They Do It Their Way


Why the Most Original

Minds in Business Win

By William C. Taylor and Polly LaBarre

Morrow -- 316 pp -- $26.95

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Editor's Review

Three Stars
Star Rating

The Good Offers compelling evidence that maverick practices can lead to business growth.

The Bad Lacks a cohesive, big new idea beyond the value of originality.

The Bottom Line In a world of risk-aversion and conformity, it may inspire readers.

Arkadi Kuhlmann, the founder and CEO of online bank ING Direct USA, isn't your typical bank CEO. He refuses to offer credit cards to his customers. And every year, he "fires" more than 3,500 high-maintenance account holders who do such things as make too many calls to customer service. That helps keep costs low and lets him pass savings on to those who get his company's just-the-basics philosophy.

But banking's "bad guy," as Kuhlmann has called himself, is really one of the good ones--an innovative, unconventional leader who runs his business by his values and turns tradition on its head. At least so say William C. Taylor and Polly LaBarre in Mavericks at Work: Why the Most Original Minds in Business Win, a book that profiles Kuhlmann and other nonconformist business leaders. Mavericks offers compelling evidence that differentiation--"strategy as originality," in the words of Taylor and LaBarre--is crucial to the distinctive customer experiences and breakthrough practices that lead to growth.

The volume has dozens of case studies of leaders who eschew tradition and adopt creative tactics. That shouldn't come as a surprise, since the authors are both former editors of a magazine that focuses on such folks, Fast Company. (Full disclosure: This reviewer also once worked there, after Taylor and LaBarre had departed.) With a few exceptions--what business book would be complete without a Southwest Airlines (LUV ) anecdote?--they describe organizations that will be fresh to readers of other books on management, including HBO (TWX ), Jones Soda (JSDA ), and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

For example, consider retail chain Anthropologie, a unit of Urban Outfitters (URBN ) that appeals to niche customers' sense of identity with uniquely designed stores, upscale bohemian-chic clothing, and one-of-a-kind items. Many of Anthropologie's wares are the product of global treks by the brand's "de-facto chief product anthropologist," Keith Johnson. After five years of service, senior employees in the field, such as district managers, can go along on Johnson's four-to-eight-week continent-hopping buying trips.

Wieden + Kennedy, the advertising agency behind the famous "Just Do It" Nike (NKE ) ads, founded an in-house school to bring fresh voices to the agency. Although aspiring creatives pay tuition, they work on real campaigns. Moreover, in 2000, W+K built a new headquarters and invited the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, four nonprofits, a city lecture series, and an artist-in-residence program to set up shop within its doors. The goal was the same: to spark inspiration.

Taylor and LaBarre also write approvingly of Pixar (DIS ), which, unlike most studios, favors using a close group of collaborators who work together over the long term rather than gathering a different mix of people for each new film. To build those relationships, "Pixar University" runs classes for any employee--accountants, security guards, marketers, and, of course, animators--in subjects ranging from sculpting and painting to creative writing and belly dancing. The idea? To teach employees new skills, of course, but more importantly, to bring together "a diverse group of people to sit in a room, try new things, mess up, get embarrassed, and learn how to bounce back--together," the authors write.

Mavericks is wide-ranging: Taylor and LaBarre muse on everything from open-source innovation to the value of open-book management. Yet the book lacks a cohesive, big new idea beyond emphasizing originality and innovation. As a result, the case studies can feel like a string of magazine-article fragments. Indeed, more than half of the 32 companies in the book have been subjects of Fast Company stories.

To their credit, Taylor and LaBarre have some caveats about their "mavericks" and describe cases where a few have gone astray. For example, they note that service-friendly Commerce Bancorp (CBH ) "suffered a very public black eye" when two executives were convicted on conspiracy counts. Still, these missteps are sometimes referred to in footnotes, and the book's rosy, enthusiastic tone may grate on some readers. "There's nothing quite so exhilarating as being an eyewitness to the future," the authors gush. "We immersed ourselves in organizations that have shaped the course of their industries by reshaping the sense of what's possible."

But others may be inspired or at least pluck an idea or two. In the introduction, Taylor and LaBarre say they will consider the book a success if it "opens your eyes, engages your imagination, and encourages you to think bigger and aim higher." On that level, with many readers managing in a business world plagued by risk-aversion, conformity, and copycat benchmarking, Mavericks is likely to succeed.

By Jena McGregor

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