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Focus on Manatee: Here’s how great managers can find silver and gold in misfit team members

How many corporate tales of triumph begin with a couple of misfits? Pals whose strengths were never recognized? Innovators who were laughed out of the room?

Santa Global Enterprises, an organization based out of the North Pole, narrowly avoided catastrophe by managing to retain two such exceptional talents, Chief of Dentistry Hermey the Elf and Reindeer Team Lead Rudolph.

It involved a change in management philosophy bigger than the Abominable Snow Monster of the North.

First-level leader: The head elf

It is widely believed that people skills account for 80 percent of success as a first-level leader. Based on this standard, the head elf was a dismal failure.

His idea of leadership was affecting a strange fawning voice to cue his team’s song for Santa, then barking harsh criticism afterward.

Good critical feedback includes asking questions and giving answers. Asking questions may have led him to know why his tenor section was weak, since Hermey was entirely unmotivated to show up.

Ben Vanderneck.jpg
Benjamin Vanderneck is the Talent Development Manager for CareerSource Suncoast.

Speaking of Hermey, the No. 1 reason that employees sing “I quit” is a poor relationship with their supervisor or manager.

Hermey’s overall development goals are in the dental field, but rather than focusing on this strength – potentially saving the organization on dental insurance costs, for example – the head elf wants to expend less productive effort on Hermey’s weaknesses: toymaking, saying hee-hee-ho-ho and the like.

The manager is squashing the potential and engagement of an innovative employee who now would rather take his chances out with the Bumble.

Manager: Santa

Santa’s people skills are ho-ho-horrible, too. His reaction to the elf team’s song project is brutally lacking in effective feedback.

What “needs work” – the melody, the words, the tenor section? – and who are the team members for the job? Songs seem to play a key role in this workplace culture, and making this one a winner is important for your organization, Santa.

The organizational structure places the reindeer team directly under Santa, but much like Hermey, Rudolph’s strengths as a potential hire are flat-out ignored -- and worse.

Santa may not be piling on the calories, but he’s full of unconscious bias. Red-nosed reindeer are bad luck? Inferior?

Certainly, a metaphor for bias of your choice, one so severe that it blocks out Rudolph’s obvious strength (he’s a great flyer) and a hidden talent (navigational skills.)

Cultivating this talent contributes to team diversity. Diverse teams are more innovative than homogenous groups – look at how the reindeer team was able to solve the seemingly impossible problem of canceling Christmas.

Hermey also contributes to the diversity of his team; who knows what future innovation this may bring. Why don’t they try making dolls with teeth?

Their greatest crisis averted, the management team completely rethought their perspective, showing support and trust for the strengths of their star hires.

The head elf backed Hermey’s dental career track to the point of accepting a cleaning appointment, and Santa made sure to plan his route according to Rudolph’s recommendations, with the first drop-off at the Island of Misfit Toys.

The story of this case study is now a “founding legend” reinforcing the organization’s core values of innovation, support and trust.

Benjamin Vanderneck is the Talent Development Manager for CareerSource Suncoast and writes about leadership, professional development and effective management.