When I was growing up, one of the first sports books I read was called Instant Replay, by Jerry Kramer. It was the diary of his 1967 season with the Green Bay Packers. In one chapter, Kramer, a Hall of Fame guard for the Packers, described how he once found Vince Lombardi, his legendary coach, almost in tears. As Kramer relates it:


…Lombardi started to speak again and again he opened his mouth and still didn’t say anything. I could see he was upset, really shaken.
            “What is it, Coach?” I said. “What’s the matter?”
            Finally, he managed to say, “I had to put Paul”—he was almost stuttering. “I had to put Paul on that list,” he said. “And they took him.”


That was the year the New Orleans Saints entered the NFL. Each of the existing teams had to put some of their players on the expansion draft list, from which the Saints could choose. Lombardi had placed Paul Hornung on the list, and the Saints had claimed him.

Lombardi thought it was safe putting Hornung on the list, since his career was winding down, and he’d been injured during the previous season. It was only after the draft that Lombardi realized how much his team would miss Hornung, the Heisman trophy-winning running back and future Hall of Famer.

I think there’s a lesson here for IT managers. We all know it’s a very tight job market, and that IT professionals continue to be in big demand. Just about every technical manager I know spends a good portion of his or her time trying to recruit and retain the best possible team.

However, most people don’t spend a lot of time trying to identify their best producers. To many, it must seem self-evident who their star performers are. In this column, I’m going to argue exactly the opposite—that it’s very difficult to go through your organization and identify the key people. I’ll also explain some strategies for doing just that.
In our new Discussion Center, we’re talking about how to identify your best people, the managers or staff that you can’t afford to lose. To add to this discussion, post your comment to this article. Each week, the person who provides the best feedback will win a free TechRepublic laser pointer.
The difference between being misguided and being stupid
While all technical managers claim to be concerned about staff retention, you wouldn’t know it from the way many of them approach the subject. Judging from my conversations with them, they follow one of two methods. I think one is misguided, and the other is just plain stupid.

Focusing on skills
The misguided approach focuses on skills. It has a kind of process, which goes something like this:

  1. Look at the people in your organization, and then inventory their skills.
  2. Compare those skills to what’s hot in the open job market.
  3. Compile a list of people that have extremely valuable skills.
  4. These are your star performers.

Of course, I’m oversimplifying, but you get the point. I said this was a misguided approach because it confuses your most marketable employees with your most valuable employees. The two groups shouldn’t always be the same.

The other reason this approach is misguided is that it lets the job market determine the value of your people. If you go by that criterion, your Exchange administrator is always going to be a star performer, just by the nature of his or her skill set. You have to ask yourself, who’s in a better position to judge the value of an employee to your organization, you or the job boards?

Reacting to circumstances
The stupid method involves reacting to circumstances. It has a process of its own:

  1. Don’t do anything.
  2. Wait until another employer approaches one of your employees.
  3. Contemplate how your organization would function without that employee.
  4. Determine that he or she is a star performer.
  5. Try to counter the other offer.

As with the other method, I’m exaggerating to make a point. This is a stupid approach because it’s totally reactive. How can you possibly make good decisions when you’re under the gun to respond to a competitive offer? Unfortunately, whether people want to admit it or not, that’s how a lot of companies identify their best people.

Steal an idea from pro football
We’ve talked about how not to identify your star performers. Now let’s look at the right way. To do this, take a page from pro football. In fact, there are two ideas that you can take from football.

The first idea is to look at your organization the way a coach looks at a football team. Then imagine that you’re faced with the kind of situation Vince Lombardi faced, trying to determine which of your people you have to protect during an expansion draft.

The difference between this and that “stupid method” I described above is that this approach is proactive. You don’t wait until one of your folks is walking out the door. Look at everyone who works for you, and figure out which people you could least afford to lose.

As I said earlier, skills are an important consideration, but they are hardly the only factor to consider when compiling your list of star performers. Don’t forget to look at:

  • Leadership: Which of your people currently serve as leaders, and which have the potential to do so?
  • Institutional knowledge: Which of your people have been with the organization long enough to understand all of its processes and undocumented workarounds?
  • Work ethic: In a perfect world, everyone who worked for you would be equally dedicated, and equally willing to put in the hours necessary to get the job done. Unfortunately, you live in the real world.
  • Attitude: Which of your people can get along with almost everyone on staff? You can’t call someone a star performer, no matter how good their skills, if no one can stand to be in the same room with him or her.

Another factor to consider is cross-training. Here’s where that other football idea comes in. Take another look at your group, and try to construct a depth chart.

In football, a depth chart is a listing of positions, with a roster of who can play that position, from strongest to weakest. By creating a kind of IT depth chart, you can learn a couple of things. First you’ll find out which of your folks don’t have an apparent “backup.” Second, you’ll identify who can do their own job, and also fill in for several other people if necessary.

To borrow one more sports analogy, you may find that some of your star performers are “utility players.” In other words, their real worth to you and the organization comes not just from how well they do their own job, but in the way they help fill out your depth chart.
In our new Discussion Center, we’re talking about how to identify your best people, the managers or staff that you can’t afford to lose. To join in the discussion, post your comment to this article. Each week, the person who provides the best feedback will win a free TechRepublic laser pointer.