Innovation Business Transformation

"Corporate rebels are visionary mavericks"

He was sick and tired of the traditional world of work, bossy leadership and the lack of ethics in management – and thought that there had to be another way. So, two years ago, Dutchman Joost Minnaar started travelling around the world with a long-time friend to visit and report on “Corporate Rebels”. This conversation is about visionaries, rule-breakers and do-gooders

Change your perspective: Corporate rebels look differently on strauctures and the way of doing business.
Change your perspective: Corporate rebels look differently on strauctures and the way of doing business.

Why change needs rebels

Joost, the Corporate Rebels Blog is read in over 100 countries, and you are now listed in the  "Top 30 Emergent Management Thinkers". How did it all start?

It all started when I worked for a large German company in Barcelona. They produced flexible electronics. Some crazy things happened that didn't impress me. Some were even illegal. My team of 30 in R&D got really good results. And we had big customers in Silicon Valley. But the management from Germany and America constantly tried to interfere.

No rebel without a cause: Joost Minnaar
No rebel without a cause: Joost Minnaar

 At that time, I was reading about new forms of collaboration. I was sceptical of what companies like Google or Spotify preached. Maybe they were just nice stories? But I was curious. So I asked Pim de Morree, whom I’d know since we were boys, what he thought about it. In short, we set out to learn more. Our company, "The Corporate Rebels" was born while travelling to interesting organisations, eating chicken and rice, and living in one room. Since then we've created a small ecosystem around the world and a Slack community of around 2,500 members.

You have identified more than 100 Corporate Rebels, besides academics, and including many entrepreneurs and business leaders. What makes them rebels?

Corporate rebels are people who really make changes in their organisation.
Joost Minnaar, Corporate Rebels

Often, they are visionary mavericks, and quite stubborn. Their ideas are almost always associated with a better experience for users, staff or customers – in terms of the workplace, the company or the product. As intellectuals, they surround themselves with people who actually make their vision happen.

Constantly challenging the status quo

What distinguishes them from "normal" employees?

Many people accept circumstances in the workplace without question. Business rebels, on the other hand, constantly challenge the status quo. They ask why we do certain things and for what purpose. You also see that with many artists. Going against the mainstream isn't easy – especially if you don't know yet whether your ideas work. That's why corporate rebels need stamina and imagination. Their business idea is often the passion of their lives.

To what extent do Corporate Rebels change organisations? Could you give an example?

We visited China a few times lately, and write about Haier, a manufacturer of white goods and electronics. They are turning into a service platform. They even give away some hardware and earn money from the associated software. For example, they have a gaming laptop, but the monetisation runs through the streaming of games – which is a huge market in China.

Can a CEO be a rebell?

Zhang Ruimin, the CEO, drives this transformation. It is a completely new business model: from mass production to mass customization. Customers come with their own desires and Haier implements them. This is fascinating – for an organisation of 70,000 employees. The company consists of small corporates/start-ups that act freely, and are connected only via an online platform. They fired 10,000 middle managers who became superfluous in such an organisation. In Germany, or at least Holland, this is impossible so far! But Haier is a special case in China. Most companies there are still traditional.

It’s a paradox. On the one hand, rebels are visionary and supportive, but on the other, if someone acts against their convictions, they react very strongly and kick people out easily
Joost Minnaar

What drives rebellious leaders to promote such radical changes?

There are two main motivations. There are those who are driven by the idea that people are good and that they should treat them accordingly in the workplace. They often begin in a traditional company, but after a year or two, start their own business. They simply don't fit well in the corporate world. The other (around half) of the transformational leaders start with a traditional leadership style, and then something dramatic happens. For example, someone dies because of burnout, or the stress of decision-making. The authority and responsibility have become overwhelming for them. This crucial experience, a kind of traumatic experience, is a wake-up call for them.

Rebels are not necessarily de-gooders

Could you give an example of a Rebel who had such an experience?

One example is a director of a cookie factory in Holland. When he took over the factory, he had a hierarchical structure, and constantly urged his employees to be more efficient. He was very successful. The factory grew and had many more employees. But he became addicted. At some point his family intervened and took him to rehab for a month. He thought the factory would collapse without him. When he came back ‘sober’, however, he found the company far from chaos. Rather, it had its best month yet—while he was away. This had an enlightening effect. He changed his leadership style: from being very directive to very supportive.

So Corporate Rebels are good people and do-gooders?

In a way, yes. But they're not easy. They say either follow me or leave me. It's all or nothing; my way or the highway. It’s a paradox. On the one hand, they are visionary and supportive, but on the other, if someone acts against their convictions, they react very strongly and kick people out easily – more so than traditional organisations.

Often these leaders are like gods to their employees. I'm not sure that's healthy.
Joost Minnaar

How important is the way they communicate their mission or vision?

Most of them describe their vision of the future very well—and engage others. This is important for them to realise their goal. They may go their own way, but they will explain why they make these decisions. They also give feedback on an ongoing basis. They offer a lot of freedom to those involved, and don't care how goals are achieved. The best example is the founder of Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard. He didn't want to become a businessman, but rather to change the world by making clothes that are durable and environmentally friendly. He surrounded himself with people who knew about these matters. He wasn't a clothing maker himself.

Undercover behaviour is common

Often these leaders are like gods to their employees. I'm not sure that's healthy. But on the other hand, it plays an important role. In a hierarchy or bureaucracy, this inspiration or cult of personality is not so necessary. But it is in new working environments where most decisions are taken on the front line. One example: Jos de Blok revolutionised home/care in Holland. His company, Buurtzorg, has over 1,000 self-administered teams. They need a clear vision for their decision-making processes.

History shows that rebels fight against power structures, conventions and rules. What about corporate rebels?

Yes, they break rules—especially when the rules don't make sense. They don’t bow to authority. Anyone who wants to stop them from doing something must be able to explain why. If their organisations are big enough, they can influence the stakeholders themselves. Here in Holland, de Blok is now changing rules the government makes. He sometimes does something that is not officially allowed. But he demonstrates it works, and then asks for permission. This is a typical corporate rebels’ approach. Communication and transparency are very important, so that you can break rules. They explain why this is necessary and simply show that things can be different.

Rebels who don't have high positions often act in secret. As in the army—we know the names of the generals, but not those of the foot soldiers.
Joost Minnaar

Those who are in power can easily change rules or determine them. But the game changers who don't have top positions — aren't they the real rebels?

The fact that I'm talking mostly about top managers is because it's easier to get to know their stories. Rebels who don't have high positions often act in secret. As in the army—we know the names of the generals, but not those of the foot soldiers. I can give you a good example of this. Frank van Massenhove is head of a Belgian social department, FOD Sociale Zaken. To become leader, he had to apply to a commission. In the interview he gave the impression of being a very traditional leader—to get the job. But when he took up his new position, he gathered the 1,500-odd employees and explained his vision, including that he would give them a lot of freedom.

Rebellion is about power

But he asked them not to tell anyone about this change. If someone heard of it on the outside, he would have been stopped. So, they closed the doors for a few years. During this time, the department was completely restructured and most rules abolished. The employees could work from anywhere, and at any time. Then he came back to the commission and said, “I know you don't like this way of working, but we have increased productivity by 10 percent every year. The results are good.” So, you need that kind of undercover behaviour if you're not yet at the top.

Is undercover behaviour that common?

Unfortunately, yes. People know that if they go too far they will be stopped by management. Sometimes a department or team starts doing things differently and the rest of the organisation follows. But that's rare. Because to make that change you still need the permission of top management – at least to some extent. We haven't seen a real coup so far: a big company that has changed completely, when the management didn't want it. It's easy for management to repress such activities. Change is more likely if executives who don't support the changes don't stop them.

What about smaller organisations?

In smaller organisations it might work if the change movement so big that management can no longer stop it – at least not without firing the majority of the company. In 2016, a case like this occurred at Handelsbanken in Sweden. They have a truly innovative management culture. A new CEO had been appointed. He wanted to introduce an extra layer of hierarchy. When he closed 60 local branches, the employees said: "There's no way that's going to happen". So, the company fired the CEO. His attitude didn't fit the organisation.

Change is more likely if executives who don't support the changes don't stop them.
Joost Minnaar

Several companies are currently calling for more innovation, more intrapreneurs and more mavericks. Is it a better climate now for corporate rebels?

Intrapreneurship is an old concept from the 70s, but is regaining popularity. Unfortunately, it is mostly a kind of fake freedom. You can try new things and get resources until you are successful. Then the company, with all its rules and restrictions, simply picks up the idea. That’s mediocre intrapreneurship. If you think of a Daimler or Hugo Boss: start-up projects in their incubator programs are only 10 percent realised, despite all the resources and brand power.

Intrapreneurship is an old concept

Maybe it's still better than the traditional way, but real pioneers make it more radical. Haier, for example, has a success rate of 40 percent of funded projects, some of which receive venture capital from outside. This is because they leave the projects alone and really let them go their own way from start to finish. However, we often see a ‘light’ version in which creative minds do not have a stake in the outcome. They know, if they are successful, that a manager will come and swallow them up. Most companies are not great at keeping real entrepreneurs in the company.

If they have a feeling the organisation is fooling them or that they can't really change anything, do they just build their own business?

That's right. It was the case with me. It's one of the reasons I joined forces with my long-time friend Pim in the Corporate Rebels.

So, you're a rebel yourself?

Yes and no. On the one hand, I don't have the ambition to become CEO. I am more interested in research and writing. I want to build a knowledge base. Rebel figures like to be in the forefront. But I am a rebel in the sense that I question why we do things and follow rules that seem pointless to me.


About Joost Minnaar and “Corporate Rebels”

In 2016, Joost Minnaar and his long-time friend Pim de Morree quit their frustrating jobs. They began visiting corporates around the world that organise work in completely different ways. In their blog, with readers in more than 100 countries, they share insights about these alternative approaches. Their prestigious Bucket List includes more than 100 leaders, researchers, companies and executives.

The Corporate Rebels team has now grown to six (soon eight) colleagues. They also advise companies on transformation processes. And they are often on the road as speakers at companies or events.

They are listed in the "Top 30 Emergent Management Thinkers" and have been nominated for the "Thinkers50 Breakthrough Idea Award".