October 16, 2023

Recognizing the Cultural Cowboys™: Who Stands Out in Your Company?

In the last blog, I defined what a Cultural Cowboy™ is and why your company needs them. As a refresher, Cultural Cowboys are those who work outside the norm, seizing opportunities, and tackling complex challenges that others might find too risky or impossible. Challenge them, and you'll see their fiery determination. Let me help you identify these remarkable individuals in your organization.

Spotting Cultural Cowboys™

Whether recruiting from inside or outside your company, three traits to look for are:

  • Mavericks
  • Woven Careers
  • Diamonds in the Rough


My friend and Third Angle colleague, Bryan Semkuley once said to me, “Let’s face it, Jean. We’re mavericks, or mustangs.”

By “mavericks” Bryan was summarizing the way I describe Cultural Cowboys™ above. An example from his Kimberly-Clark days was when the company just kept a steady state selling paper products to corporate office buildings. Bryan started from the clients and their tenants, and their need in washrooms. It resulted in a new technology-enabled service that provided just-in-time warnings of paper products running out. This method staved off tenant frustration. And it saved the building managers and janitorial staff time that could be spent on other high value activities. This solution may seem obvious to you and me. But it seemed “oddball” to colleagues who identify themselves in the paper products business. 

“Mavericks” are always going to look at things a little different from the norm, and always with an eye towards opportunity.

Woven Careers

Some years back, Dorothy Leonard-Barton, out of Harvard, coined the idea of T skills. This means having deep technical expertise and the ability to translate that expertise to multiple domains and applications. Pretty valuable, right?

Cultural Cowboys™ go two or three steps farther by having what I call Helix Skills. They have deep expertise in two or more areas and they weave them together to translate together and to different applications.

My friend and Third Angle colleague, Todd Chermak, has degrees in pharmacy, management and engineering. He has leadership experience in Quality, Regulatory, Innovation/R&D, and in Operations. 

Recently we were discussing the complexities of a company’s legacy processes and culture and the way they do innovation. Todd was given the task to make it more systematic and scalable while increasing innovation and growth.  Scaling processes can be a challenge as a business grows and legacy people dependent processes/systems become outdated and less robust. Only someone with helix skills would (a) be able to understand context, (b) address and improve things quickly and (c) enjoy this kind of project.

Diamonds in the Rough

Diamonds in the Rough are like Mavericks except they tend to have more rough edges and are not as recognized (at first) for their unique value.

Working with a company with the related problems of client turnover and costly inefficiencies and employee frustration with business processes, we knew to put together a diverse working team that would see the situation from different angles. We spurred them to identify unusual suspects or diamonds in the rough who would understand how things really worked and tell the truth. People kept nominating Vinny, the head of maintenance.

Vinny didn’t know to play it safe or guard his words. There was no polish to him, but there was also no varnish to make things look better than they were.  He also was not a whiner or a blowhard. He simply shared things as he saw them. He knew the customers from interacting with them every day on the sidewalk, in the lobby and in their offices. He knew them personally, right down to the types of music they liked. He knew the employees from the same interaction and from listening to them complain about the processes.  Vinny was a practical man, with practical, common-sense ideas. He talked out loud about the connections between faulty processes, delays, errors, and customer turnover. He gave examples.  When Vinny talked, the entire group listened.  Vinny may have been a diamond in the rough, but he was the crown jewel of the entire project.

What's next?

Once you have spotted potential Cultural Cowboys™, how do you utilize them, retain, develop and reward them? Stay tuned for future blogs that will elaborate further on each of these unique concepts.