Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Reconsidering who is important

Have you ever thought about the people around you and the work they do? In the context of your own business, have you ever tried to evaluate the relative importance of different jobs?

There are all sorts of ways to measure employees’ worth. The easiest and most common way is by looking at position and salary. An organization chart is a good way to tell what a company values. Generally pay, power, and prestige increase as positions go from the bottom of the chart to the top. It makes sense that the people at the top of an organization chart are the most important. Or does it?

There is an entire theory of organizational dynamics that is based on informal chains of command. The idea is that regardless of the formal structure, people within organizations create their own structures. It is disconcerting how little correlation there is between some of the informal structures that researchers have found and formal hierarchical organization charts.

If the supervisors are not more important than the front line workers and the managers are not more important than the supervisors, and the division directors are not more important than the managers, then who is important? Is it the CEO? No. Here is a short list:
  • The person that seems to know everybody, remembers a lot of company history, and knows how things work,
  • The administrative assistant who knows how to find everything,
  • The assistant who prepares all of the agendas for important meetings, and
  • The receptionist or switchboard operator that knows everyone everybody.
If you have ever been in sales, you know this list. These are the same people you get to know when you are trying to develop a relationship with a key client. Their opinions matter, even if they do not have a title or a desk in the executive suite. You will not even get a chance to pitch your product to the ultimate buyer if you do not sell to these people first. I’ve often found it amusing to read job ads for sales people that demand experience selling to C-level executives. The ads should ask for the people skills to interact with the people in the lobby or at the desk outside the executive’s office door.

If you have ever been a customer, then you know how important the last person on the list can be. Receptionists and switchboard operators are the first people that the public meets. Interestingly, companies that will spend huge amounts on web sites and advertising will often become very tightfisted when it comes time to hire administrative assistants, receptionists and switchboard operators. It occurs to me that companies send a not so subtle message to their customers when they don’t allocate resources to the people that customers contact most frequently. A good example of this is the trend toward outsourcing customer service. Instead of recognizing the competitive advantage of high quality customer service, many companies outsource this function to save money. The predictable result when customers interact with disinterested, poorly trained people without authority is that customers become unhappy. The same thing happens when companies replace the receptionist in the lobby with a security kiosk and a contracted security person. Do you really think your customers and vendors would rather check in with a bored security guard putting in the hours on a 12-hour shift than a knowledgeable and personable receptionist? Was it really a good idea to replace the switchboard operator with an electronic system that frustrates customers?

I think a good case can be made that some of the most important people in a company are the ones near the bottom of the organization chart. Whatever your business, you need to put knowledgeable, well-trained, and personable people in front of your customers. You also need the people within the organization that know the organization’s history and ways of doing things, and you need the people that seem to know everybody. If you think of your business as if it were a car, then these employees are like the tread on the tires that keep the car on the road and the oil and grease that keep everything moving without friction.

Maybe it is time to reconsider who is really important in your company. The next time you walk past the receptionist in the lobby consider that you may be walking past the most important person in your company (unless you have outsourced the job). Stop and say hello.

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