Leaders everywhere are desperately looking for new ideas, new products, new sources of energy and creativity. One way to find these things is to embrace new ideas about who can contribute and how, whether they are inside or outside the organization. The author cites two examples: the “Guarding the Art” art exhibition and John Fluevog’s “Open Source Footwear” program. As he writes, “One of the most energizing ways to make your organization more productive and successful is to invite more people to contribute more to its success.”
In this era of high anxiety and talent scarcity, there is no doubt that many leaders and organizations are asking too much of people. They create pressures to perform that feel unhealthy and unsustainable.
Lately, however, I’ve wondered if leaders and organizations are asking too little of people, overlooking skills and experiences that don’t conform to formal job descriptions or traditional business relationships, and thus missing out on passions and talents of their colleagues and clients who would be willing to share what they know, if only they were asked. One of the most energizing ways to make your organization more productive and successful is to invite more people to contribute more to its success.
Consider an intriguing experience that has generated all sorts of buzz in the art scene and attract high profile media attention. The Baltimore Museum of Art chose 17 of its security guards not just to guard valuable paintings or guide visitors to hard-to-find sculptures — the roles consistent with their job descriptions — but to curate their own exhibit that have talked about their origins, their passions and their experiences. The resulting exposure, called “Keeping Art”, includes everything from an 1872 painting by Winslow Homer to a chair made entirely of pencils. The works were handpicked by the keepers, who also wrote the captions and decided how they would be displayed. Their choices highlight “works of art that have not been seen for decadessaid a museum administrator. “That’s part of what makes it all so fascinating.”
We understand the comforting attraction of this artistic initiative and the lessons it holds for cultural institutions seeking to shake up their stifling ways of doing things. But it also contains a hard-witted lesson for leaders and businesses in all sorts of fields – a lesson in how certain types of intelligence and talent are often overlooked, and the value of tapping into that overlooked talent at inside and outside the organization. After all, most companies are staffed and surrounded by employees, customers, suppliers and fans who are passionate about what the company does, brimming with ideas and eager to get more involved. Why not invite them to express their creativity, wherever they are in the organization chart or in the world, to help you solve problems and drive change?
Indeed, while the many art critics and cultural commentators who have chronicled the exhibit have focused on overlooked works by talented artists chosen by the guard, I was struck by how the guards they themselves brought to the museum so much talent that its leaders had overlooked. These 17 people, whose work identities had been defined by their uniforms and badges, possessed such a depth of skills, passions and experiences – talents directly related to the museum’s mission, but largely untapped. As one custodian put it, “We know a lot more about the works of art than people would lead to believe.
One example: Kellen Johnson, a security guard who also happens to be trained to sing in six languages, and often takes advantage of the “museum’s excellent acoustics” to practice his classical repertoire “while browsing the galleries.” When he looked at a piece he had chosen for the exhibition, he asked, “If this painting could sing, what would it look like?” Or consider Ron Kempton, another guard, who is a published poet. He chose paintings he considered related to the poetry of Frank O’Hara, born in Baltimore in 1926 and curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Reading these guards and others, what amazes me is not that the museum hired such talented people, but that it took the museum so long to think about how to apply their talents to beyond their official jobs.
The same possibility applies to customers. Reading about the Baltimore program, I thought back to a visit I had with shoe designer John Fluevog, whose renowned company and brand is associated with some of the world’s biggest stars, musicians to models and Hollywood celebrities. When it comes to stylish footwear, few designers have John Fluevog’s flair or followers, which is why his boutiques in cities from Los Angeles to Milan are so popular.
Yet when I spent time with him in his Newbury Street boutique in Boston, he wouldn’t talk about his designs. Instead, we talked about his idea of invite its most enthusiastic customers to submit their own sketches for leather boots, high-heeled dress shoes, even fashion-forward sneakers – sketches that a panel of experts would evaluate and the company would produce and sell, if selected. Fluevog also promised to name the shoes after the customers who created them.
“For so long people would hand me a drawing of their personal design for a shoe or ask if I had considered an idea they liked,” he told me. “This program is a natural consequence of this desire for connection. People want to be involved in the businesses that matter to them. Fluevog’s program to unleash customer talent attracted thousands of sketches from around the world, and the company ended up manufacturing and selling more than a dozen models based on these exterior designs.
As with Baltimore, what struck me even more than the creativity of the shoes were the talents of the people who designed them – talents that would have gone untapped had Fluevog not invited them into its organization and brand. One client, Samantha Zaza, was an artist who graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), lived in Istanbul, Turkey, and worked largely in colored pencil and ink. But she had “always wanted to design a shoe”, so when she saw the program, she “scribbled the original sketch on the back of an appliance manual”, refined it and submitted it to the company. . His shoe, called the Zazawent on sale for the low price of $339.
Another client, Jessica Masarek, was a young biochemist in the pharmaceutical industry. But this left-brained scientist also had tremendous right-brained talents, and she applied them to a shoe design that became a big seller. Indeed, after his model, nicknamed the Mini Masarek, got her start with Fluevog, Jessica took classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and learned how to make her own shoes. “People used to tell Kurt Vonnegut he could never be a writer because he was trained as a mechanical engineer,” she told me. “I keep that in mind when pursuing my interests outside of work.”
Leaders everywhere are desperately looking for new ideas, new products, new sources of energy and creativity. One way to find these things is to embrace new ideas about who can contribute and how, whether they are inside or outside the organization. The talents and passions of your colleagues and clients are too valuable to waste.