Heroes, Helpers and Hangers On

The Vice President of a large client organization described his role as a member of “The League of Heroes,” an informal assemblage of leaders who combine their energies in an attempt to combat the forces of evil.  Interestingly, in this case, evil is personified by the dispiriting and negatively infectious way a troubling number of associates approach their work.

In his world view, there are three types of players.  Heroes are those who, by virtue of who they are or what they do, attract business to an organization and lead resolution of its most intractable challenges.  They are always willing to “step into the gap” in a positive manner.  Real Heroes bring to the table far more work than they can perform alone.  Helpers are those who enthusiastically support Heroes in their quest to attract, retain and service customers.  Hangers On are those who do neither of these value-producing functions.  Instead, they reluctantly perform assigned duties while undermining most efforts to grow or change.  They disparage innovative initiatives championed by Heroes and make fun of Helpers who seem content to deliver on the new work that Heroes find.

Law firms, consulting firms, insurance agencies and sales driven organizations of all types can easily be construed as Hero-driven organizations.  But so might universities, scientific institutions, R&D firms, ad agencies, etc.  Like it or not, both the executive and legislative branches of the US government might actually be Hero-driven organizations (arguably with a large number of Hangers On at the moment).

It’s a simple taxonomy, but one that explains how certain types of organizations work.  Just as importantly, it gives insight into how to structure this type of business for growth.

So, what should you do if your organization is run by Heroes, Helpers and Hangers On?

  1. Pay for Performance:  If your Heroes are highly technical in nature, don’t force them to take a line executive position that will burden them with administrative duties just to get paid what they deserve.  Create a base pay and bonus structure that recognizes the significance of their heroic contributions.
  2. Consider Knighthood:  Establish titles for Heroes that convey status commensurate to their contributions.  Titles are an inexpensive means to convey appreciation to those the organization and its key customers value most.
  3. Systematize Offloading: Make it easy for Heroes to transfer new work to those capable of service or product delivery.  Literally build your service teams around them in a way that allows Heroes to remain aware of product delivery without necessitating that they do all the work themselves.
  4. Honor Helpers:  For every Hero you need a large number of Helpers.  Find ways to convey appreciation and dignity to those performing the critical role of following up on opportunities identified and promised by Heroes.
  5. Positive Feedback:  As we were taught by Dale Carnegie, “Be lavish in your praise and hearty in your approbation.”  Cite specific examples of positive activities for both Heroes and Helpers in ongoing coaching conversations and annual summary discussions.  
  6. Convert Hangers On:  Coach those with negative attitudes to get with the program.  The expression, “Lead, follow or get out of the way” comes readily to mind.  So does the advice offered by Jim Collins who suggests that management’s primary job is to “Get the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and everyone in the right seats.”  Catalytic Coaching is a system designed to get this to happen fast.

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