I enjoyed Seth Godin’s Linchpin. I welcome Godin’s exhortations to perform more “emotional labor,” because that’s what I’m good at. I’m a mediocre programmer, have poor hand-eye coordination, no meaningful skills beyond communication, and have gotten by primarily thanks to a combination of wit and charm.
When I throw myself into a project, I tend to become fanatical about it. If a manager or editor exhorts me to excel, it makes me happy to follow through.
But one thing that I’ve learned from my relatively brief time in the work force is that the world is full of “linchpins” – indispensible workers that keep an organization together.
And most of them get screwed!
Covering for Drunks, Ex-Cons, and Layabouts
The world is swarming with people who will do exorbitant amounts of work for very little pay. They will pick up the slack for other people and never complain. They will work nights and weekends with a smile on their face.
At least for a time.
I knew a woman once who put up with near-daily sexual harassment from a sales staff composed mostly of ex-cons, sexual harassment from clients, and endured the shenanigans of two co-workers in her department that showed up to work hung-over on a regular basis. She took responsibility for all their mis-steps.
When they failed to finish their assignments, she would do their work for them.
And she wouldn’t complain. Because they were friends.
Eventually, she decided to move away and negotiate a remote work agreement. Without her efforts, the company had to fold the department and lay off dozens of people.
She kept the company moving, but the very fact that she was “indispensable” made her the Atlas of that company. She maintained the profitability of the division. If the company owner had been smart, he would’ve fired himself and hired her to take his position at a higher wage.
At some point, she decided to shrug. And the company died.
Build My Company on the Cheap
A friend recently told me a story about a once-small company that he once worked for.
The company’s founder, through tireless effort and self-promotion, transformed the company from one that had to chase dozens of contracts in the low four figures into one that thrived on several corporate contracts worth over $300,000 each.
She had relied primarily upon two veterans of the marketing and advertising to claw the company up from the depths of the internet netherworld to some serious brand names.
Although there’s a certain romance to small businesses – and they’re politically popular to praise – the reality is that life in the small business world is typically nasty, brutish, and short.
Most of the companies are selling something that no one wants to buy. Some of them are outright fraudulent. And there’s no web marketing strategy that can make a terrible product or company salable.
So, this founder, who kept most of her equity to herself, had systematically under-compensated her employees during the growth period. Salary negotiations with those two star employees – who succeeded in transforming a frazzled small business into a successful boutique firm – fell through.
The company is still there, but it’s questionable as to whether or not it will be able to maintain its success.
Rewarding the Indispensable
Talent deserves to be rewarded.
Although certain psychologists and management “experts” may enjoy pointing to studies that show that compensation and job satisfaction have a limited correlation, that doesn’t mean that it’s not important.
If someone is indispensable to your organization, they deserve not only to be treated with respect, but to be compensated based on performance. This will never be a scientific process. They’ve been paying bonuses on Wall Street since time immemorial. Traders are famous recipients of extremely high compensation. But that’s because their performance can be objectively measured. When your trader has the capability of earning hundreds of millions of dollars a year, you have to pay a large bonus to retain them.
Programmers, engineers, managers, and others are a different breed, of course. In many cases, it’s extraordinarily difficult to measure performance objectively. But if you’re expecting extreme performance from your employees, you need to be prepared to offer them rewards commensurate to their individual contribution. In almost any company, there’s going to be a top 20% of performers responsible for the majority of profits and growth.
It’s rarely appropriate to merely promote those people into a management position. Management is a unique discipline that few people are properly qualified for. If someone is fantastic at their discipline, they ought to be encouraged to develop those skills.
Being indispensable is an unpleasant experience for most employees. It creates the same level of pressure and stress typical of an executive, with none of the compensation. If you place executive level responsibilities on an employee, they ought to be compensated like an executive.
Even at a startup, it makes sense to compensate in equity in addition to salary if you expect someone to provide elite performance.
Employees crave respect, recognition, structure, predictability, and adequate compensation.
Merely because business magazines assert that somehow human nature has changed and that most employees have become hardened mercenaries who only care about themselves and expect to be dispensed with at a moment’s notice doesn’t mean that everyone ought to praise that development.
These are problems created by humans. We can solve them, too.