Seth Godin, at least in spirit, attended last night’s Sweets and Tweets as we discussed his new book, Linchpins. Linchpins are people who jump right in, take ownership of a problem, and find solutions. While they are very valuable to the organization, organizations must address problems of succession and competency to ensure the continued success of the firm.
We had a Seth Godin look-alike at last night’s Sweets and Tweets Salon, the “Premier Social Marketing Salon in DC”, which was really a coincidence.
Sweets and Tweets bring together social marketing, marketing strategy, and internet marketing leaders from the DC Metro area with leaders in marketing and business. Prior guests included Tom Peters, of In Search of Excellence, and Anil Dash, of Expert Labs.
What are linchpins?
Last night’s discussion began with the introduction of Seth Godin — well sort of. Seth Godin is in DC hosting a day-long workshop. Since Seth was too busy preparing for the workshop, we channeled him through a look-alike to discuss his new book Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? The discussion featured local social media leaders, bloggers, and marketing folks who discussed how they are Linchpins in their organizations.
Godin defines linchpins as:
somebody in an organization who is indispensable – who simply cannot be replaced because their role is just far too unique and valuable
According to Seth Godin’s book, linchpins are indispensable to their organizations because they take ownership of problems and find solutions — even if the problem is outside their area of responsibility. In contrast, “lizard brains” are employees Seth Godin equates with low creativity and other characteristics that make them dispensable to the organization.
Of course, others, like Forbes, equate indispensability as career suicide, rather than a factor supporting career advancement. Their argument is a sound one. Organizations can’t survive by making anyone indispensable, since it damages the organization when that person leaves, dies, or quits. Moreover, the goal of an organization should involve sharing information, distributing authority to those most effective and able to make positive change, and duplicating talent across the organization, which are the antithesis of indispensability.
Our group also questioned indispensability
From a marketing standpoint, speakers made several key points to bear in mind when developing marketing strategy. One of the speakers at the event brought up a critical topic not adequately considered in Godin’s book – the topic of succession. The other — competency — emerged across speakers.
Succession, a topic often largely confined to discussions of entrepreneurial strategy, is critical for the long-term success of the organization. The very things that make linchpins such an integral element for the marketing strategy – things that make them indispensable for the marketing of the firm — also leave a big hole in that marketing strategy when they leave the firm. This is the perennial problem with sole proprietorships and even some larger corporations that can’t move beyond the loss of a key individual. Think about Steve Jobs and his imprint on Apple Computers. Some argue the firm stumbled and has yet to regain its former role as a key tech innovator since his death. Firms need to think about the issue of succession long before key individuals leave the company to ensure they hire new linchpins and train them to replace existing drivers of success.
The issue of competency is a much more complex and less visible problem facing firms. Linchpins are valuable because they jump right in and handle whatever problem they see. Unfortunately, this often means they are jumping into areas where they don’t really have the expertise to do the job effectively while pushing out those possessing that expertise.
For instance, I once worked for a small non-profit in a marketing role. They needed someone to maintain their database, so I stepped in since I had a minor in computer science as an undergraduate. Being a “linchpin” by personality, I took on the role willingly.
Did I do a good job? I did the best I could, but the organization’s needs far surpassed my ability. Having me run their database meant they didn’t need another person to manage their database, but I wasted a lot of time that took time away from the marketing effort they hired me to do. Plus, the organization needed someone more knowledgeable to run the database system. Of course, when I left, the whole system fell apart, a lack of succession issue. So, I helped the organization but they needed someone with specific competency in database management.
So, asking a linchpin to take over, even when they don’t have specific competence, is better than nothing. However, too often firms begin to accept the competency of the linchpin, ignoring the reality that hiring someone truly competent in a critical role rather than continuing to rely on the linchpin generates more success.
I’ve seen this happen too often. A company puts too much faith in a linchpin because they won’t say no, either because they’re afraid of losing their job or because they know the work won’t get done if they don’t do it.
I once worked as a consultant for a Fortune 50 company and was asked by their VP of Marketing to provide a format for completing a marketing plan. The guy was a linchpin but he came from sales, without much marketing expertise. He stepped into the role because of its title and salary, yet, he lacked even the most basic skills to perform the job. Rather than own his ignorance, he sought outside help to perform the assigned task.
In some jobs, it’s more obvious that the linchpin can’t cut it anymore. The more technical the job — the more quickly the limitations of the linchpin come to light.
In marketing, too often these limitations don’t emerge when no one has marketing experience to know what the organization should do or what results are optimal. For instance, it’s easy to see that I lacked skills in database design when I was unable to debug a problem arising with our database. As an engineer, its easy to see that the bridge doesn’t support itself. In marketing, journalists, English majors, communication majors, pretty much anyone with sound liberal arts training, can put words together to formulate press releases, write brochures, even write a marketing plan. However, they may know little or nothing about target marketing, consumer behavior models, how to conduct market research that is insightful and unbiased, or writing copy that nurtures a lead to conversion.
Having linchpins is a great thing for a business and a sound business strategy suggests firms should do everything they can to attract, motivate, and retain linchpins who fill in when needed. Organizations must; however, recognize these potential drawbacks associated with linchpins and establish strategies to overcome the drawbacks.
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