BL&T No. 178: Exploring David Maister's Dynamos, Cruisers, & Losers

Agency Leadership

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Borrowed & Learned

In his one-of-a-kind article (read it to see what I mean), "The Problem of Standards," David Maister classifies the level of energy and ambition of people in a work setting into three types: dynamos, cruisers, and losers. He presents the framework in the context of partners at a law firm, but I believe it can apply to the composition of an organization entirely.

The losers are who we can all imagine—no surprises there. What intrigued me was the dynamos and cruisers.

Maister describes dynamos as individuals who perpetually invest in their future, asking themselves, "Where do I want to go next, and what do I do today to make that happen?" They see more opportunities to learn and grow, no matter their accomplishments. In Maister's words," A dynamo is somebody who is always acting like they have a career, but in addition to taking care of this year, every year they are doing something to bring about their personal future." Dynamos capture the essence of ambition: a continuous strive towards future goals while excelling in current responsibilities.

On the other hand, cruisers are reliable performers content with their current responsibilities. Maister describes them as "your good, solid citizen partners" who consistently deliver quality work without aspiration to advance. He comically portrays a cruiser as a character named Henk, the sausage maker. His sausages are fabulous; everyone loves them, but for Henk, there's no future beyond making sausage.

While a cruiser's contribution is valuable and may work in some roles, their lack of ambition to grow beyond their current position can pose challenges in a company culture that prioritizes innovation and evolution.

Maister's framework reminded me of an impromptu happy hour with agency leaders I attended years ago. I spoke with a founder who shared his current dilemma: a team member who demonstrated no inclination toward growth despite maybe 6 or 7 years of solid performance. While he appreciated their contributions, their performance review was coming up, and he felt he had to make a choice:

  • Keep them, continue giving them incremental pay raises, and wait for them to move on.
  • Replace them with a more ambitious hire who could come in at a lower salary and bring new energy.

I don't recall how the situation shook out, but it highlights a relevant point: while cruisers can fulfill a role within organizations, aligning individual ambition with the company's expectations is crucial. In that way, I'd argue the situation was less about the individual's performance and more about a lack of standards within the agency. If personal growth and learning were critical, how did this person stick around for so long?

While a lack of ambition may be the challenge with managing cruisers, managing dynamos isn't a walk in the park. I have fond memories of managing a certain dynamo early in my career. With a constant desire to grow, they were always looking for the next challenge. They taught me how to give meaningful feedback while raising the bar with increasingly difficult work assignments to keep them engaged. As a new manager, I had to learn to get comfortable with the thought, "This person could do my job one day."

Related: BL&T No. 052: Hiring For... Your Replacement?

As we continue to grow and evolve our team, the distinction between dynamos and cruisers has been on my mind. What qualities do we want team members to embody? Company culture has as much to do with how people work and collaborate as the people themselves. And it all starts with hiring. The trouble is, how do you spot a dynamo?

In the article, I like how bluntly Maister suggests posing the question to potential hires, "How would you like to join a law firm where the rule is that you’ve got to be learning and growing or otherwise you’re not meeting your requirements as a partner? With interviews coming up this week, I'm inspired by the upfront sentiment, putting it out there to see how the candidate reacts. Is this what they want?

Beyond that, here are some other signals I look for in gauging a candidate's ambition and growth mindset during an interview:

Career Goals: Ambitious individuals possess clear, long-term career goals or visions. They can share how the potential position aligns with their career path.

Continuous Learning: They show a commitment to self-improvement and learning, often engaging in formal education, cultivating self-taught skills, or maintaining a habit of reading to stay inspired.

Setbacks & Failures: Ambitious candidates aren't afraid to acknowledge mistakes or failures, viewing them as opportunities for growth. Their stories of overcoming challenges and the lessons learned illustrate a growth mindset.

Managing Feedback: Ambitious individuals are receptive to feedback, using it as a catalyst for growth. They reflect on constructive criticism from past roles and how it has shaped their professional development.

Proactiveness & Adaptability: The story of their career path can be revealing, highlighting why they pursued new opportunities and their proactivity in seeking growth and adaptability to change.

Personal Passions: Genuine enthusiasm for their work is critical; however, our careers are only one facet of who we are. Ambition can be reflected in their life outside of work, whether through side projects, passions, or hobbies. Some candidates are caught off guard when I ask about this, but it's always fun to discuss.

Growth Opportunities: Candidates curious about professional development, career progression within the company, and mentorship show a forward-looking mindset, eager to grow and evolve with the organization.


In what ways does my team culture reinforce the value of continuous learning? How can I better measure the ambition and growth of my team?

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