Trying To Turn Lemons Into Orange-ade – Why do so many companies try to steer people away from what they’re good at?

Imagine the following scenario, if you will: A record executive comes up to Mick Jagger some years ago and says “You’ve got a good, rough, blues voice and you know how to get the crowd excited with your swagger. But you need to work on your enunciation, and the quality of your voice can get a bit pitchy, so please work on that.” I know, it’s pretty ridiculous. But that’s almost exactly what lots of company leaders do to talent on their teams.

It happens all the time – you hear things like, “Mike is highly strategic, very insightful and is great at building off of ideas… but he needs to get better at these other things”.  Or worse, “… he doesn’t fit the culture”. Time and time again, I hear about people being told to be something else, to be more like the current management style and culture, instead of finding ways to leverage what they’re particularly good at.

For example, I knew a senior Strategic Planner who was exceptionally quick at distilling marketing and consumer dynamics and data, great at ideating, and extremely deep in experience in almost all categories you could imagine. A perfect combination of talents for a senior Strategic Planner. Except he was expected to run a department and align with the leaders’ office politics, which he was not so good at. So, after briefly trying to make him good at what he wasn’t, he was pushed out. Despite the fact that his strategic acumen and instincts could have been a great value on numerous occasions.

Naturally, there are lots critical skills that are critical for anyone to develop. Like learning to collaborate, being respectful, getting your work done on time, delivering on your projects, watching costs and efficiency. And if you’re managing people, you need to learn how to do that successfully and productively. But when you find people particularly strong at something that really helps your company deliver on its core business, isn’t the best scenario to find ways to take advantage of them?

Why on earth push an incredibly creative person to be good at paperwork? Or tell the highly analytical person they need to learn how to lead a lateral-thinking exercise? That person who is bringing in tons of new business – let them continue doing that. But some companies seem to have an irrational desire to make everyone the same as everyone else.

Instead of doing that, do this:

  • Celebrate diversity.No matter how codified your culture is, no matter how articulated your company’s “vision statement” is, no matter how long the core leadership have worked together to build the business, having folks different from each other is a good thing. Diversity drives innovation, diversity drives fresh thinking, diversity drives creativity. So don’t try to make everyone like everyone else. Instead, recognize that having people particularly good at different things is even better.And be leery whenever someone says, “she doesn’t fit our culture” or “he’s wrong for the agency”. That’s generally code for “they’re different” – which, to my way of thinking, should be a good thing.
  • Organize around the output you want. If you have someone at your company who is particularly good and helpful in areas that make a huge difference for your company, it makes sense to find ways to leverage it. And if they don’t fit the current job description, structure or process model, maybe it’s worth considering altering them. It’s just silly to have processes and organizational structure that aren’t designed to facilitate the key aspects of your company’s output.
  • Leverage over-sized muscles. If someone happens to favor one “muscle” over another, don’t necessarily force them to balance it out with other muscles. Consider leveraging that out-of-proportion strength. This could lead to out-of-proportion successes, as well.
  • Find roles for exceptional people. Some people just aren’t going to fit traditional roles or traditional skill sets. But if they’re singularly good at what they do, seek ways to keep them doing it – in whatever kind of role might work.

Companies need generalists who can make the whole organization run, and can see the whole playing field and know how to tap the right resources at the right time. But the quirky “lemon” who is discounted because he doesn’t also make orange-ade? Think about ways that his lemon-ness might help the company succeed.

What do you guys think?


  1. Hi Michael,
    Thanks for your post and I agree wholeheartedly with what you say – although it makes total sense I’m amazed at how diversity is still not generally applauded. Unfortunately this has to be championed from above in order to make it part of the ‘corporate’ (or whichever team is involved) culture and more often nowadays there appear too few places where risk is encouraged. The ‘not invented here’ syndrome still seems to prevail. I particularly like the ‘Positive Deviance’ approach to addressing problems and issues and how this has worked on many projects worldwide.

    Hope you receive many more comments, it deserves to be discussed more widely – but then again, maybe this is too risky for some people to address!

    Best wishes


    1. Thanks, Martin. You’re right – we have to help champion the idea within our organizations and within our lives. I will look into the “positive deviance” idea – sounds good. Thanks again – keep reading!

  2. I completely agree. Employers should be focusing on employees strengths and embracing it. Although, employees should want to grow and develop their skills as well. It’s tough to balance embracing strengths and developing employees.

    1. Thanks, Amy. Naturally, career and skill growth is inherently a part of one’s career. However, the way some employers nearly disregard employees’ successes and strengths and focus on their lacks, vs. leaning on their skills more, seems a big miss to me.

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