The Advantages to Being an Outsider

Last Updated Jan 13, 2011 9:19 AM EST

When Michael Bloomberg appointed Cathleen Black to be the next Chancellor of the New York school system, it wasn't because she was an expert in public education. (Her own children went to private schools.) It was because of her reputation as an outstanding manager.

But it made me wonder: Is there an advantage to entering an industry where you have no proven track record or expertise? Thinking about it, I could see there are three main pluses:

1. No Political Debts to Pay

Being an outsider clearly confers advantages. You have no affiliations. You aren't beholden to particular people, causes, factions. All organizations, commercial or otherwise, have politics and it is critical for leaders to stay above them. So coming in without political debts is liberating.

2. Easier to Be Objective

The upside of ignorance is objectivity. You can be sure that Black will be lobbied, from day one, from everyone inside and outside the school system. For a short period, she'll be able to take a clear-eyed view of everything she's told and weigh the merits of a million arguments. Black has an outstanding track record for being able to cut through complex problems so she'll be good at this. And after working inside media businesses, which are so riven with politics that make the Borgias look like the Waltons, her political instincts will be pretty sharp.

Which is useful because she won't know where the bodies are buried. Which are the policies that were tried before and failed - and did they fail or were they sabotaged? Where are the black holes (intellectual, financial, operational) that nobody wants to reveal?

If she assumes that her predecessor wasn't an idiot (and every new appointee would do well to operate on this assumption) what made the job so hard? One of the toughest problems leaders face is knowing what's going on inside their organizations. The fact is that, at the outset, everyone will talk to her. This gives Black a unique (because time-limited) opportunity to get a pretty good snap shot.

Objectivity is great but it isn't everything and it certainly won't be enough - as GE's Bob Nardelli found when he bombed at Home Depot and ATT's Whitacre found at GM.

3. A Fresh Perspective on Old Problems
As an outsider, she carries with her a different perspective on how the school system appears to the world outside education and outside politics. She knows its image, how stupid, incestuous and narcissistic internal wrangling looks to taxpayers. That gives her a connection with the public that is a mandate. And being media savvy, she will also appreciate that this image won't be fixed by PR alone.

But very quickly, all of these outsider advantages will be gone. Black will have formed her own views, people will have lined up to support or fight her, she will have lost her outsider perspective and the real work will start. That's when she'll find out whether she really is a great manager-of-all-trades. If there even is such a thing.

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    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.