Monday, April 5, 2010

High Value at Low Ranks

I recall numerous times as my team got in an elevator on the way to a team lunch when someone would bust out some version of the line: "if this elevator crashed, the company would be in big trouble." From that came nods, grunts, and laughter, all signaling agreement (and I'm sure wishes that it wouldn't happen). It was clear to us that our team, a technology team responsible for $25-50+ million in revenue a year, depending on the year, was incredibly valuable to the company. We knew that if the team was gone, the company couldn't survive.

Recently, after hearing about the departure of one person from her organization, I wondered about the impact her loss would have on the organization. She wasn't a president, a CEO, a director, a manager, or a top sales person; she was standing on the lowest rung of the corporate ladder, but yet she was solely responsible for numerous well-known clients with deep pockets. She didn't have a back-up. She was valuable because nobody else knew what she did and how she did it, and the company hadn't devised a plan to pick up the work if this employee chose to leave.

Sometimes -- sickness, retirement, going back to school, childbirth -- voluntarily leaving is something that can't be prevented, but what does an organization do to show it values an employee who is in a position that doesn't have a back-up? Further, to go beyond the employee, what does an organization do to make sure it has a back-up for critial yet entry-level positions?

The organization should look to retain employees in these positions. I say get tuned in! Get to know what rewards, intrinsic or extrinsic, drive the employee. Is it money, promotion, appreciation and recognition, new skill, more weight into decisions, work-life balance, new tools to make work easier, or something else? Learn the key motivators and make them happen. If it seems possible that the rewards will only work for a short period of time, use this time to train a back-up.

In this case, the employee wanted a raise, and her manager denied it, presumably because the organization had a freeze on merit increases. Eight months later, the employee gave her two-weeks notice. The manager and the human resources team, if HR was even aware of the employee's request, failed to tune in, and for eight months failed to act. Perhaps they thought the job market was strong enough to keep this employee, this low-rung employee? It must be understood that talented employees exist at all levels in the organization, and management should put a plan in place to identify key employees and how business would be affected if something were to happen. Part of that plan would include:

  • meeting weekly with the employee to get an idea of his/her level of engagement

  • learning about and acting upon what will make this employee stay

  • training another employee as a back-up

These suggestions can help keep the employee from leaving, but at least for now, they help to create a small insurance policy for situations that don't seem big but really are.

In a time when fewer reqs are opening and companies are siding with attrition, what makes the most sense to you and to the company?

Do not fail to act.

I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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