I heard with some sadness about the death of a legend the other day. One of my hobbies is wilderness camping and this grand old lady was a fixture in the Adirondack mountains near where I grew up. She had rich brown hair, perfect teeth, and piercing dark eyes.

And large claws.

The mountain legend’s nickname was Yellow Yellow and she was a black bear. While her obituary said she was of modest stature, I can tell you from personal experience that she was plenty big when she was 20 feet from me a couple of summers ago. We were squaring off over who was going to eat my dinner. She won the argument, though I later realized with smug satisfaction that the packet of freshly mixed freeze-dried spaghetti was so hot that she discarded it with only two tooth holes punched through the foil wrapper. She had stolen the meal but couldn’t use my spork, leaving her the tortured choice between a singed tongue or raiding a different campsite for dinner. Score one more point for opposable thumbs.

Yellow Yellow, Genius

The next day, I sheepishly admitted to a ranger that I had lost a meal to a bear. After I described her to the ranger, he laughed and said, “Hey, don’t feel bad. We’ve all lost food to that bear. That’s Yellow Yellow. She’s a genius.”

He went on to tell tales of how Yellow Yellow had stolen food being used to bait a different problem bear right from under the rangers’ noses. Of how she had found ways to beat every single “bear-proof” canister invented by man by jumping on them, rolling them down hills, even sending them down rapids. Only one brand had a decent record against her, and even that brand wasn’t foolproof.

Yellow Yellow was a master of learning. Other bears were bigger. Other bears were more aggressive. But she learned and adapted and figured out ways to get free dinners over and over for 20 years. That’s an impressive record of mooching.

Most companies have at least one Yellow Yellow hanging around. They’re often out in the field, coping with problems posed by customer or technical problems that people at headquarters haven’t even considered.

I met a salesperson last year who is a total Yellow Yellow. No matter how challenging the sales environment he was thrown into by his company, no matter how little training he received – and sometimes in spite of the training he received – he figured out a way to be successful. He studied his colleagues and customers. He experimented with things as mundane as what clothes he wore when he went on sales calls. He refined. He puzzled. He mastered. And properly leveraged, he’s worth ten normal high performers because he helps his employers chart new territory.

So here’s a thought. Rather than sitting in rooms hoping you’ll come up with brilliant solutions to persistent problems, why not get out to visit your Yellow Yellows? Study them. Watch them searching for the keys to cracking open that pesky challenge. Try to understand how they think and work. Figure out what they’re doing that others could easily adopt. Enlist their support.

How do you find a Yellow Yellow? It’s deceptively simple:

  • Look for the high performers in your organization. Yellow Yellows may not be at the absolute top of the list every year, but they consistently rank in the top 10%. That’s a good starting pool.
  • Set to the side those who have been successful but have essentially had a stable environment or have been plowing the same furrow for ages. Look for the people who have been thrown into all sorts of situations and still succeed. Now we’re getting closer to the Yellow Yellows.
  • Talk to the people on this short list. Listen carefully to how they think about their work. Are they students of the work or are they purely instinctive? If they can put their finger on what makes them successful in a given assignment – and better yet, you can tell they get completely jacked by cracking the code, you probably have yourself a Yellow Yellow.
  • Throw a new way of thinking at these people. Ask them to experiment and give it a shot. If they’re open and curious and courageous enough to put themselves out there – to risk their precious reputations for the sake of the thrill of discovery and learning… well, you have yourself a Yellow Yellow.

Who’s your Yellow Yellow?