Depending on Heroes

Virtually every business I have ever worked with had one “hero” in its IT organization — that one person who was considered almost indispensable because he had the “keys to the kingdom” and knew things others didn’t. I believe many IT leaders allow such a scenario to persist in their organization because they’re either not sure how to handle the situation, or they are simply unaware the situation exists. If the latter applies to you, here is your wake-up call. If you already know of a “hero” in your organization, here is my advice on eliminating hero dependency.

Two Types of Heroes

You need to understand which type of hero you are dealing with. There are two types of heroes: good and bad.

Good heroes:

  • Share information when asked
  • Often assume that others know what they know
  • Don’t want to be the only ones holding the “keys to the kingdom”
  • Don’t desire to “own” any system or process

Bad heroes:

  • Resist sharing information, or offer minimal information when asked
  • Offer excuses for doing so, usually by citing bogus security concerns
  • Know they are the only ones with certain knowledge
  • Want to maintain “hero” status for job security or power
  • Are protective and territorial about critical systems
  • The presence of a good hero is rarely regarded as a problem. But it is just as much of a problem as a bad hero. The only difference is that a good hero is more than willing to take on the task of “brain dumping” to others in the organization and telling them everything he knows. All IT leaders have to do is facilitate that transfer.

Dealing With a Bad Hero

Dealing with a bad hero is a bit more complex. In effect, the hero has the entire business “over a barrel.” IT leaders know this and may fear that simply demanding that the hero document all his knowledge will threaten him, possibly causing him to resign, taking the vital knowledge with him. Another fear is that he may sabotage systems and then demand a ransom. Both of theses fears are unfounded.

Ironically, the bad hero’s motivation for withholding information will ensure that he does not leave. He wishes to retain his job, and will sacrifice his “security” (knowledge) to do so.

When dealing with a bad hero, you must be prepared to terminate him on-the-spot. A bad hero may “see the light” and turn into a good hero, but this doesn’t always happen. Allowing a bad hero to remain in your organization is like allowing cancer to stay in your body. You may be fine today, but if you don’t get rid of it, it will come back to haunt you later.

It is unreasonable and unnecessary for any employee to recall and share every bit of information that could possibly be needed at some point in the future. The nature of technology is that what is important today will have a different degree of importance later. Focus on getting the information that you know matters right now and in the foreseeable future.

How to deal with a bad hero:

  • Determine the most important information you know you’ll need now and in the near future
  • Be prepared to fire him immediately if he doesn’t comply
  • Request the information and set a short deadline
  • If the bad hero presents you with another job offer and makes demands (higher pay, promotion, etc.), refuse to discuss such matters until he delivers the information you request. If he refuses, you must negotiate. Yes, I said negotiate. You can make a conditional acceptance. Come to an agreement on terms but on the condition that he documents the critical information to you within a short time period.

Once you have the most information and have verified it, fire the bad hero. Yes, again, I said fire the bad hero. You don’t want such a poisonous person in your organization.

Preventing Heroics

Ideally, your business will never have a single hero. The best way to prevent the rise of a single hero is to mandate that critical knowledge be shared. Don’t worry about documenting everything. I cringe at some attempts to document every little thing. The fact is that most documents get lost, misplaced, or simply forgotten, and they never serve the purpose for which they were intended. It is far better to have undocumented knowledge among three employees than to have documented knowledge that nobody knows exists.

Cross-training is an excellent way to keep vital information from residing solely in-between the ears of one person. One of my favorite suggestions by Peter Drucker is thus: Whenever you have a person who is great at one thing, move him to another position. Not only does this keep the employee from burning out, it also builds their skills and knowledge. There is a sense of peace that comes from not being the only person in the organization that can do __ (fill in the blank).

A word of caution: Not everyone needs to know everything. You’re running a business, not a school. The operational objective is to keep things running smoothly even if many employees quit or are otherwise unavailable. Focus on having the most critical and frequently used knowledge and skills always available. Depending on the size of your organization, that could mean two people, or it could mean 22. As with everything else, there is a calculated risk inherent. You must decide what level of risk is tolerable.

Conclusion

Mandate knowledge be shared

Set a deadline for heroes to “release” information and enforce it

Cross-train

Document the most critical information

Fire bad heroes who resist