Who’s Your Organization’s Barbara?

This recent tweet made me chuckle as I thought, ‘Yup, sounds just like a Barbara.’

Like this author’s fictitious Peggy, ‘Barbara’ is my shorthand for the person who’s essential to an organization. But, unlike Peggy, Barbara’s real. 

What’s a Barbara?

Barbara was the founder’s EA at a firm where I worked and, having been there since the very beginning, knew everything there was to know about the business. 

  • Unsure where a document might be? Ask Barbara. 
  • Don’t know where the jugs for the water cooler are? Ask Barbara. 
  • Can’t remember how a legacy client came onboard? Ask Barbara 

Unfortunately, at one point, Barbara was very sick and was off work for a long time, meaning that a lot of things – big and small – didn’t get done. But not only were they not done, no one knew that we should have been doing them. 

It took a long time to make up for Barbara’s absence and for the firm to get to grips with everything this one person did. Understandably, in addition to the celebration when she returned, there was also a big sigh of relief.

Meanwhile, around the same time, I was writing a lot of crisis management plans (CMP) and business continuity management (BCM) surveys which meant working closely with firms to get to know them and how they operated. And something I noticed was that most of them, whether a mom-and-pop run, mid-sized businesses, or multi-national with thousands of staff, had their own Barbara equivalent.

The same name would come up repeatedly as I’d conduct my surveys. I’d hear, ‘You’ll need to ask Frank about that’ or ‘Check with Sophia to see if that’s right’ over and over again.

It was the same problem we had back at my office: a lot was riding on this one person. And, similar to Barbara, precisely what they did wasn’t fully understood and definitely not written down.

Flying Under The Radar

However, unlike the CEO and executives, where there were clear rules for delegating authority, succession planning, and defined roles and responsibilities, there was no one to replace these ‘Barbaras.’ Moreover, unlike my office, where everyone knew Barbara’s importance, many of these essential employees were flying under the radar.

So these firms all had what you’d call ‘key-person-risk’: one person has a hugely disproportionate influence on the business, and their absence causes massive disruption.

Except, ‘key-person-risk’ is usually thought of as applying to a senior manager. In contrast, in most cases I saw, it was someone much farther down the structure – someone who might not even realize their significance to the firm.

How To Spot your Barbara

Given their importance, it’s vital that you identify your Barbaras right away. (I say Barbaras plural because larger organizations, especially those with siloed departments or where smaller organizations merged, may have several Barbaras beavering away.)

You may already be thinking, ‘hey, that sounds like Juan or Leila,’ in which case, congratulations, you’ve already identified your Barbara. 

But what if there’s not a name that jumps out at you?

Luckily, there are a few characteristics that help you spot a Barbara.

  • They’ve usually been around for a long time, often since the organization got started.
  • They have close personal relationships with the founder or senior executives who have been around for a long time.
  • They get invited to a lot of meetings where their exact role doesn’t match the topic, but people feel better having them involved.
  • Their name is the one that comes up when someone’s unsure about something and doesn’t know who to ask.

If you can think of someone who fits that description, that’s probably your Barbara. Then, it’s a case of putting aside time to get to know them, explaining your concern – that a large part of the organization’s success rests on their shoulders – and working out how to get some of their institutional knowledge written down and shared with others.

However, even though most Barbaras are team players, asking someone to teach others what they do will feel a lot like asking them to train their successor. Everyone will have to be handled differently, but, in most cases, folks will cooperate if you explain why you’re concerned and the repercussions of their absence. Just avoid giving the impression that they’re being asked to step aside or hand over. The whole exercise is also much easier if it’s part of a larger initiative like BCM planning or updating roles and responsibilities.

Throughout all of this, don’t mistake a pivotal employee for a Barbara. Many roles, particularly in small businesses, get involved in everything, but the difference is that their involvement is formal, codified, and well understood. (You still need to avoid key-person risk, but at least you recognize who’s essential.) In contrast, Barbaras fly under the radar to start with and you usually don’t know how pivotal they are until they’re gone.

So whether they’re a Peggy, Barbara, Juan, or Leila, think about your organization and who might be that pivotal employee flying under the radar. Find them, understand what they do, and then make sure there’s someone who can step in if they’re absent.

(Spoiler: You Might be the Barbara)

And while you’re at it, make sure you’re not the Barbara: a lot of risk and security managers end up in this role because their remit is so broad. So if you notice that you are to go-to in your organization for a wide range of things, congratulations, you’re the Barbara! Now, go and start writing down what you know before it’s too late.

Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash

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