Rare Breeds at Work: Creating a Culture of Innovation & Belonging

At the beginning of 2020, Dominic Cummings, chief advisor for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, wrote a blog post in which he called for the hiring of more “weirdos and misfits with odd skills” to work in the UK government. Britain, he said, needed people with “genuine cognitive diversity,” not just polished Oxford and Cambridge grads from the right families, to figure out what Vladimir Putin might do next or how an international terror cell might try to hack into Parliament.

Cummings wrote, “We need some true wild cards, artists, people who never went to university and fought their way out of an appalling hell hole, weirdos from William Gibson novels, like that Chinese-Cuban free runner from a crime family hired by the KGB.”

Of course, Cummings couldn’t have known how strange or chaotic the Year of COVID would turn out to be, but his post was prescient nonetheless. In his call to hire strange, unruly people, he was talking about the Rare Breed. He understood what so many corporate leaders are beginning to get:

Diversity isn’t enough to deal with a world where everything can change with a tweet, a few lines of code, or the splicing of a gene, and where the old rules no longer seem to apply.

Every workplace should reflect the full spectrum of race, ethnicity, religion, gender identification, sexual orientation, and political ideology. But diversity doesn’t always lead to diverse thinking. Companies might hire edgy outsiders and high-IQ geeks, but then they immediately run those people through a socialization pressure washer that buffs down their prickly edges and dilute their idiosyncrasies. The intention is to turn them into the company’s version of confident communicators and team leaders, but the practical effect is to smother the rebellious, visionary fire that leads to breakthroughs.

Today, the corporate world faces three simultaneous existential crises. First, it hasn’t fully wised up to the reality that it’s no longer making the rules. For a century, the only real option most of us had was to take a job, go to an office, put nose to the grindstone for forty years, and then retire. Now, thanks to remote work (not to mention the appeal of working in yoga pants), millions are questioning why they should drive to an office or relocate for a job. Technology has not only created the gig economy and made it possible to earn a great living renting homes on Airbnb, but it’s made freelancing and self-employment easier and more viable than ever. Traditional companies are no longer the only game in town; they should quit acting like it.

Crisis the Second: Corporations are becoming agents of social change, and they’re not wired for it. Just look at the actions of Twitter, Facebook, and other social media giants after the January 6, 2020 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Their decisions to restrict or ban certain users were about corporate policy, but they were also revolutionary acts, and corporate leaders and their shareholders hate revolutions. They want predictability and profits.

Going forward, companies won’t be able to have it both ways. Like it or not, they’re going to be players in everything from immigration to LGBTQ rights to the fight against financial inequality and climate change. They need people who have a stake in those battles, who know in their bones what it’s like to be marginalized, be food insecure, or face discrimination because you come from the wrong country or read the Koran instead of the Bible.

The final crisis is simple. The thinking that got us here won’t get us there. We live in a world of melting glaciers, viral pandemics, growing extremism, artificial intelligence, and demands for racial and social justice. To meet that future, companies need people who think around corners, break stuff, giggle while they stomp conventional wisdom into the dirt, and don’t care who they offend or whose territory they invade. They need mavericks, artists, skeptics, and philosophers because the problems they’ll face will be like nothing that’s come before. Ivy League pedigrees won’t stop being valuable, but they won’t be the only currency that matters, either.

If you’re a corporate executive, these ideas might have you breaking out in a cold sweat. Relax. Even though they can challenge traditional notions of what makes a good employee, Rare Breeds are critical to success. Look at the history of business and technology. It’s always the brash truth-tellers and wild-eyed obsessives who come up with the billion-dollar ideas. In her bestseller Quirky, author Melissa A. Schilling chronicles the exploits of titans like Ben Franklin, Marie Curie, Nikola Tesla, and Elon Musk. She writes that such people are able to come up with world-changing innovations not just once, but over and over again, because they are different, with foibles that set them apart from their peers but also help them see the world in ways the average person can’t. She says that most great innovators have a touch of mania, are afflicted with hubris — near-arrogant confidence in one’s own ability to accomplish what others cannot — and are idealists. She writes of such people, “They are willing to pursue an idea even when everybody else says it’s crazy precisely because they don’t need the affirmation of others — they believe they are right even if you don’t agree.”

Sounds like the Rare Breed to us. But introducing such disruptive personalities into a traditional organization is a recipe for disaster, right? It can be…if your organization fails to adapt to the realities we’ve talked about. But how can a conventional company evolve into a place where unusual, provocative people are welcomed? We have a few ideas.

Discourage territoriality. Rare Breeds don’t respect turf; they respect vision, intention, and results. If you want to hire free thinkers who’ll come into your workplace and question everything, you can’t have managers or department heads pushing back out of ego. Make it clear that everything is on the table, there are no sacred cows, and all new ideas are welcome, including those from people who’ve been with the company for decades.

Stop branding on style and start branding on substance. In this new world, authenticity reigns supreme. No one cares if your organization has floors full of people with the “right” college education, or if your workforce is 40 percent in-house, 50 percent remote, and ten percent freelance. They care if you’re good people rooted in values they can respect, and if you can deliver.

No “pocket cultures.” In organizations that hire Rare Breeds, you’ll sometimes find multiple small, homogeneous cultures — one for the “popular kids,” one for the IT geeks, one for the tatted-and-pierced crowd, etc. That’s lethal to company cohesion. Make sure you have one inclusive culture that everyone feels part of.

Be the safe space. Everyone’s weird. Everyone has a hobby or habit or fetish that’s out of the ordinary, but at most companies they’re discouraged from sharing it. Instead, encourage them. Be the place where weirdness, bizarre humor, political passion and rebellious creativity are not only safe but celebrated.

Promote “mantras.” In our book, Rare Breed, we present dozens of mantras like “Break Taboos” or “Mix Cupcakes with Crossbones.” Mantras are statements that embody what Rare Breeds should stand for. For individuals, they are touchstones and North Stars that remind them who they are. Encourage your people to develop personal mantras that reflect what they believe in.

In the end, true diversity means welcoming people whose unconventional thinking or personalities might clash with your corporate culture, but whose originality, daring, and passion are just the ticket to help your company become more adaptable and versatile. That’s the right medicine for a volatile world.

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