Posted: 27 Aug. 2019 10 min. read

Pioneers in Hell: How to stop killing their potential

*This first post in a four-part series is about a Pioneer (one of four Business Chemistry types), how the wrong work environment kills his potential, and what could be done about it. Read posts twothree and four in the series, about a Guardian, a Driver, and an Integrator, respectively.

Last year, a Pioneer—let’s call him Jack—was being lauded by his company for boldly departing from convention and leading his business unit to new heights of innovation. Shortly thereafter, Jack got a new boss. Before their first in-person meeting, his boss asked him to put together a plan for the upcoming year. And populate a detailed template. In a spreadsheet. With multiple pivot tables and complex macros. 

Jack, a consummate Pioneer, put off completing it as long as he could; he didn’t have a particular aversion to numbers, but he felt they missed the bigger point of his ideas. Not to mention how his eyes would cross and his mind would wander every time he looked at row upon row of inputs and outputs and compounding variables. If he could have used a tool to visualize the data that would have helped. He finally got it done just in time for the meeting, but the process sucked the life out of him. 

On the day of the meeting, Jack entered his boss’s office relieved to have the whole spreadsheet ordeal behind him and ready to brainstorm possibilities for the year. But he barely began to wax enthusiastically when his boss shut him down with the words, “Let’s just walk through the template, shall we?” And they did. Line by line. Cell. By. Cell. And at every stop, his boss would question the numbers, the assumptions, the formatting. Every time Jack would ask her to “imagine this” or “picture that” she would simply sit there with a grim expression, whereas she positively lit up when she found a rounding error!

That meeting was just the start of a series of agonizing “interrogations,” as Jack called them, where the intent seemed to be to have him confess to the crime of impracticality with intent to harm. Jack had always thrived under laissez-faire leaders who liked him precisely because he was a bold thinker who didn’t let today’s reality get in the way of tomorrow’s opportunities. He kept trying to bring up some of his ideas in different ways. Maybe if she could just visualize it she would see the potential? Or maybe if he came up with more novel options for her to consider she would become interested? But the bigger and bolder he got, the more his boss tightened in on the questioning. His new boss’s scrutiny impacted him like kryptonite. He felt like he couldn’t flex his creative muscles, while at the same time he was being tortured with a forced march through granular details.

After a few months, came the final straw. HR implemented MEMO #104: REGARDING THE MATTER OF WORKING ARRANGEMENTS AND OFFICE UTILIZATION, requiring leadership, including Jack, to be present in their assigned offices during business hours. Up until that point, he’d had the freedom to more or less work where he wanted, when he wanted. His favorite spot was a bistro table outside the local coffee shop, but he also loved the main conference room with the giant whiteboard, and of course, some of his best ideas often came to him during his afternoon run. His euphemistically named “office”, in contrast, was a cramped closet with white file cabinets (never used), white walls (poorly lit), and NO whiteboards. After pacing restlessly in his office cage for a week, Jack gave his notice.

Last we heard, he was trekking in the Himalayas, spending some of the signing bonus he got from joining a venture-backed start-up as their “chief disruptor in residence.”

Jack’s story is an excerpt from our book Business Chemistry: Practical Magic for Crafting Powerful Work Relationships (Wiley, 2018), in which my co-author, Kim Christfort and I have an in-depth, back-and-forth discussion about the strategies leaders and managers can use to create environments where Pioneers like Jack can lean into their strengths and thrive.

Among these strategies are the following:

  • Allow time for free-flowing discussion and idea generation
  • Brainstorm and whiteboard
  • Keep an open mind—even if you can’t say yes, try to avoid saying no
  • Provide options for where, when, and how to work
  • Position them to do what they love and explain how more mundane tasks enable them to do so



Business Chemistry: Practical Magic for Crafting Powerful Work Relationships on Amazon
This is an excerpt from our book Business Chemistry: Practical Magic for Crafting Powerful Work Relationships (Wiley, 2018). Click the image to purchase the book on Amazon.

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Suzanne Vickberg (aka Dr. Suz)

Suzanne Vickberg (aka Dr. Suz)

Research Lead | Deloitte LLP

Dr. Suz is a social-personality psychologist and a leading practitioner of Deloitte’s Business Chemistry, which she uses to guide clients as they explore how their work is shaped by the mix of individuals who make up a team. Previously serving in Deloitte’s Talent organization, since 2014 she’s been coaching leaders and teams in creating cultures that enable each member to thrive and make their best contribution. Along with her Deloitte Greenhouse colleague Kim Christfort, Suzanne co-authored the book Business Chemistry: Practical Magic for Crafting Powerful Work Relationships as well as a Harvard Business Review cover feature on the same topic. She also leads the Deloitte Greenhouse research program focused on Business Chemistry and is the primary author of the Business Chemistry blog. An “unapologetic introvert” and Business Chemistry Guardian-Dreamer, you will never-the-less often find her in front of a room, a camera, or a podcast microphone speaking about Business Chemistry. Suzanne is a University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate with an MBA from New York University’s Stern School of Business and a doctorate in Social-Personality Psychology from the Graduate Center at the City University of New York. She has lectured at Rutgers Business School and several colleges in the CUNY system, and before joining Deloitte in 2009, she gained experience in the health care and consulting fields. A mom of two teenagers, she maintains her native Minnesota roots and currently resides in New Jersey, where she volunteers for several local organizations with a focus on hunger relief.