|IN A NUTSHELL: Part 3 of a 3 Part Series: Your people are your most mission-critical resources, where do you have blind spots or weaknesses due to unplanned talent losses?
Part 1 of this series can be found here.
Part 2 of this series can be found here.
We all know that a business doesn’t run without the people that keep it running. We also know that people aren’t a “fixed asset” in the sense that they aren’t permanent. They don’t work in one job forever — they get promoted internally, they get recruited away, they get fired, they quit, they get sick, they even die sometimes without clearing it with their manager first. Given the fact that we know intuitively that people can be a vulnerability, it’s sometimes amazing how much of the firm’s intellectual capital we allow to be concentrated into the brain of one individual, with no clear backup plan.
How many of these people work in your company? (Names changed to protect the innocent):
- Larry is the technologist who is the only one in your company who understands Technology X, which is core to your overall business model. He knows it deeper than anyone ever could because he’s worked at the company for 30 years and he invented Technology X 25 years ago. Larry is either eligible for retirement now or very soon and sticks around primarily because he honestly enjoys the technical challenge.
- Chuck is just like Larry, but was he was unfortunately downsized as part of a reduction in force back in the 1990’s and has been working as a part-time consultant since that time. Even though the company laid him off, you keep paying him to come back because he’s the undisputed industry expert in Technology Y. Chuck is unexplainably loyal to the company that laid him off, but occasionally threatens to “really” retire one day.
- Betty Sue is the administrative clerical person who over time has inherited process ownership of some arcane yet mission critical business process in your operation. Her domain could be anything from setting up new product codes to processing customer claims to managing product costing to administering the timeclock and payroll databases. Whatever it is, it’s really boring, yet really important. It is not uncommon for Betty Sue to be the curator of a legacy DOS batch file or a complex system of interlinked Access databases and Excel files running on a dedicated box off of floppy disks under Windows 95.
- Rod is a new hotshot that joined the company a couple of years ago as his 1st or 2nd job out of college. Wet behind the ears, but full of energy, he has attacked everything he’s been assigned with a ton of passion, and has voluntarily taken on multiple other projects outside his normal job assignment. He’s hitting it so hard that you are not even sure of all the areas that he’s improved. You can see a lot of runway for him in the company.
- Biff is the career sales person who has cultivated key relationship equity with decision makers at several of your key customers after years and years of selling and thousands of rounds of company-paid golf. His perpetual tan implies that he probably doesn’t really work all that hard, but when you need a favor from the customer he can usually get it and when they have a problem, he can usually do a lot to help it “go away” quickly and painlessly.
- Johnny works in the factory, either as a maintenance technician or as a production employee, as he has ever since high school (25 – 40 years ago). He is the “Horse Whisperer” for your key process equipment. He probably has female names for your key equipment and when they are sick, he knows what’s wrong just by listening to the sounds of their voices.
Now what would happen if you showed up Monday and one of these people’s chair was empty? What would happen to your business if a key piece of your talent pool was no longer part of your team, regardless of the reason? First, let’s address generically your potential backup plans that you (should already) have in place:
- For Larry and Chuck, these are long term knowledge vulnerabilities that you should identify as part of your annual organizational review. You have to develop understudies for these talents, even if it means carrying somewhat redundant headcount for some period of time. These are likely to be niche talents; assume that it will take time to find the right backup, and realize that it may take years to come close to transferring a meaningful portion of the guru’s knowledge. Get started yesterday.
- Johhny’s specialist skillset is similar to the above case, but it should be somewhat easier to identify a suitable apprentice and have him or her work along side Johnny for a period of time to learn the key skills. You are likely to lose some of Johnny’s speed of solution when a backup takes over, but you are less likely to totally shut down your business. Start a rotational cross-training or apprenticeship program to bring others up to Johnny’s level.
- Biff probably guardedly protects his key influence chips, but you have to have others on your commercial team accompany him on key strategic visits to start to spread your relationship equity around on your team. Selective forced territory / account rotations, while potentially inconvenient for the customer, can force relationship diversification while Biff is still on the payroll and can come in for support if needed.
- You should consider re-engineering Betty Sue’s work package so that it is more digitized, streamlined or transferable. Rod may be a great resource to help her pull off the redesign.
- Rod will not be in his job forever, you already know that. From day 1, you need to challenge him to document his improvements and to develop smooth transition packages for each of his projects so that his improvements can be handed off to his successors and institutionalized in the company after he has moved on and up.
There are several ways that may help you to get a sense that someone could be leaving:
- As always, the best method is to talk openly and frequently to your people. Ask them flat out: “How’s the job going?” “What are you working on?” “What could we do to make your role more challenging or more satisfying?” You maybe surprised what some pointed open ended questions may uncover, and your people will appreciate the interest, assuming you follow up.
- For people nearing retirement, you should engage in career planning with them to understand their plans and their commitment to help you secure a smooth transition. It’s a good idea to try to understand what may be going on in their personal lives as well, as spouse or family health and career issues can often have unplanned impact on your employees.
- It is usually obvious if someone has “checked out” of their job due to lack of interest or assignment scope change. Visible changes in enthusiasm or energy are a good sign that someone may be disengaging from their job. This is particularly important after any major organization restructuring. The survivors often harbor discontent which ultimately could impact their desire to work in the company long term.
- If you are connected to your folks on key social networking platforms like LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook, you may also pick up signs that folks are evaluating other options. A rapid stockpiling of LinkedIn recommendations or a number of recent network connections to recruiters are tell-tale signs of trouble. I don’t advocate using these tools to spy on your people, but if they are in your network, remember that that information is there for your consideration.
Ultimately, you need to have a backup person for every key talent in your company. Ideally, everyone is so satisfied with working for your company that they work until a carefully planned retirement date. Neither of these dreams happens very often in reality. Careful planning can help you minimize the potential downsides of the organizational reality. Please share your experiences with managing these types of risks in your business and any tricks or tips that you have developed.