Planning the company’s next Silverback

Planning the company’s next Silverback

In the same way that the silverback gorilla in the wild is the centre of his troop’s attention – taking decisions, driving his family’s behaviour and ensuring every member is subordinate to him – so it sometimes is in the corporate jungle.

The Head Honcho is usually easily identifiable – the person who has the knowledge, depth of experience, and that indefinable “sixth sense” that ensures rapid growth and success of the organization.

In such cases, it often seems that the success of the organization is inextricably linked to the people who possess this know-how. The go-to compliance expert in the bank, the internet whiz-kid coming up with brilliant e-commerce ideas, the brains behind some of the most innovative products of our time…all these are vital and the loss of them hits their organization badly. Is the secret ingredient known only to the founder? If the Partner is not available, are there others who have the same instincts and skills?

Their knowledge is not easy to teach or learn. Successful and highly sought-after deal-makers, for example, develop an instinct for how to assess the situation at a meeting with a prospect and navigate a positive outcome. They may not be able (or even want) to explain how or to teach their skill to others in the firm.

Balanced talent management in such situations is critical. The organization that only focuses on retaining the silverback in the room at the expense of its other steady performers is heading for trouble. Managing the egos of silverbacks can be time-consuming and expensive.

The steady, if less histrionic, manager is often as important for the continued success of an organization, as it is s/he who sustains an on-going dialogue with stakeholders and is responsible for the day-to-day smooth operation of the entity. Managing disgruntled steady performers can be as time-consuming as handling silverbacks.

How do you balance all this? It comes down to ensuring that there is an open, sharing environment, a mentoring program that allows the silverback with the deep domain expertise to share experiences and accumulated knowledge rather than hoard it. It is important to allow some younger blackbacks waiting in the wings to develop their expertise. This is best done by encouraging the silverback to accept his or her increasing role as mentor to the novices.

Our experience is that even the most reclusive silverbacks can be persuaded to step up to perpetuating their knowledge and skills through the next generation. In their later years this may become a major part of the job affording them the honour of a professor and the satisfaction of a legacy.

The spirits of old silverbacks live on through their pupils. Which is as it should be.