I was interviewed on a Podcast hosted by ViewPoint highlighting the skills of my friend Tim Nelson, discussing his skills as a Tall Poppy.
In our organizations, big and small, we often normalize the performance and behavior of our personnel, excluding those who stand out from the norm. Organizations do not typically encourage outliers and find it much easier to manage everyone if they are all relatively the same. That is certainly true in the Military and throughout the civilian business world, especially in the aerospace sector.
The ’Tall Poppy Syndrome’ refers to cutting down the tall growing flowers so that the field of flowers are all uniform and the same height. Our cultures do this with those colleagues who do not naturally conform to the organizational behavior that has been established in our places of work. The problem is that these outliers who don’t conveniently fit into the norm, may possess unique skills and capabilities needed to help our organizations excel and succeed.
We all love the rock star performers who can solve the unsolvable, succeed against insane odds and triumph when people think that there is no hope. HR departments hate the people who are not like the rest of the gang and diminish or ostracize the ‘one offs’ who don’t behave like everyone else.
The Tall Poppy Syndrome certainly applies to the outliers who I know; at the top of the list is my former colleague and close friend, Tim Nelson. Tim and I were both appointed as Lockheed Martin Technical Fellows, an honor bestowed on less than 1% of the engineering world when we worked there together. I was the Lockheed Martin Fellow as the expert in Flight Test and Tim Nelson was the Fellow for ‘Red X’ as a problem solver. Tim had many, many patents to his name, could mentor and coach better than anyone on the techniques to solve unique and seemingly unsolvable difficult technical problems. However, Tim was a Tall Poppy. His gift was his dyslexia that gave him the ability to view problems in a non-linear fashion and to see things through images, not words or linearly as the rest of us think. Tim’s gift allowed him to process a problem from back to front, seeing what needed to be done and working back the steps to solve and lead a team to succeed. Tim had been recognized for this unique gift which really aided the giant aerospace firm working through many engineering issues of the F-35 program, the largest defense contract in history. Every problem solved meant money, resources and time saved and Tim was superb at contributing to this effort. The problem was that Tim was a Tall Poppy and did not fit into the norm, which really disturbed some of his superiors. Tim’s dyslexia made him an outlier that HR could not conveniently manage. Ultimately Tim’s unique skills were not recognized as valuable enough to retain.
I wonder what would have happened if the gifted stars with dyslexia like Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Muhammad Ali, and Steven Spielberg, were marginalized before they could succeed in their fields. I love Tall Poppies. They are often the only ones who can solve the unsolvable. I spent so much of my professional life in organizations that were intolerant of anyone outside of the norm, yet I have been so blessed to know and work with those Tall Poppies who changed the world including my friend Tim Nelson. We should all look up and see the gifts that everyone brings to the table and not be so judgmental when everyone doesn’t look or behave precisely the same way.