Posted: Jun 14, 2019 05 min. read

Professional Superheroes

The Hidden Talent Driving Innovation

Tim Mahlberg has a curiosity about people, a passion for community, and a dedication to creating world-class customer experiences. His work as an organisational psychologist spanning corporate, non-profit and consulting to help develop individuals and organisations through their people for over 15 years, recently led him back to research around the Future of Work at the University of Sydney – where Deloitte co-sponsored his PhD.

Tim visited Deloitte to host an Innovating with Impact session, centred around the emergence of “professional superheroes” – individuals who work to help organisations navigate uncertainty, embrace disruption, and create the future – all whilst holding down their day jobs. His stories provided new meaning and purpose to work – pointing to the hidden potential for innovation within organisations, whilst sparking new thinking and driving change.

Following Tim’s visit, we reconnected to ask him a few questions, reflecting on his research and career to date. Read on for our Q&A.

Anna Lindberg: First, for context, could I ask you to explain the ambitions of your doctoral research and what inspired you to undertake a PhD?

Tim Mahlberg: For a long time, I've been curious about two things in my work.

Firstly – and personally – I've always sought ways to make my work align more to my own values and interests. But I’ve found that most jobs only take me so far – leaving me with a sense that each job wasn’t big enough for my passions. So I was always looking for ways to tweak my work or do things on the side around my job. For example, whilst working in a large Australian financial institution, I worked beyond my role as an analyst to also coach and mentor staff around me, and then as an internal consultant, I was also running training workshops about diversity and high-performing cultures. I found ways to bring other sides of myself to the workplace.

Secondly, I wondered how I could help organisations create a culture that encourages people to "bring more of themselves" to work. I felt strongly that this kind of work culture would attract great people and be an awesome place to work.

The PhD opportunity came up serendipitously, just as I had left my last workplace ready to take what I had learned about building work communities out into the world. It felt like perfect timing!

AL: How closely did your findings align with existing literature?

TM: My research direction crystallised out of a surprising observation that there were so many people just like me. People who were finding ways to make work "work" for them, whilst also feeling like they had more to bring than what was expected in their formal roles.

Existing literature couldn't quite explain why or how people would do this "extra work". When we think about highly engaged people in the workplace, we might consider those who are high performers in their work, but an organisation determines performance against set expectations. Some of the people I witnessed were ‘performing’, but only within areas they themselves had shaped and defined. Sometimes this additional work was to the detriment of the work they were expected to do. Further, the areas of "extra work" I discovered seemed all to be better preparing their organisation for a new, exciting future. My findings then help leaders to rethink work engagement by outlining new ways to determine what counts as work.

AL: Can you explain the concept of an ‘alter- identity’? What role do these alter-identities play?

TM: Alter-identities are based on work practices that sit "to the side" of the formal positions people hold in an organisation. This is based on the idea that "who we are" is really about "what we do". It is always our behaviours that determine the kind of actors we are at work. For example, a manager is someone who manages people and processes. A consultant consults, etc. It takes time for new behaviours to become "normalised" into role titles. Therefore, I use the notion of identity as a way to organise the things people "do" outside of these more established professional labels.

The alter-identities I observed were at different stages of development, as they emerge over time in people's careers. In the later stages, they become most apparent to us when we think of people who are "known" for certain expertise or interests that are new and might not fit yet in the existing work structure.

Alter-identities play an interesting role, helping to bring in new perspectives and expertise, exploring new business directions, supporting new ways of working and provoking new ways of thinking, to shape and nudge the direction of the organisation. Fostering alter-identities can be a way to help prepare for the future, remain competitive in the market, and ensure the organisation is an interesting place to work.

AL: Are there any specific personality types that thrive within corporates?

TM: I think this depends on what you mean by thriving. Some people love the systems and sense of security of working in corporate, and some even thrive when immersed in politics! I think it is difficult to paint all corporates with the same brush though, and even within the same organisation, several sub-cultures flourish. In my research, the people who seemed to have gained the most from opportunities to learn and grow at Deloitte were also the ones that suffered the most, so I believe it is all about balance.

I definitely fall into that bucket too. The great thing about corporate environments is that we encounter such a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives in other people. After all, working in an environment with everyone like you would quickly lose its appeal. Finding ways to help all types of people flourish is really the holy grail of workplace culture initiatives. I hope that my research contributes to this in at least a small way.

AL: In the context of your research, what’s required to corporates to innovate more effectively?

TM: I believe innovation requires all of us to help foster supportive, safe, and creative environments to try new things, learn and iterate. It's about embracing a willingness to have a go, whether something has been tried before or not. Perhaps now is the right time, place and people to make an innovative idea work, whether it is new or something that might have been tried before.

As leaders, I think this starts with recognising that your people might hold the key to preparing the organisation for the future. What other interests do your employees have? What communities are they members of? Do they have time to reflect and explore, or is their time entirely consumed by BAU tasks? It’s also about listening to interesting conversations across the organisation. These might happen on platforms like LinkedIn or Yammer, or through organised innovation events. You might then ask yourself how you can better support and sponsor individuals who have the passion and drive to experiment.

For professionals curious about innovation, or those who are looking to create new opportunities for their future, I'd suggest to think about pursuing interests that lie outside of your formal role, and how to bring them into Deloitte. This might start with online learning through a MOOC like Coursera or EdX, or attending a meetup group or getting involved with the local start-up scene. Communities like The League of Intrapreneurs are also a fantastic resource for corporates looking to create new initiatives around social impact. Finding others who think outside of the box can provide great social support to help you further explore your ideas. Speak to your manager or career coach about the available support, and about how to bring your ideas to life.

For more information about Tim, visit his website http://www.timmahlberg.com/ or to learn more about the League of Intrapreneurs, visit https://www.leagueofintrapreneurs.com/

Meet our author

Anna Lindberg

Anna Lindberg

Manager, Innovation

Anna Lindberg is a manager within Deloitte’s innovation team. She is passionate about finding new and interesting ways to deliver value to Deloitte’s clients through innovative solutions. Anna is resp