In my last post, we explored what you know and – more importantly – what you DON’T know about the technical experts on your team. Gaps in understanding can create big problems, which was clearly illustrated with one of our clients a few years back. The issue centered around two key employees – I’ll call them Frank and Jerome.
What You Don’t Know About Your Technical Experts Can Hurt You
Frank was the diesel systems engineer for a large power plant. He had just retired and moved an hour away to live on his boat. Jerome was hired as Frank’s replacement – and things weren’t going well.
Jerome had been on the job for eight months, but he still didn’t know what he was doing. This was exacerbated by the fact that his supervisor didn’t know what he should be doing either, because he never fully understood the job himself. Frank ended up coming back on weekends to fill the gaps. He didn’t mind, because he liked getting away from the weekend crowds at the marina, but it frustrated Jerome and made him look incompetent.
This was clearly not sustainable, so my team set out to figure out what a diesel systems engineer actually DOES.
It took very little time to deconstruct Frank’s role through an interview he took while sitting on his boat. The biggest delays came from Frank’s phone, which kept dying mid-conversation. He was skeptical of our methods at first, but we just kept asking simple questions: Do you write anything? Do you solve any problems? Do you go to meetings? Are you leading those meetings or just attending them? Do you build any relationships? And so on. In just a few hours we had a list of 97 items (tasks and skills) Frank did as a diesel systems engineer, which translated into tangible work that Jerome could learn and do.
When we handed him the list, Jerome – who had previously been called “whiny” – asked with excitement: “Is that my job?” Within a month Jerome was able to do his job independently. Less than a year later, he was training his successor.
This is what happens when you lift the technical fog – though I generally recommend doing it BEFORE your expert retires to his or her boat.
Managing day to day without this kind of granular view is not a problem most of the time—but when it is a problem, it can be a big one and it can happen very fast. Your most technical of technical experts—the R&D professionals who are inventing new products, the mechanics who can tell if a machine is operating well by the way it sounds, or the video game producers who make the game “fun”— are often the people who keep your business running, keep your customers satisfied, and maintain your competitive edge.
If one of those critical experts leaves and you don’t have sufficient backups—or worse yet, you don’t even know whether you do or not because you can’t see through the technical fog—your business will suffer.
There Is A Solution
Fortunately, your technical experts ARE knowable. Frank is just one example, and my company has an approach that can look across a wide variety of technical experts so you can see patterns and identify risks within your teams. This approach operates much like Google Earth, enabling you to look at your strategy and big picture, zoom into divisions, product teams, experts within those teams, and down to the skills and tasks of those experts.
I’ll show you how this works in part 3 of this series. You can also read my book on the topic: Do You Have WHO It Takes: Managing Talent Risk in a High-Stakes Technical Workforce or simply contact me directly.