Let’s hear it for the ‘Plodders’

During my career as a manager there were aspects of the whole corporate machine which bothered me, but which were too ingrained in the accepted way of working for me to do anything about them. From talking to my peers, I guess I’m not the only one.

These irritants were mainly around the sacred cows of big business: how you buy and sell, how you develop your workforce, how you run your IT.

No longer working as a manager has allowed me to take a step back and consider these sacred cows: what bothers me about them, and what we might do about it.

You can find my thoughts on some of them in other posts on this blog.

in ‘Sell me this pen? No, thanks’ I talk about how I think we should be taking sales and procurement past the bazaar haggling principles which still drive it.

In Jurassic Perk – Time to leverage those dinosaurs?  I cover the risk of wasting capabilities and resources due to what I see as ageist and blinkered recruitment policies

In this post I turn to people management, and specifically the problem I see with the sacred cow of individual excellence.

Excellence is a really good thing – excellent, in fact – and we are right to strive for it and reward it.

The challenge is that individual excellence is different from team excellence, yet performance appraisal and career development in an organisation are biased towards individual achievement and potential.

There is good reason for this: if you don’t reward and develop your high fliers more than your plodders, you remove the incentive to strive, and your highest performers lose their motivation.

Yet this creates a paradox.

A high performing team needs a variety of roles to succeed. Some of these roles deliver a lot of visible value and attract higher rewards, visibility and recognition; these are the roles we tend to aspire to and focus on in career development.

But the team also needs the less valued roles in order for them to function effectively.

An orchestra needs second fiddles, a football team needs defenders, a band needs a rhythm section, a cricket team needs a wicketkeeper, yet these roles rarely get the same accolades as the violin virtuoso, the goal scorer, the lead guitarist or the star batsperson.

When Mark Knopfler sang about ‘Guitar George, he knows all the chords, mind he’s strictly rhythm, he doesn’t want to make it cry or sing’ you guessed George wouldn’t be the one to make it to the cover of Rolling Stone.

For business, the sporting or musical heroes are the CEOs, COOs and CFOs, the gurus and consultants, the star salespeople. They set the benchmarks and targets for career growth.

Where does this leave our competent second fiddles and our solid back four when it gets to performance appraisal time?

Some are obviously just passing through these roles en route to megastar status, but how do we motivate and develop the Guitar Georges, the guys who don’t aspire to stardom, yet whose skills are critical to the overall success of the team?

Rankings-based performance appraisal schemes, where each individual in a department and grade is ranked against their peers, make it harder.

Our Guitar Georges end up further down the rankings because it is harder for them to demonstrate the specific individual value they have added to the team, and they tend not to show the ongoing personal growth that would push them up the rankings.

They end up at the back of the queue for pay rises and consistently labelled with whatever euphemism the performance system uses – ‘Acceptable’, ‘C-rated’, and so on, and referred to as ‘plodders’ around the management table.

How can we tackle this?

I don’t think ‘Unsung Hero’ awards and the like are the answer, as I believe they tend to patronise the individual and fall into the trap of damning with faint praise: if you get an award as an unsung hero there’s an implication you’ll probably never be a sung one.

For me, we need to start by acknowledging the reality of this in the way we run our appraisal and career development schemes, being honest and open in how we deal with it, both with individuals and in management.

As managers we need properly to understand and respect the value these roles add to the team, and as individuals we need to have a realistic view of what our roles contribute.

If I am a second violin and I’m happy to remain a second violin, and I accept that I won’t get the same reward as a first violin, and the orchestra needs second violins, then that’s the conversation to have, clearly and openly, at appraisal time.

If I change my mind, or if the business no longer needs second violins, we need to have a different conversation.

And staying in a supporting function does not mean stagnating: there is always scope to develop, to make that function more efficient, to keep it aligned to the wider needs of the team or business as they change.

This gives the necessary scope for stretch in personal development – Guitar George may know all the chords, but he can still learn new techniques to make the band sound even better.

This has implications at a wider organisational level. The functions and departments with least visible value to the bottom line tend to be the first in line for outsourcing or automation.

There’s a rather unkind musicians’ joke which asks what the difference is between a drummer and a drum machine. The answer is that you only have to punch the rhythm into a drum machine once.

In business, I think top management sometimes regard functions like IT, HR and transactional procurement and finance in the same way as unkind musicians regard the drummer: troublesome overheads whose job could be done better by someone or something outside the organisation.

Well-worn arguments about reducing fixed costs, gaining economies of scale and focusing on the core business are used to justify outsourcing these functions, which are also often perceived as slow, bureaucratic and hard to deal with.

This can be true, although I believe this perception can stem partly from a refusal to engage with and understand the function and its complexities.

I believe there is no fundamental reason why any function in a company can’t be outsourced, up to and including the CEO level itself, and that’s a whole other subject.

I raise it here because I think a blinkered focus on outsourcing supporting functions only and a lack of effective people management for our Guitar Georges demonstrate the same failure of understanding of how team and organisational excellence works.

The challenge for Guitar Georges and our ‘back office’ departments is to strive continually to do what they do better.

The challenge for management is to understand the interactions and workings of all individuals and functions and how they combine to deliver excellence for the whole organisation and team, and to use this understanding to guide decision making on everything from performance appraisals to organisational restructuring.


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