I spent a couple years in Florida as a youngster working in a program called VISTA: Volunteers in Service to America. I tried hard to be helpful, but concluded in the end that I’d taken away much more in life lessons than I was able to give. One lesson I recalled recently came from an older gentleman I met while trying to establish a daycare center in a low (and I mean l-o-w) income community. Sam Hightower was a quiet man in his late 60’s with many talents, among them fishing, spinning a story and cooking. No one could fry up a batch of chicken wings like Sam.
One day, to raise money for the day care center we held an old fashioned barbecue, food donations courtesy of a local packinghouse and recipes provided by Mr. Hightower. The day was memorable both for the spirit of cooperation and, of course, Sam’s fried chicken.
“Sam,” I said at the end of the day, “You have such a talent for cooking. You can take simple ingredients and create the most delicious meals.”
“Yeah,” Sam replied, I got pretty good at cooking thanks to the Florida Department of Corrections.”
“Oh,” I inquired, “Why were you in?”
“Manslaughter,” he replied. “Killed a young man in a fight when I was 19.”
“So you were a cook in prison,” I concluded.
“Oh, yeah!” exclaimed Mr. Hightower with an ironic grin on his face, “The warden liked my cooking so much that I could never get paroled. He told me he couldn’t let me out until he found another good cook.”
“How long did that take?” I asked Sam Hightower.
“Well I was in prison almost 40 years, and he never found another cook he liked as much as me; but when he retired I was paroled. So I guess it all worked out.”
The irony of being so good that you can’t be replaced is something I revisit often in factories, offices and clinics. The working conditions may be better than at Florida State Prison, but there is nevertheless a caste system that locks talented employees in fixed positions. One employee put it to me this way recently: “Irreplaceable equals un-promotable.”
Do you develop the full potential of all your employees or just a few? Do you have any employees who are too irreplaceable to promote? Let me hear from you.
BTW: Less than two weeks to go before our Northeast Region Shingo Conference. Over 600 passionate Lean leaders from more than 100 organizations will gather to learn, share and network. Don’t be left out!
A true leader would not operate this way. It is unfair to hold back your shining stars. If you do, they should leave. (assuming they are not in shackles)
Thanks for your response. Do you think a person is ‘shackled’, whose worth has been forged and reinforced daily by his singular ability to handle unreasonably challenging tasks that nobody else can manage? I’ve known persons in this predicament who should have left, but were shackled by fear of change. The status quo, even when awful, is an ominous bond.