Leveraging Disruptive Talent - Three Key Steps to Getting Results

Michelle Moore Article

There is no question that terms like ‘digital disruption’ and  ‘innovation’ have become buzz words used daily in most boardrooms and C-suite offices.

As organizations come to terms with the fact that the business environment has been fundamentally changed by technology – and that the pace of change shows no signs of slowing down – business leaders are increasingly looking for ways to drive innovation to stay one step ahead of the competition or avoid being disrupted by an emerging threat. 

Competing in the new normal requires organizations to find talent who do things in different ways. They need those who can spot opportunities, challenge the status quo, and generate and implement truly unique and innovative ideas that have the potential to deliver significant business value. The challenge is however, that many of these disruptors often struggle to work in the constraints of a traditional organization.

In order to achieve desired results, business leaders need to make sure that they:

  • Find the right type of disruptors.
  • Engage disruptive talent in a way that aligns to their organizational commitment and readiness.
  • Invest sufficient energy and effort to maximize the engagement and success of disruptive talent.

Finding the Right Disruptors

Not all disruptors are created equally, and investing in the wrong type of talent can cause significant chaos and negatively impact business performance and organizational culture.

Many organizations are beginning to look for people who can spot opportunities to do things differently.  While generating ideas is critical, it is not necessarily enough to improve business performance and/or disrupt or avoid disruption.  

Disruptive talent who can truly make a positive impact on business results also need to have the skills and competencies to get things done. They need be tenacious and self-confident enough to make recommendations that may at first glance appear to be a bad idea. They also need to have the resilience to handle rejection and failure without losing momentum.

Finding individuals who can generate ideas and implement things quickly may help to achieve short-term results, but organizations who want to drive sustained innovation need to be searching for individuals with a third skillset – the commitment, emotional intelligence and political savvy to cope within the constraints of an organization. Business leaders seeking a long term advantage need to find the people who are able to work in a productively disruptive way, and put the goals and needs of the organization ahead of their own fame and glory.

There are two important reasons that this third dimension should be a ‘must-have’ for organizations who really want to drive change.  First, creative and driven people who lack these critical competencies may not stay very long in an organization that is hierarchical, slow and process-oriented.  Short tenures can be expensive and very disruptive to a business.  Secondly, disruptors who lack the skills to navigate an organization effectively and build relationships can be extremely destructive to the corporate culture and the engagement of its employees. Destructive disruption can decrease employee productivity, increase voluntary turnover and erode business value.

Engaging Disruptors

To successfully engage this newly sought after type of talent – those who can productively disrupt and deliver business value – organizations need a strategy to define how they will engage with talent.  Many leaders think that the only option is to hire disruptors, but there are a number of different ways to get started leveraging disruptors.  

To determine the right engagement method (i.e., whether to involve, borrow or hire), business leaders first need to take a look at two important factors:

1. Commitment to Innovation and Change

In order to maximize the return on the investment in disruptive talent, organizations first need to ensure that there is senior leader commitment to use new and emerging technologies to innovate business models, business processes, the client experience or the employee experience.   

That commitment must include dedicated funding for innovation projects.

If an organization can’t check off these two mission critical items, they can still leverage disruptors. For example, they can engage external disruptors in idea generation activities like hackathons, or crowdsource their ideas through technology platforms. An organization can also consider forming an advisory board to help guide their evolution, borrow talent from more innovative companies to work on specific projects or consider trying a strategic interim position to test the waters.

2. Readiness for Change

After assessing the commitment organizations must also consider their overall readiness for this productive type of disruption. Many organizations may be committed to doing things differently, but simply are not ready as a result of factors like:

  • Their culture (e.g., level risk tolerance/risk management capabilities, agility, customer centricity, learning orientation, etc...)
  • Innovation maturity (e.g., existence of formal strategy, process, governance, etc.…)
  • Technology readiness (e.g., technology investment, enterprise architecture, etc.…)
  • Strength of eco-system partners (e.g., relationships with innovation accelerators, technology vendors, academic institutions, etc...)

Organizations that are lower in commitment and readiness can still benefit from bringing in full time disruptors, there is just more risk involved, and they must be prepared to put much more energy and effort into making the investment a success. Organizations that have high commitment and readiness, are well positioned to benefit significantly from disruptive talent, as long as they can source the right people and provide them with the right support. 

Maximizing the Engagement and Success of Disruptive Talent

Once an organization finds the right disruptive talent, there is a lot of work that still needs to go in to ensuring a good return in the investment in that talent (i.e., that the disruptor is able to improve business performance).  For example, organizations should ensure that disruptor has:

  • Executive sponsorship –direct access to C-Level support.
  • A peer mentor – someone who can help navigate the politics and ‘informal’ aspects of the organization.
  • Manager support – a leader who has the influence and authority to remove roadblocks, and who is capable of helping the disruptor successfully integrate into more traditional teams.
  • Connection to other disruptors – opportunities to network and collaborate with others who think the same way to avoid feelings of not fitting in/isolation.
  • Frequent feedback – disruptors need more frequent feedback than regular employees, and it needs to focus not just on what has been accomplished but also how the results were achieved.
  • Performance for disruptors will also likely be judged against a different set of criteria than that in place for other employees.
  • Professional coaching – disruptors, especially early in their tenure in an organization – can benefit significantly from working with a professional coach. While many organizations may shy away from the idea due to the investment required, it can be a lot less expensive than having someone leave after a few short months.


Finding and engaging talent who can productively disrupt current thinking can be extremely effective and deliver significant business value to an organization. As with everything in business, it starts with having a strategy to find the right people, engage them in the right way and ensure that they have the  support required to succeed. Organizations can get started by:

  1.  Establishing an innovation strategy with proper governance (if that hasn’t been done).
  2. Assessing their readiness and  identifying an appropriate disruptive talent engagement strategy.
  3. Using assessments during the hiring process to confirm that potential disruptors have the right competencies. 
  4. Setting up formal mentoring programs.
  5. Engaging professional coaches to better ensure a smooth transition and long term success.


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