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A linchpin makes it all come together

Is there someone in your company whose abrupt departure would cause unholy chaos? Seth Godin called them a linchpin.

You probably aren’t worried about staff members quitting right now. Many employees are simply hoping they’ll be kept on the team until the vaccine does its thing and life resumes to whatever the next normal looks like. Similarly, many employers are hoping business remains strong enough that they can keep paying their team until some form of normalcy returns.

And yet, there’s one type of employee to be concerned about. They’re the glue that holds everything together. I’m talking about someone whose departure could bring the house down, even though might not be apparent.

They’re the folks who “are the company”. If you have someone like that, ask yourself: Do we treat and compensate them in a manner that correlate to their value to the company & our customers?

When the economy starts growing again and it’s clear that the turnaround is going to stick, many companies will be hiring. Finding great people to do the work your company does is your second most important job. Keeping the great ones you have is the first.

Your linchpin will be the one other companies are looking for. They’re not just a member of the team, they’re an essential cog in your business.

You need a plan to keep them.

We’ll talk about four areas:

  • What happens if you don’t keep them?
  • Compensate linchpins properly
  • Treat them like you value them.
  • Make their leadership official.

What happens if you don’t keep them?

When the economy turns around, many businesses will see a glut of applications.

The linchpin will have their choice of jobs, even if they aren’t looking. If you don’t know who they are, which is entirely possible in a larger company, your first step is to identify them. Your managers should know and if they don’t, that should tell you something about the work your managers are doing. In a smaller company, you probably know who they are.

A friend recently told me about their primary contact at the CPA firm who does their taxes. They gave the firm and their clients two years notice that they were retiring. Normally, this would seem unusual. Taxes are often once-a-year transactions, so their announcement was two transactions worth of notice – reasonable.

The company where they worked did nothing to replace them. Maybe they assumed it’d be business as usual. They were “only” a middle tier employee doing tax work – they weren’t a CPA. How much impact could their departure have?

This linchpin retired this past summer. The week of December 3rd, my friend got a letter that his CPA firm was dissolving. Not in a few months or after tax season. Immediately.

It turns out the now-retired person was the glue holding the office and their business processes together. Imagine having a CPA firm for over 20 years and having to tell all of your clients in December that you won’t be able to help them with their upcoming tax filings. Not this year, not ever.

Compensate a linchpin well

I can think of two people who worked for me who were linchpins. They’ve probably been linchpins everywhere they’ve worked. 

I had control of J’s compensation, but I was young and stupid. The company was new, so every dollar had to be watched. No excuses – I was less of a leader back then.

We treated her like the valuable linchpin she was but whenever I think back to that time, I wish I had paid her better, even though she made higher than average for the position at that time and made more than at her previous job.

20 years later, I’ve yet to find a more effective peer, though I haven’t given up my search.

It doesn’t matter what they do. These people do whatever they do so well and create such an amazing experience that their customers (internal or external) would be up in arms if they left.

For the person you’re thinking of, are you paying them at a level that indicates how much the company values them? It’s easy to say “Well, they’re in a role whose market pay isn’t higher.” Do you make the decisions or does your budget? Do you know what the impact on your company would be if someone offered them $200 more a week than you pay them, so they left because they needed the money?

If you don’t currently have the funds, talk with them. They need to know they’re appreciated and how you’re thinking about them. Keep your promises. 

While money is important, it’s not all about compensation. There are at least two other things you can and should do to recognize your linchpins. 

Treat them like you value them

T reminds me of the person who retired from the CPA firm, ie: they are the glue that holds everything together. Her magic manifested itself during new customer onboarding, customer training and similar duties.

That company’s onboarding process was complex and technical – and was made more challenging by the variety of customer environments we encountered.

During the onboarding process, she’d discover things the customer never told sales – things no one knew about the organization or their business process. Things the customer didn’t often realize they needed or needed to stop.

These are the things you discover when you get down to bare metal in order to add a new capability for a customer. And yet, I watched the company treat her indifferently at times, as a hassle at others, with reverence at other times, and ultimately as a difficult person who was essential, so the company tolerated her… until it didn’t.

I say tolerated because no one seemed to like managing her. We got along well perhaps because I was fortunate enough to figure out her motivation. She loved the work and her customers. Anything that got in the way of that didn’t sit well with her, but the secret was that her occasional grumpiness was sourced entirely in her concern about a customer’s poor experience. The customer always came first. She’d schedule an onboarding at two am if necessary.

I put myself between the aforementioned treatment and her as much as I could because her value was evident. I saw first hand what she was getting done. She had above-average patience with customers, as well as a load of industry knowledge, technical skill, and the ability to navigate the crazy things we sometimes find at a customer site – without losing it.

There was literally no one else at the company who could do her job. While I had the technical abilities, I didn’t have the industry knowledge. She had both, as well as the ability to work with customers.

The value of people like this is immense. Maybe you can’t pay them like a VP, but you’d better treat them with the same consideration. They’re worth it. Finding out their value by virtue of their departure will be expensive and painful. It’s not all about compensation.

Make their leadership official

The people we’re talking are often asked to train new team members, even those in more senior roles. There’s a reason linchpins are often asked to train others – and it isn’t necessarily their skill.

It’s the example they set and the attitude they bring to the work. 

The thing about spreading what this person does is that how they do their work is what makes them a leader. Sure, they may have more experience and maybe more advanced skills than others, but usually, it’s their attitude and the care they take doing the actual work.

Instead of thinking “I’m just a worker bee, this isn’t important work”, they work as if they realize that every step in the process is an important part of the whole, even their part, because it is.

That mindset and the thought processes they convey can be transferred to other people by using them as mentors or trainers. While this may not be a true management role, having someone act as a mentor or trainer is still recognizing them as a leader. Having a fancy title or management responsibility doesn’t make you a leader. Your actions do that. Most of them are leaders long before that – and often remain leaders even if the title and responsibility is never conveyed.

The people around them already know they’re a leader. Having them mentor or train others tells the linchpin that YOU know. That’s important. It sends a company-wide message that recognize their leadership, even though they aren’t “management”.

You probably have a linchpin on your team – maybe more than one if you’re lucky. Question is, can you keep them?

Photo by Becca Tapert on Unsplash