February 13, 2015

Invisibles And Under-Appreciated Organizational Contributors

Recently, I met with David Zweig, the author of a great book entitled Invisibles: The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Relentless Self-Promotion, a book I strongly recommend.  https://www.amazon.com/Invisibles-Power-Work-Relentless-Self-Promotion/dp/159184634X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1423931196&sr=8-1&keywords=Invisibles

The book profiles several highly skilled professionals who delivered great value to others, but who choose not to bring fame to themselves, nor to maximize their earning potential.  I met with David because I thought of Dr. and Coach Catana Starks, whose career I profiled in From the Rough, as a person whom David could have profiled.

After talking with David, I realized that much of the success of any large organization leader, is the ability to recruit and maximize the performance of people not recognized externally for their contributions.   As I thought about these individuals, they fit into at least three broad categories:

  • David Zweig heavily focuses on the first category, those who are specialists in a technical field in which promotion to a senior executive position is not a viable option.  We would call these “the Top Professionals.”
  • The second category developed during the Pitney Bowes organizational succession planning process, individuals who add considerable value because they do many disparate tasks extremely well, but lack the ability to be a senior organizational leader. At Pitney Bowes, we called these individuals “the Usual Suspects,” because, based on a play on words from the film Casablanca, they were always rounded up when something important needed to be done.
  • Pitney Bowes, like many organizations that needed strong external and community outreach, either with elected officials or regulators, in courtrooms, or in the community, had individuals who were “Super Brand Ambassadors,” but did not seek the limelight.

The Top Professionals

Pitney Bowes had an elaborate talent evaluation system called “the Performance-Potential Grid” with the letters A, B, and C separately representing levels of promotability and performance. In our system, a “CA” described an exceptional performer in a position that did not lend itself to promotability.

For example, we had one of the best Medical Directors in the world, Dr. Jack Mahoney, but, since we were not a healthcare company, he could not aspire to be a member of Pitney Bowes senior management. In 2009, Professor Michael Porter of Harvard published a case study recognizing the world-class Pitney Bowes healthcare program.


Similarly, our top non-management technologists were in the “CA” category.  They prided themselves in creating innovative technology solutions they could create and sought professional recognition.  My predecessor George Harvey created a Technical Ladder to enable them to get significant pay increases and stock option grants without having to become managers.

I had regular one-on-one and small group meetings with these inventors. We also started two traditions: first, an annual Technical Ladder dinner to honor current and retired members; and second, an Inventor of the Year award dinner.  We rewarded the inventor who produced the most important invention in the prior year, and we created a Hall of Fame for those who had received at least 30 patents during their career.  I also personally worked with the inventors and accumulated 15 U.S. patents in collaboration with them.

These Top Professionals stayed with us for three reasons:

  • The company’s top leaders were very engaged with the Top Professionals, which mattered greatly to them.  I even had some of them meet with members of our Board of Directors.
  • We enabled them to be recognized externally by their peer groups.  They cared deeply about the respect of their peers, the ability to present at conferences, and publish articles in prestigious journals.
  • We encouraged them be the best in the world at what they did by providing resources and eliminating roadblocks.

Obviously, we could not afford to make every employee feel as supported as these Top Professionals, but we got a superb return on investment on them.

The usual suspects

This person is someone who, by contrast with the top professionals, relishes doing a variety of jobs well.  We used to call them the “usual suspects,” because they were always rounded up when something needed to be done on a special project, program or task force.  They tended to be flexible in their willingness to take on a wide range of challenges.

They were motivated to do a great job for the company.  Unlike the Top Professionals, they did not tend to have outside peer groups with which they interacted.  They liked to be given diverse toughest assignments and to get great results.  They were willing both “grunt work,” and work that was more intellectually challenging.

These individuals were easier to recruit, retain, and engage, because they simply needed regular doses of challenging, but new, assignments.  They needed the senior-level recognition and gratitude from succeeding at such assignments, but were less identified with a job, an industry, a particular career path, or a particular profession.

The Brand Ambassadors

Every employee of a company is a brand ambassador, but some are placed in that role consistently in high profile, high-risk situations.  For them, every action, word, and gesture is under a magnifying glass, and has a disproportionate impact on the company’s fortunes.  While members of senior management are usually in this position, the most credible brand ambassadors are those not in senior management, who are humble, self-effacing people that, because of their ability to relate to everyday people, were more effective.

Bob Hoffman, who served with the company for 56 years, was an Assistant to the Vice President for Service, a humble and decent man with an encyclopedic knowledge of the company’s history. He had absolute credibility with people of all cultures, income levels, and geographies, was our designated witness or representative in countless high profile crises, including antitrust lawsuits, Justice Department investigations and media inquiries.  Even adversaries respected and liked him.

My predecessor George Harvey astutely recognized Bob’s value, and gave him a financial incentive to remain with the company long beyond his normal retirement age.  Bob lived frugally and was not really driven by the financial reward.  He responded because the CEO recognized his value. Bob, who is 94 years old, would probably still be working, except that his wife became an ordained minister and was assigned to a congregation in far northern New York State when Bob was 75 years old.

Leaders recognize that a Superb Brand Ambassador is a far more valuable precisely because of his or her humility and ordinariness.  Many large and successful companies are perceived as arrogant and predatory.  Having someone presenting exactly the opposite image to represent the company in high profile, high risk situations makes a huge difference.

Senior leaders need to empower such individuals.  Press secretaries and government affairs representatives are far less effective when they are simply parroting the company gospel.  Trusting individuals to speak freely and authoritatively makes them even more credible.  For purposes of high profile, high risk communications, their apparent authority to speak for the company makes them more effective.

Finally, just as George Harvey rewarded and retained Bob Hoffman, they need to feel valued, both by being thrown into multiple situations and by getting targeted recognition and financial rewards.  They also respond to having high level senior management access.

Common elements

Great organizations identify and nurture all three of these employee categories.  They focus on recognition, empowerment, and close CEO interaction.  I personally knew every one of our Top Professionals, Usual Suspects, and Brand Ambassadors and frequently interacted with them.

Noticeably not part of this discussion is a preoccupation with pay them “competitively.”  A lot of the work done by executive compensation consultants and the compensation departments of large companies misses what motivates these vital individuals.  In fact, to a significant degree, even senior executives are motivated by factors other than money in their decision to join and remain with an organization.

Years ago, a company on whose board I sat implemented mandatory unpaid leaves of absence, but retained its key talent. It was a great place to work.

Wyeth retained its talent during the pendency of the Pfizer acquisition negotiations, which lasted 10 months. Wyeth’s leadership created a sense of mission during that period.

Pay has to be high enough to communicate that the company is not trying to chisel employees, but I am unconvinced that paying top dollar produces an organization with better talent.  These other factors matter more, particularly with the category of talent I have described in this blog.

Catana Starks

Catana Starks was a Top Professional as a coach and teacher;  she did a variety of jobs, coaching everything from basketball and baseball at the high school level to swimming and golf at Tennessee State, teaching Human Performance and Sports Science, being a mother, and a community advocate for sentencing reform for non-violent drug offenders, which made her a Usual Suspect.  She was always a Superb Brand Ambassador for TSU.  In essence, she was the rare person who fit all into all three categories, which is why her life and career deserve to be celebrated.