The huge importance of certain employees in the success of their companies is now widely understood. It’s easy to notice them: they are autonomous, self-driven and highly passionate about what they are doing. They are relentless and opinionated, not because they want more money or to look good in front of their colleagues. It’s because they care. They want to change the world, no matter what.
They are what the famous marketing guru Seth Godin called Linchpins, in his last book:
(…) people who bring art to work, people who reach out, make a connection, cause change to happen. The linchpin is the person who is indispensable, because they refuse to become an interchangeable part, someone who merely follows the manual.
And they are what knowledge-intensive companies hope to recruit and retain, because they’re the ones that keep the machine working and reinventing itself, that make remarkable things happen.
What I find ironic is that these same companies who aggressively seek for this kind of employees don’t realize that if the number of linchpins grows above a certain level, they will be in trouble. Fortunately for them, these people are rare. And while they are keeping a “healthy” ratio between linchpins and non-linchpins (which Seth calls cogs), say 1 linchpin for every 5 employees, they (company) are pretty safe.
I’ll tell you why in a moment but first I’ll have to explain a few things about these crazy guys. You see, linchpins will not abide by the company rules if they feel that they are in the way to achieve their goals but that’s ok because the result is usually so good that it largely compensates that misbehavior. For example, companies don’t usually let their employees stay home when they feel like it. Even if they do, they create a rule that (1) puts an upper limit for the number of days they are allowed to do that and (2) catalogs the possible reasons for doing so. They do it to prevent abuse and I understand that – I firmly believe that most people would actually abuse thus leading the company to serious problems. Nevertheless, a linchpin will promptly ignore that rule, disappearing from the company for a few days only to come over with a lot of things done. Maybe he was being interrupted all the time and needed to focus on something. Maybe the office was too hot and he preferred to work outside. I don’t know. The fact is – he has work done, with great quality, so no one will bother him for breaking the rules.
Another interesting thing is that linchpins don’t respond that well to the typical incentives, such as career progression, collecting titles or having the opportunity to go to “important” meetings. They just don’t fit on the common career path and will create their own path. As long as the company allows them to pursue their path they will stick around and both will benefit immensely from that. If the company forces them to follow the instituted path, they will ignore them at first, but if the company persists than they have no option but to leave. Most important, they don’t need any incentive because they are self-motivated. They take immense pleasure from the work they do everyday, so all they want is to let them continue doing their work.
By now, you might have guessed the problem of companies that only have linchpins. The rules will no longer work because they will not serve their purpose anymore. Their purpose is to, somehow, determine and standardize behavior across the company. You can’t standardize a linchpin, so their purpose is gone. If the rules are gone, those people who are in charge of guaranteeing that people follow the rules are also gone. For example, there’s no need for someone to control that the team delivers the product in time. A team of linchpins will probably deliver it ahead of time anyway. The whole hierarchical structure will start to fall apart. The need for the company own existence starts being questioned.
This may sound apocalyptic but you have to understand that I’m imagining an extreme scenario where a company is only made of linchpins. Usually, a company starts with only linchpins (the founders) but soon will start recruiting cogs. Afterwards, it starts creating rules for those cogs. That’s the most common path, by far. Those are all the cases that I know of, and many are being successful. But, what if it continued to recruit only linchpins? How big could it grow before starting to fall apart?