Valuable tips for managing IT 'mavericks'

On an IT team, mavericks have a tendency to step on toes and ignite internal political fires. Learn how best to manage these tech types so that you get the most out of their expertise while keeping your IT department running smoothly.

Most IT departments have at least one on staff—an IT pro who has enormous technical prowess or an amazing visionary streak. The trouble is that these types can have huge egos, which makes managing them a tricky task. But proper management can help maximize the talent and potential of such tech mavericks.

If nurtured and managed skillfully, mavericks can help make your entire IT organization shine. But as one self-described maverick related, many IT leaders don't take the effort to get to know and understand staff mavericks before jumping in to forcefully manage them. That's why you must be diligent and take the proper steps to tame them.

Typical maverick behavior
As any leadership or management guru will advise, good leaders spend time getting to know their staff and direct reports to fine-tune a strong management approach. But, according to Tom B., an IT consultant who said he was a tech maverick for several Fortune 500 firms, when it comes to maverick types, many CIOs and VPs are quick to dismiss them, because they may have gotten the wrong impression.

"I don't necessarily like the word [maverick], because people…have a perception of mavericks being slackers, counter-culture types," said Tom B. He described his maverick behaviors as disliking and distrusting management at all levels, not getting along well with peers, not wearing a suit and tie or company badge (though mandatory), and keeping his own hours.

His self-description is right on target, according to Joan Lloyd, founder of Joan Lloyd & Associates, a Milwaukee, WI-based management consulting and training firm. She says the label "maverick"—which brings to mind images of Old West gunslingers like Billy the Kid—is the perfect characterization.

"Maverick is a great way to describe these types of tech workers," said Lloyd. "Sometimes they shoot from the hip, and when they ride into town, they often want to be the law, and they bristle under authority."

Lloyd said that you tend to get a lot of these mavericks in IT and they tend to stand out, especially in areas where politics play a big part. "They’re usually technically very smart, but they don't like to fit the corporate mold."

An organization will often tolerate mavericks as long as they're performing and offering a special talent, she explained. "Sometimes during a recession, they'll get squeezed out because they ruffle too many feathers. But companies should be more flexible and make a few adjustments for them, because they can offer a company great ideas and contributions."

Tom B. said he brought several such contributions to his former employers. At one leading insurance company, he devised a program that connected the firm's myriad disparate VPNs, EDIs, and IP systems, including ones at the company's overseas branches—bringing hundreds of employees together on one system.

"That alone saved management hundreds of thousands of dollars," recalled Tom B, "and I knew it did. But in building it out and making it happen, I probably stepped on a lot of toes with my peers and irked my bosses with my hubris about it." So when the corporation hit a rocky financial streak 18 months ago and executives were looking to make cuts, Tom B. got the axe. While the CIO and corporate leaders thought it was a good way to get rid of an "issue," they may have hurt the company's business strategies as well.

Steps in managing mavericks
Sure enough, Tom B.'s company is paying a high price for the decision. "The funny part about it," chuckled Tom B., "is that now I'm consulting for the company that laid me off, patching and tweaking the very network I created, this time for double the money they were paying me as a staffer. Nobody else could figure out how to do it."

So instead of looking for the first opportunity to push a maverick out the door, you need to initiate a special management plan that includes several specific steps, explained Lloyd.
  1. Set very high, but very clear expectations. "Mavericks love a challenge," said Lloyd. "They will not stick around if they're not stimulated. They are cynical about organizations as it is, so a culture of lackluster performance will drive them out."
  2. Get out of their way, but give them parameters to work within. "Give them room to breathe; if you micromanage, you'll strangle the goose." Lloyd relayed how she recently worked with a maverick who was giving his manager headaches because he was incessantly wearing earphones listening to music. "But when I went back to the maverick, he told me 'I'm working on code all day long, and if I don’t put earphones on, I get distracted. It's actually the only way I can concentrate.'"
  3. Be clear in your coaching and your feedback. Tell them how their behavior is hurting their end result, and tell them how others' perceptions of them, right or wrong, are still barriers they have to overcome to truly maximize their talents.
  4. Let the person "wing up." Like jets in formation or geese in flight, they need to tuck under the CIO wing. You must provide the leadership and direction and stay up front. This way you can also provide the protection for them from the full force of organizational politics.
  5. Pick your battles. "Does it really matter that he has an earring?" asked Lloyd. "Does it matter that she likes to come in late and stay late into the evening, if the output is fantastic? Keep tension on the reins—not too loose, not too tight."

Justify the maverick's role
CIOs who understand mavericks and want them to survive any forthcoming layoffs, demotions, or outsourcing, must also protect them within the organization's political infrastructure.

"This is something mavericks should be smart about too," said Lloyd. "If they can't prove their keep, why should any organization put up with their baloney—it's so much easier managing people who want to fit in."

According to Lloyd, you need to quantify the maverick's cost-effectiveness in the forms of ROI, cost savings to the firm, ability to streamline processes—and have the hard numbers handy when the powers-that-be come looking to make cuts.

Still, no matter how well you handle a maverick, there will likely be an uphill battle when it comes to relations among the staff. As TechRepublic members relate in a site discussion, working alongside an IT maverick typically isn't fun.

"The company sets the rules, and if a maverick can't live with them, say goodbye, or lock them down to where damage can't be done,” said member Mike Howard, who also added, "We all spend way too much time and effort learning how to keep things working to let some loose cannon cause more work with an independent attitude. If his ideas are all that great, let him go start his own company."

Timgray agreed in his response: "Too many IT people are prima donnas with a need to inflict their power on others. This is wrong; stop it!"

Much of the behaviorial and social problems can be tied to the fact that many mavericks lack a formal corporate background because they've moved up the ladder so fast in their careers, explained Lloyd.

"They've been plucked for their skills and expertise, and all the other [negative] personality traits were overlooked," she explained. And rightly so, she added. "I maintain that mavericks can be the unheralded saviors of an organization."

And the maverick, Tom B., agrees wholeheartedly.

"I do see this as sort of an 'Old West' scenario. It's my talent, my skill that makes things happen, and management knows it. So they'll just have to get used to living with mavericks like me—the good, the bad, and the ugly."

If a CIO can aptly manage the bad and the ugly aspects, clearly the good will benefit everyone from the maverick to the company.

Editor's Picks

Free Newsletters, In your Inbox