Written by
Dr. John Mervyn-Smith

31 Jul 2015

Are Game Changers born or made?

31 Jul 2015 • by Dr. John Mervyn-Smith

A recent study, The DNA of a Game Changer, shows Game Changers have a specific ‘DNA’. This raises the question: is someone ‘born’ a Game Changer or can they be developed to become one? The reality is it just doesn’t matter, according to Dr John Mervyn-Smith, chief psychologist at eg.1, and here he tells us why.

Defining leaders and Game Changers

For far too long now, many people have felt a pressure to be something they’re not in corporate life; to play a role. Many people I’ve talked to attempt to mould themselves into a behaviour pattern determined by a particular organisational culture. They take the view that this is necessary to be successful in their working lives. There is some truth in this and this pressure, often subtle and implicit, taps into that strong human desire to conform. 

By definition, Game Changers are successful because they seek to challenge traditional ways of doing things, seeking to conform to a set of expectations is likely to stifle them. The challenge for organisations is to liberate and nurture their Game Changers, not to shape or mould them.
The study suggests that there is room for improvement in this regard. It also describes how three-quarters (72%) of senior managers/leaders believe that up to 11% of the workforce are Game Changers. That’s a large proportion of employees – many of whom, it would appear, go unnoticed. If this is true then there is, potentially, a large talent pool in the corporate world that is being neglected or under-utilised. 

Where are your Game Changers?

So the question of ‘born or made’ while intellectually interesting, is a distraction in terms of talent management and development. There is a pool of talent, in many organisations, waiting to be ‘tapped in to’. 

A number of organisations are recognising that this is the ‘real’ corporate challenge when it comes to a group of individuals who, again by definition, have the potential to ‘change the landscape’ within their organisations, to bring an obsessive imagination to change, in radically creative ways, the way that work is done.

We need to free and nurture those Game Changers in our organisations, rather than trying to train people to think like one; this is a contradiction in terms

An environment to thrive

Game Changers need to be encouraged to be themselves, play with their strengths, and utilise those qualities that are likely to be a product of both nature and nurture. In broad terms research shows that employees who use their strengths are more engaged, perform better, and are less likely to leave organisations. Allowing Game Changers to flourish by ensuring they have the right people around them and are in an environment in which they can thrive will mean that they are far more likely to achieve their game changing potential. 
This is not to say that Game Changers cannot take some responsibility for developing those qualities and skills needed to function effectively in a corporate setting.

Effective corporate Game Changers learn the importance of developing sophisticated influence skills for engaging people with their ideas and taking them on a journey of change that could feel threatening for some.

They can also learn to manage those perceptions of others around the excesses of their nature that quite often ‘rub others up the wrong way’: stubbornness, single-mindedness, an arrogance that can come from seeing things so clearly, an impatience with others when they don’t see the same possibilities and being overly challenging.

The right environment will also have a significant impact upon the degree to which organisations can make the most of Game Changing talents, once they have identified it.

As social animals, we are all more likely to thrive in settings where we feel that we belong, where we are accepted. It often helps when we have like-minded people around us. More importantly, history tells us that Game Changing creativity often happens in cohorts – people who come together to ‘spur’ each other on to great achievements. The great strides in invention and creativity in Silicon Valley would be a recent example. Centres of excellence are not a new idea but the corporate challenge is to create centres of excellence with their organisations within which Game Changers can thrive.

What leaders need to know about Game Changers:

  • Understand that it’s the freedom to convert ideas into reality that drives Game Changers. They are less driven by needs for status and hierarchical progression.
  • Game Changers need to feel free to experiment with ‘safe to fail cultures’.
  • You need to be prepared to believe in people even when they are subjected to cynicism and mockery.
  • You need to be resilient enough to ‘hold your nerve when the going gets tough’.