Champion your mavericks

An interview by Executive Leadership in Business Management Daily

After a long career as a retail executive, Joe Scarlett retired in 2007. But he didn’t let his decades of knowledge go to waste; instead, he established the Scarlett Leadership Institute to help executives develop as leaders.

Scarlett became president of Tractor Supply Co. in 1987 and its chairman and CEO in 1992. He led the retailer through significant growth, and it now has more than 1,245 stores in 48 states.

EL: What’s the key to great leadership?
Scarlett: It’s so important to listen to people. And you don’t want to shoot the messenger when you get bad news. It’s better to probe, to learn more.   

EL: But isn’t bad news stressful to hear?
Scarlett: Sometimes it is. But the best way to deal with it is to listen first and make sure you understand it.

EL: Reflecting on your years as CEO, to what do you attribute your success?  
Scarlett: I’m an opportunist. I’m always looking for great opportunities. I’ve found that mavericks often come up with those great opportunities. You have to listen to them. When mavericks had an idea that worked well, we’d celebrate it in our meetings. That encouraged more maverick thinking.

EL: Isn’t there a danger that mavericks will break the rules?
Scarlett: Mavericks tend to upset some of the bureaucrats who like to do things a certain way. But I’ve found mavericks can contribute great ideas. And it’s a leader’s job to champion them. Otherwise, mavericks tend to be isolated in an organization. When a boss supports a maverick, you support the whole idea of maverick thinking.

EL: Can you give an example of how a maverick’s ideas contributed to your success?
Scarlett: When I’d visit Tractor Supply stores, I would often listen to employees and ask them questions and get their ideas. A maverick might talk about the products we should carry that we might not have planned on carrying. It might be easy to brush off that kind of suggestion. But I’d test it out by asking our people at five other stores to see what they think about it.

EL: Have you always placed such a high value on mavericks?
Scarlett: I’ve learned as a leader never to overlook one lone voice in the wilderness. If somebody is passionate about something, you have to listen.

EL: How did you learn this lesson?
Scarlett: In the late 1990s, our IT [information technology] people convinced us to adopt an ERP [enterprise resource planning] system. We invested in it and decided to roll it out as a “big bang” rather than piecemeal. The IT team argued it was less expensive to do it all at once. Out of eight or 10 executives on our management team, only one—our controller—warned us of the dan­­gers of taking the “big bang” approach.

EL: So what happened?
Scarlett: The rest of us were in favor of doing it all at once, so we did. And it was catastrophic. Our employees were mad. Our customers were mad. It turns out the controller was right. At the time, I thought, “All the others can’t be wrong with just this one person being right.” The lesson is mavericks are worth listening to.


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