Difference Makers

Unleashing the hidden leadership potential in your organization

The Spreadsheet Killer

Mandeep Chhapra began his career as a junior financial analyst at The Clorox Company. Early on he noticed something startling: the company’s entire financial reporting system was reliant on a 40-year-old technology – spreadsheets, 100s of spreadsheets, that required countless hours to populate, correct, and debug. 

He wondered: why was the entire Finance department mired in data wrangling when they could be focusing on generating powerful financial insights for leadership?

Mandeep took it upon himself to become ‘The Spreadsheet Killer’. His plan was to find a way to automate financial reporting. He set about experimenting.  After trying many new tools and methods he simplified and automated dozens of highly complex spreadsheets.  The result was he saved the company 100s of hours, improved accuracy, and freed up Finance to focus on strategic work.

And all this from an entry level analyst with no team, no budget and no fancy job title. 

Mandeep is an example of what we call a Difference Maker.  A person who, when given the space, can come up with game-changing innovations despite having little to no formal authority. In the world of flat and agile organizations, it’s crucial to find ways of unleashing and encouraging such unique talent.

Difference Makers create huge value for their organizations

Often junior in the organization, Difference Makers create and implement big ideas in low-risk ways with minimal investment. They also serve as beacons within the organization, showing that anyone can make a difference should they wish. You don’t necessarily need power. You need purpose and passion.

And they spark a culture shift towards creating a proactive, can-do environment. Difference Makers might represent an organization’s greatest return on their talent investment. 

A Modern leadership model

Difference Makers are people who have an intuitive gift for leadership. Because they don’t have much hard power in their organizations, Difference Makers can’t push their ideas on others.  They have to influence in other ways. And it’s a gift that can be taught. 

They create pull for their ideas through four distinctive behaviors:

Lead with a compelling insight 

They have ideas that further the mission of the organization and so get the attention of leadership. Mandeep’s insight uncovered how Clorox’s financial reporting was based on outdated technology. His idea revolutionized the effectiveness and efficiency of reporting and led Finance to better deliver on their stated purpose.

Think big, act small

Difference Makers take small, low-risk steps to test and prove their ideas using available resources. They learn, iterate, and scale over time. Mandeep started by automating one spreadsheet, then gradually scaled to a dozen Executive reports over the course of a year.

Paint an aspirational vision to attract people and resources.

Difference Makers don’t dwell on the negative or act in ways that trigger the organization’s defenses. Instead, they communicate an aspirational future and then work with, not against, the culture in driving change. Mandeep didn’t criticize his company but focused on the benefits of his ideas and worked in the open, collaborative style his company valued.

Help Others

Difference Makers don’t ask how others can help them; they ask how they can help others. They’re motivated by a desire to make their colleagues and their company better. This selfless motivation attracts people to their ideas and lets them build and lead teams despite a lack of formal authority. Mandeep’s motivation was to help make people’s lives easier using technology. He was able to build a coalition that delivered complex, high impact innovation.

Don’t overlook your Difference Makers

Despite their extraordinary capabilities, Difference Makers are often overlooked by leaders. They’re not motivated by the spotlight but by the desire to serve others and their organization. They want to get ahead but aren’t necessarily aiming for a particular job or instant promotion. 

In our achievement-oriented culture, this profile may not be high on the radar of senior leaders. Most Difference Makers we studied succeeded serendipitously – they happened to be the right person, at the right time, in the right place, with the right manager. 

But if it’s left to chance, many of the talented Difference Makers that exist in all companies will be ignored and wasted. And that’s bad business.

How to find and leverage your Difference Makers

Here are four key actions to find and leverage your Difference Makers: 

  • Widen your view of leadership. Leadership isn’t a role but a skill set. Many potential leaders don’t necessarily want to run large teams or be senior in the organization. 
  • Start looking for the people who have vision, creativity and strong influence skills regardless of where they sit or what their aspirations may be. Actively listen to these voices.
  • Give them rope. Allow them time and space to pursue ideas that might fall outside their day-to-day role. Key to this is coaching line managers to provide autonomy rather than keep their people constantly task focused. 
  • Build a psychologically safe culture where people feel they can generate ideas without being reprimanded, ignored or judged.
Difference Makers can transform your business

They’re woven throughout your organization, but likely being overlooked. With a small amount of intentional effort, you can unlock a hidden resource of financial value, innovation and beacons of culture change.



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