lovable weirdos at work

It’s no secret that humans perform better when they bring different skills, ideas,and approaches. That’s what the Diversity & Inclusion department has been trying to get you to understand. Their work is not exclusively about gender, race, or other identities; it’s also about creating an organization that functions better with multiple strengths.

[Side note: Tendayi Viki wrote about diverse teams in Forbes, and David Rock and Heidi Grant covered the topic in Harvard Business Review.]

For fun, let’s reframe the D&I conversation. Instead of looking for “diverse candidates,” let’s find some “lovable weirdos.” You probably know more than a few people who qualify: they are wickedly smart, entertaining, and curious. They have ideas that you would never think up. They have interesting backgrounds. You feel better when you’re around them. But you might not think of them as co-workers. Let’s change that with three strategies.

First, promote a culture of investigation. Share videos and articles from outside your industry, outside of business, outside your country. Tell people about the core idea and ask them what they think. Schedule optional lunch meetings to talk about concepts, how they work, how they could work, what other ideas they spark. However you approach investigation, the point is to normalize alternative viewpoints.

Second, collaborate with outsiders. You’ll know when “investigation” has taken hold when someone suggests inviting an out-of-field expert to participate in problem solving. Or, if you are a leader, float the option to see how your team reacts. Go far from home; that is, hire people from outside your industry. Otherwise, you will have too much knowledge overlap. As you talk to these outside people, pay attention to how you describe your circumstances, the questions they ask, what they don’t understand, what you don’t understand about what they don’t understand. Plan a work path, not an outcome. Stay open to the possibilities these people bring and how they make you better.

Third, hire unusual people. Stop hiring for cultural fit. In an anthropological sense, cultures advance because of fringe ideas that work their way into the center. Look for skills, capacity, and results instead of educational attainment, industry experience, and pedigree. Hiring should act like a funnel, not a filter. Welcome talented outsiders - lovable weirdos - who bring novelty and vibrancy to the workplace. They will champion new approaches to difficult problems and inspire people to step up their own contributions. Remember, the goal is to create an organization that functions better with multiple strengths.

My friend, Joy Abella, gave examples from her life in advertising:

  • the crotchety old copywriter and former CIA intel officer with an innate talent for taking complicated concepts and writing great, engaging copy for laymen; only wore cowboy boots, looked like a character from Toy Story, and aimed to make every account person cry at least once in their career
  • the utterly brilliant art director who's had several one-woman shows and art exhibitions around the world; she could hand-color an entire TV ad at no cost, or quadruple a production budget by slipping in multiple rights-managed images into one print ad
  • the government affairs head who is building a LEGO airport in his basement and has done the super expensive two-day LEGO HQ tour
“Oh, also, I should add that there are definitely times where I've felt *I* was the weirdo (lovable or not) at work.” - Joy Abella

For years, I have made my living as a lovable weirdo. As an outsider, I guide work teams to resolve their most critical, future-oriented problems with a multidisciplinary approach. My curiosity drives me to explore new and old expressions of ideas, find remarkable people who change the way we understand the world, and think about the connectivity of it all. It’s made a “career path” impossible. Here are things I’ve accomplished:

  • Increased training registration for substance abuse counselors
  • Helped save three historic buildings from demolition
  • Led multimillion dollar sales increases by changing customer acquisition and fan engagement strategies
  • Trained over 100 speakers in the US, Canada, and Uganda
  • Contributed insight to programs for United Nations, IDEO and American Express, and a consortium of independent Kidney Foundations

Lovable weirdos can often help meet Diversity & Inclusion goals. Developing a culture of investigation and collaborating with outsiders should raise conversations about the types of people you welcome into your environment. With more diverse co-workers on your team, your organization will be better prepared to solve challenges in an ever-shifting marketplace. Of course, this is just the perspective of a lovable weirdo.