undermine the collective strength of a team.

Are you really sure you know who this person is, his abilities, his self-confidence and self-assurance? Does he give the picture of one who pushes management to extremes of patience by regularly questioning? Or are his actions, comments and ideas so thought provoking that they may actually be what others want to hear. Creating the culture for talent to prosper is one of the greatest challenges for a leader.

Mapping out intentions

At this point it is valuable to clarify your intentions when managing this type of talent:

1. It’s important for the maverick to understand his place in the wider context of the team. This requires the ability to influence mindsets, so there is a collective awareness of the team dynamic and that complementary characters work together to pull in the same direction. The team always comes first.

2. As a leader your actions must place responsibility and choice in the hands of the maverick. It is a careful balancing act to empower the individual and allow development as a team member, without giving a disproportionate share of energy to one person. Mavericks need recognition and fulfilment but not at the expense of others. The pivotal point is that the maverick must take responsibility of his role as an influencer and his potential to inspire others. This is where the magic happens.

3. Emphasising the team provides clarity for him and should not threaten him. Leadership has to continually work on evolving the culture in order that it is accepting of differing talents. Setting appropriate expectations is important so that talent can perform to its best. One of the main considerations of the coach is to ensure that the environment is a platform for development and not an obstacle. Keeping all team members happy is a real challenge but it pays great dividends if continually worked on.

4. A former colleague and friend at Manchester City Academy, Jim Cassell, made a point of balancing his team, ensuring differing styles of character and personality came together. The creation of a line of success depended on the ability of staff and players to work cohesively as a single unit. “Where all thought alike, nothing changed” was a strong belief, which empowered individuals, regardless of hierarchy. As long as these actions balanced both team and individual development the environment would benefit.

Nurturing the magic – ensuring integration

Five key steps for managing mavericks:

1. Embrace this talent and develop appropriate expectations that are realistic and help create a stage for them to challenge their own effectiveness. Both the team and individual will benefit from this mindset.

2. Let him see that you have a genuine interest in him - his ambitions, frustrations, self-doubts, and that you want to be of help.

3. Encourage integration into the team and work hard to create an understanding that giving back is as important as taking. He may have a different talent to others but it is equally reliant on others to shine.

4. You have a challenge to maintain his individuality because this can serve as an inspiration for the team to evolve to new strengths. He may need a stage to keep this individuality, which in turn will promote personal growth.

5. Mavericks need to know you will support and defend them, but no more so than other team members.

Mavericks throw up an array of leadership challenges, but if you learn to nurture the magic, this talent can take a team to unprecedented levels of success.

Peter Lowe

By Peter Lowe

Peter is the former head of development at Manchester City FC, and is the founder of First Team Ltd.

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