Your Key Employees Aren't Fungible, But They Are Invaluable

by Howard Tullman
June 1, 2015

You would think it would be clear that any business’s most valuable workers aren’t multi-colored (but otherwise uniform) Checkers pieces (although – given their varying skills and capabilities - they might be more properly thought of as chessmen) which can be swayed, swapped, moved around and motivated at will. But this fact of life is apparently not obvious to millions of managers at every level in organizations of all sizes who continue to believe that – in almost everything involving people – one size or one approach fits all.

As we try to bring innovative and entrepreneurial behaviors into all kinds of industries, we find that - especially the senior managers - functionally assume (even though we obviously know better in our hearts) that – in a world of radical and constant changes – within and outside of our own businesses - every one of our team members will accept and react to the new and challenging behaviors that these changes will require gladly, readily and in the same fashion. This approach seems to be largely because we remain stuck with the last remnants of the tired old thinking that was derived from the precepts of the industrial revolution and thereafter deployed in both our schools and in many of our businesses.

In the schools, we’re still trying to teach everyone the same things at the same time. Too many schools believe that one size fits all and that a single solution and a single “sage on the stage” spewing wisdom to a room full of sleepy students is the way to go and further that everyone there will actually learn the same things at the same rate. This is the last gasp of the mechanical factory model and it’s hard to kill because – truth be told – it’s cheap, it’s orderly, and it’s a lot less work for the teachers as well.

But don’t blame most of the teachers – they’d much rather be actually teaching than spending a big part of every day with bureaucratic bullshit and paperwork. This whole educational system is beyond stupid, but it’s so very, very slow to change. Differentiated learning (“to each his or her own”) is the only approach that makes the slightest sense and we have the inexpensive tools, tablets and other technologies that can make it a reality today if we only have the will to make it so. (See my prior INC. education posts: and Here’s hoping that the schools start to improve sometime soon.

We have a different variation of the same problem in too many businesses today. We think that everyone has basically learned the identical things in school and therefore that they will – by and large – perform in the same manner with roughly the same results and outcomes. We’re still judging these employee “books” by their covers (and evaluating recent graduates by their inflated grades and grandiose degrees) instead of taking the time to test and determine the real skill sets and benefits that each of them brings to our businesses and, more importantly, the real impact that each of them can have on our company’s workflow, overall efficiency, other employees, and bottom line. Credentials and degrees are a long way from competencies – they’re basically crutches for lazy HR people – just as org charts and job descriptions don’t begin to tell you what’s really going on in your company.

People (and today’s typical management tools) haven’t changed in a long, long time and the rules are still the same: what gets measured is what supposedly gets done. Most people do what you inspect and not (sadly) what you expect. But, even though every day our analytical capacities grow and we have more and more data available about almost every aspect of our employees’ performance, it turns out that very often we aren’t paying attention to the right and most important metrics. We pay way more attention to punctuality than to productivity. We’ve got plenty of measurements, but they don’t tell us the real story. And we’re drowning in data that doesn’t help us determine who’s really driving the bus.

In order to make a material difference as managers and change agents, and to effectively bring about the important improvements and advances needed in our organizations, we have to be quantifying and measuring our key people’s individual impact and influence, rather than merely gathering stats and information about their attendance or their relative positions. Only when we have a new and clear perspective on which of our employees can – directly and indirectly – be the most helpful in promulgating the attitudes and behaviors required for the desired changes can we figure out which of them can help us get the critical messages across to the remainder of the team. And given that better than 75% of all new initiatives introduced in large organizations fail; it’s beyond critical to find these people in your own organization sooner rather than later if you want to be responsive to the ever-changing demands of the marketplace and stay competitive.  

The good news is that, as you might expect, there are new data and analytics-based startups which are creating the tools that the biggest and smartest companies and other institutions will use to more effectively determine how to deploy and position their best employees and how to optimize the performance and impact of those key players.  One of the most interesting new companies I have seen in a while is Syndio Social ( which creates actionable analytics about people in organizations of all sizes.  But in doing so, the Syndio folks start from a slightly different place than you might expect.

It’s a simple twist, but it makes a big difference. We all understand that, in rolling out just about anything, it pays to get the “good guys” on your side including the leaders, the stars, the celebs, and even the loud (and often obnoxious) voices that people will often listen to for whatever reason. We think of these people as “influencers” and we all get that it’s better to have them in our camp rather than resisting our programs or dumping on our ideas.

But it often turns out – especially as companies grow – that we only think we know who these people are and we’re often wrong. Lots of these folks are “all hat and no cattle” as my friends in Texas like to say and sometimes the most effective folks are actually the “friends in low places” rather than the blowhards in the big offices. A couple of critical care nurses in a hospital can save more lives by modeling and enforcing good hand-washing disciplines (among the staff and the doctors) than most of the surgeons I the course of a year.

And even if and when we can identify and pick the right types of people; what the science of networks and influence says about delivering really effective campaigns and results is somewhat different than you’d guess. It turns out that, although the people are undoubtedly important – role models, change agents, information spreaders - among others, the real gating factor is their relative positions within and the strength and size of their networks within the business. It just so happens that a movement can be started or a systemic change effectively initiated and grown within an organization just as easily by a mere mortal with a strong set of internal connections (and a powerful message) as it is can be by some superstar orator, politician  or other impassioned advocate. Whole governments in the Arab Spring were brought low by the selfless and desperate acts of a few individuals.

But the trick is that - without new tools and systems – growing businesses and large organizations are highly unlikely to find all of these people and properly recruit them to the cause. As a result, their new initiatives and programs are diluted and far less impactful than they could and should be. They need programs like Syndio’s which overlay their traditional HR data with the new social and network analytics that identify and quantify the real, respected movers and shakers and the scale and scope of their influence networks within the business.

Syndio can implement these types of analytics quickly and easily for virtually everyone in a given workforce without any significant hit to ongoing operations or existing information or HR systems. And, once they are in place, they actually become bi-directional tools as well. Not only can the management’s messages be more effectively distributed; these identified individuals can and do regularly become the sources for all manner of input and feedback from the field which would not otherwise be available at all to the senior management team. It’s a benefit with a double bottom line.

But the real bottom line is very simple. Top down communications in business today are largely a waste of time and breath. Treating your employees as a homogeneous population to which you can broadcast a single message won’t work any better for your business than it has for the TV networks of old. Peer to peer, customized communications to and from people we are directly and regularly connected with and whose opinions we value and respect are the only ways we want to learn today. People don’t commit much of anything to companies today – they commit to other people.


PS: “You Get What You Work for, Not What You Wish for”    

Chicago startup guides

Best Companies to Work for in Chicago
Coolest Offices in Chicago Tech
Best Perks at Chicago Tech Companies
Women in Chicago Tech