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Rebel Talent: Why It Pays to Break the Rules When the Unemployment Rate is High


Michael Wong talks with Dr. Francesca Gino, Tandon Family Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School, about the advantages of embracing a "rebel mindset."

In our latest Harvard Business School Healthcare Alumni Association career Q&A, Michael Wong talks with Dr. Francesca Gino, Tandon Family Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School, about the advantages of embracing a "rebel mindset."

Michael Wong: With many countries having double-digit unemployment rates, why should the gainfully employed risk their livelihoods by becoming deviants at work, rebel talent1 per se?

Dr. Francesca Gino: If you are looking to be retained by your current employer or recruited by a prospective one, 2020 is an opportune time to adopt a rebel talent mindset. During my past two decades of research of rebel talent, the findings uncovered how this pack, often perceived as trouble makers and outliers, follow a path of authenticity which enables them to become the highly-engaged, go-to change agents of their organizations.2 And while executives like Salesforce CEO’s Marc Benioff might come to mind when thinking of “rebel talent”, such individuals can be found even in highly-structured organizations.

Dr. Francesca Gino

For instance at Wipro, they were experiencing pain points that many call centers had which included annual turnover of 50% to 70%. As your readership knows, call centers can be extremely bureaucratic with employees’ performance judged on strict adherence to KPIs like reading off of scripted responses and quickly moving on to the next incoming customer call. Still, by deploying some interventions which had new hires, during their “day-one-onboarding”, reimagining elements of their own roles as call center operators; this treatment group eventually scored higher in terms of employee satisfaction and engagement as well as CSAT ratings per Wipro’s clients. Think about it, these entry-level employees were enabled to redefine certain aspects of their jobs which were contrarian to some of Wipro’s best practice policies. Still, the outcome was that this group’s turnover was a third less than the control group.3 So especially during these pandemic days, it is not surprising that current reports point to why these change agents’ value are coveted by existing and prospective employers.4

One of the main talents which rebels have is to hold on the curiosity we naturally had when we were little kids. Curiosity is a key ingredient in innovation and adaptability, and the current COVID crisis has made it an even more important skill to strengthen and fully embrace.

Although leaders say they treasure inquisitive minds, most of them stifle rather than encourage curiosity. In a survey I conducted of more than 3,000 employees from a wide range of firms and industries, I found that 92% of them credited curious people with bringing new ideas into teams and organizations and viewed curiosity as a catalyst for job satisfaction, motivation, innovation, and high performance. Yet, as I found in the same survey, only about 24% reported feeling curious in their jobs on a regular basis, and about 70% said they face barriers to asking more questions at work.

This is data I collected pre-COVID. I recently conducted a similar survey. The new data shows that employees and leaders alike still understand the value of curiosity and agree that this is an incredibly valuable skill for bouncing back from adversity and this moment of crisis. Once again, most people reported working for leaders and organizations that do not foster curiosity: the percentage of people reporting feeling curious in their work on a regular basis dropped to 16%. That is a missed opportunity, as curiosity leads to a wide range of benefits for organizations.

We all need to heavily lean into a curiosity mindset to bounce back and thrive. Research using data from the 2008 financial crisis finds that organizations that built in the capacity to adapt quickly to dynamic environments earned 15% more in annual revenue compared to those in the same industry that were less adaptable. Cultural adaptability—which reflects an organization’s ability to innovate, experiment, and take advantage of new opportunities—is especially important at this historic moment.

For those who are interested in embracing a rebel talent mindset, what are your top three recommendations for change?

First, commit to break your mental model for problem solving. In particular, for those working in big pharma who lean on long-standing playbooks of success, put a different lens on the pain point. Instead of asking “what should I do?” which often leads to choosing a prior launch plan that sits on another colleague’s shelf, reframe the question to “what could I do?”5 Too often I’ve seen leaders rationalize this approach by stating that they don’t want to recreate the wheel and others quickly support this assertion since it seems logical and collegial. Yet, rebel talent are willing to invest their time to start with a clean sheet of paper and orchestrate stressful conversations with others that push colleagues to transform and create. These rebels understand that conflict and tension, which most people avoid, are part of the recipe for ground-breaking innovation. Amazon and Pixar are examples of firms where the corporate cultures are stressful and intense, but successful commercialization of new ideas has become a norm.6

Second, elevating one’s self-awareness of his or her strengths and weaknesses is crucial for rebels. Especially for your HBS readers, even with all of the pedigreed degrees and coveted employer brands on your CVs, do you have the self-awareness to understand how your communication style might disenfranchise those around you? I remember one would-be rebel who asked me to help him given his frustration at work. In fact, his company’s leadership had a nurturing environment for rebels and what became apparent after just a few hours of shadowing him during a day of his meetings was that the issue was his communication style. Especially during today’s pandemic and social injustice themes that are top of mind for most of us, the delivery of your communications needs to be respectful.

Third, for those who are leading a team which includes rebels and or would-be rebels, communicate a roadmap which provides transparency and space. By transparency, each team member should have a clear understanding of the mission and vision for the unit as well as the guard rails. For the pharma industry, an example of a guard rail would be that even though another country might have local customs which might be considered bribes in the US, the team will adhere to avoiding such practices. The good news for pharma is that even in sectors which some consider to be even more regulated, there are best practices of success. For instance, with the US Airforce, I interviewed a team, called Squadron 99, who followed their compass of being combat ready; but were enabled to experiment and deploy new practices that were considered impossible by their new leader, nicknamed Chaos. Empowered, the squadron members developed innovations that revolutionized air domination, from apps that increased pilot safety created for pennies on the typical defense industry-dollar to a contracting system inspired by the private sector. These innovations were radical. During Chaos’ two-year stint as commander, Squadron 99 notched achievements that had been perceived as nearly impossible by those familiar with the inner workings of the Department of Defense (DOD) and the United States Air Force (USAF). Among them were the expedited acquisition of devices and software that improved the performance and safety of the squadron’s pilots; the procurement of millions of dollars in discretionary funds to bring in dozens of civilian experts and contractors to enhance the squadron’s capabilities; and, more generally, the establishment of a culture in which officers felt empowered to pursue solutions they believed would bolster mission effectiveness.7

Finally, while I hope you might leverage these rebel talent ideas to support your career goals, I also urge you to consider how your actions can support others including not only your employers but society as a whole. When I interviewed Captain Sully Sullenberger, whom Tom Hanks portrayed in the movie dealing with the “Miracle on the Hudson”,8 it was amazing how this rebel was able to break away from his 40+ years of pilot training and experience and leverage every one of the 208 seconds that he had to safely land a plane with 155 lives on board. Similarly, with many of you working to pursue COVID-19 vaccines, I hope you are willing to break, transform, and create a new pathway to an approved vaccine that can benefit the world’s population.

Dr. Francesca Gino is a Professor at the Harvard Business School and has been honored as one of the world’s Top 40 Business Professors under 40 and one of the world’s 50 most influential management thinkers.

Michael Wong is an Emeritus Board Member of the Harvard Business School Healthcare Alumni Association.


1. https://www.rebeltalents.org/

2. For a description of rebel talent see https://www.rebeltalents.org/learn-more and take the Rebel Test https://www.rebeltalents.org/the-rebel-test

3. The treatment group’s turnover was 40.6% versus the control group’s 59.8% . For interested readers, the full paper is here: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/55dcde36e4b0df55a96ab220/t/55e5f041e4b06f3c4b89a71b/1441132609616/Cable+Gino+Staats+ASQ+2013.pdf

4. Willis Towers Watson, Deeper Dive into the Employee Experience Implications of COVID-19, April 22, 2020 https://www.willistowerswatson.com/assets/covid-19/NA-COVID-19-ClientWebcast-April-22-Final.pdf

5. Gino, Francesca, When Solving Problems, Think About What You Could Do, Not What You Should Do, Harvard Business Review, April 27, 2018 https://hbr.org/2018/04/when-solving-problems-think-about-what-you-could-do-not-what-you-should-do

6. https://hbr.org/2016/12/video-fostering-rebel-talent-inside-pixar-2

7. https://www.hbs.edu/faculty/Pages/item.aspx?num=56249


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