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Management In the workplace, don’t be afraid to let loose your inner maverick

Alan Weiss is a contrarian. It has helped him be successful and he believes that standing apart from the herd will do wonders for you and your business.

A crucial moment for him came in the mid-1980s when he was president of a consulting firm owned by W. Clement Stone, who believed a positive mental attitude was responsible for his $450-million in wealth. Mr. Weiss argued his boss had it reversed: The positive mental attitude came because he had $450-million in the bank. Give that sum to others, and they would also have a fabulous mental attitude.

Mr. Stone's response was to fire Mr. Weiss. That incident – and his ability to bounce back from it – has only deepened his contrarian spirit. He now advises solo consultants and small boutique firms and also has published a series of books aimed at them that began with Million Dollar Consulting – telling them they should be bringing in seven figures – and including his most recent, Million Dollar Maverick.

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He accepts that being a maverick has downsides. Once you reject the herd, the herd will reject you, so you'd better be good out there alone. But he believes it's crucial in business to gain respect, not affection, and if you want respect, you shouldn't mind being knocked around a bit.

In his recent book, he presents a matrix based on respect and affiliation.

If you gain high respect and high affiliation from clients, you're in the ideal quadrant: trusted adviser. But he finds many consultants just want high affiliation – clients liking them. High affiliation without respect just makes you a buddy, and if both respect and affiliation are low, a vendor.

Go for high respect instead. Even if you have high respect with low affiliation, you'll be viewed as an expert, which can be fine.

Being a maverick requires being able to live with failure. He names a litany of successful people who all failed before achieving success. So we should lose the fear of failure in our contrarian efforts.

It helps to understand risk and reward better. He says rewards can be viewed on a scale from plus one, barely noticed improvements, to plus five, life-altering gains. Similarly the risks in chasing those rewards can be evaluated from minus one, a minor inconvenience, to minus five, a life- or health-threatening loss. It's not worth seeking a plus-two reward for a minus-four or minus-five risk. But if you can achieve a plus-four reward at a minus-one risk, it should be appealing. Beyond that, he stresses you can mitigate the risk by lessening the possibility of a negative event occurring or reducing the seriousness of that event's impact.

"That's easy to do but hard to think about. So many people ignore the possibility of mitigating the risk. They ignore the preventative side," he said in the interview.

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"Eighty per cent of mergers fail. Ninety per cent of cost-cutting efforts fail. That's because people think of benefits, not the risks."

He is particularly contrarian toward downsizing. He argues if you fire somebody, you lose an additional three others – one who is feeling guilty at being a survivor, one who worries about being next and hides, and one who leaves for a better workplace. Fire 1,000 people and you are effectively firing 4,000. A risky move.

That's an example of the critical thinking he preaches. Too often, when a problem occurs we instinctively default to looking for somebody to blame. Instead, he urges you to find the cause, and deal with it. Sometimes it is human error. But usually it's a process or system that needs to be changed. "One of the sad things in the American election is everyone is blaming other groups rather than looking at the cause of the problem," he said.

He also urges you to stop looking at your employees to figure out the difference between your best and weakest performers. That's a useless distinction but too often one organizations obsess on. Instead, determine the difference between your best performers and next-best performers – and bring that latter group up to the level of the top folks. Then look at the difference between them and the next level, and do the same.

Again, that's unconventional thinking. But he's a contrarian – a million-dollar maverick. "You can improve your life if you are willing to step away from the herd and not be afraid to be a maverick," he concludes.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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