We all know a ‘go-to person’ at work.

They are competent, hard-working, knowledgeable, experienced. They are who you rely upon when you have questions or need results.

Sometimes we refer to these people as Top Talent, but there are also all kinds of rank-and-file employees who are the difference-makers in everything they do without being interested in climbing corporate ladders. Whatever we call them, leaders depend on them. Teams revolve around them. Businesses would struggle to function without them.

When ‘The Great Resignation’ was all anyone could talk about and ‘Talent Retention’ became something every organization focused on, all of that commotion was driven by the terrifying thought, “What happens if I lose my go-to people?”

Of course, that concern has been omnipresent since long before the pandemic. I am a 40-year-old Millennial. For decades now I have been told the Baby Boomers are going to retire ‘soon,’ and while some of the financial shocks of the early 21st Century did slow and hinder their dreams of early retirement, we are now seeing the largest single generation in world history leave the workforce at an ever-accelerating rate. The first Baby Boomers could opt in for early Social Security retirement benefits in 2008. The last of them will reach full retirement age in 2031.

How many of them were the ‘go-to person’ for their boss, their team, their department, their company?

Even the ones who may not have been top performers certainly possess a wealth of institutional knowledge and knowhow that businesses will lose as soon as they decide it is time to move on to other things.

Whether we are talking about the rising star who is about to move on to the next stage of their career outside the company, or a long-time employee getting ready for their well-earned retirement, today’s article is going to be about a structured approach to retaining what they know and communicating it to who will take their place once they are gone.

It Starts with Communication

The first step to any Knowledge Retention effort is having a good idea of who may be leaving so you can put a plan in place with time to action it. The best way to know when someone is getting ready to leave is to have an honest conversation with the go-to people in your working life, ideally before anyone has put in their notice.

We can all agree that can be an uncomfortable conversation. Managers do not want to talk about their people leaving, and team members do not want to say they are planning to go until they are ready to pull the trigger. This is where the soft skills of being a good leader are so important. You want to be able to take some of the stress out of the situation. “We really value you,” is a nice way to start. “I wish we had more people like you,” is also a great thing to say and to hear.

You wonder how many Talent Retention strategies have included just sitting down with the people you are afraid to lose and saying you appreciate them? Now that’s not really what we are discussing today, of course. Perhaps that can be revisited in a column about Talent Retention.

No, today we want to get to a point where leaders understand when their go-to people may be thinking of moving on. For long-time employees coming up on the end of their working lives, that is going to be an easier deduction than for Top Talent at an earlier stage of their career, but the sooner you know, the sooner you can say, “Before you take the next step that’s right for you, we want to learn how you do what you do and make sure others know what you know.”

However you get there and however you finally say it, that’s what needs to be said. If you can have that conversation before that go-to person has put in their notice, all the better. The more time you have to work with, the better results you can expect from your knowledge retention efforts.

You are also going to get much better results with the full buy-in and assistance of the person moving on, who as a go-to person probably does care about their job and wants to see it done well after they have gone, especially if that need is communicated to them as the most valuable thing they can do with their remaining time with the team.

The People Part of Institutional Knowledge Retention

There is a sentiment I often think about that applies here. Sometimes it is given as a Benjamin Franklin quote. Sometimes it is attributed to a Chinese philosopher. A similar idea with slightly different wording probably has many authors. My version of it is, “Tell me and I may forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I will understand.”

If you ask your go-to person to tell you how they do their job so well, at best you are prompting a pleasant but not particularly useful conversation with a valued colleague, and at worst you are setting yourself up for total failure when it comes to knowledge retention.

If everything this employee brings to your organization could be communicated in one or two verbal exchanges in a way that would be understandable and replicable after they are gone, then they are not really bringing all that much to your organization, are they?

No, to really understand capture what they bring to the company and understand about its inner workings before they are gone, you need to take a direct approach that is built upon having one or more people work alongside that valued employee.

If they have put in their notice, you can call it a handover or training a replacement. It would be better to call it and think of it as job shadowing or cross-training. The important thing is that it should be hands on and interactive over as long a stretch of time as you have to work with, because there are things a go-to person does every day, and there are things they do once a week, and there are things they do once in a very rare while, and you want to retain all of that for after they have left the organization, right?

“Tell me and I may forget” means this can’t be a sitdown interview where you ask questions and get answers. Even if those answers are detailed, hearing how to do something isn’t always replicable.

“Show me and I may remember” means even if someone is watching, they may not be able to duplicate it for themselves weeks or months later without help.

“Involve me and I will understand” is self-evident. Someone doing the job with the go-to person’s guidance and instruction who is asking questions and getting answers while performing the task is learning on a whole different level than would be possible with some kind of verbal explanation or written instruction or even watching over someone’s shoulder as they do something with the ease, comfort, and speed that comes from intimate familiarity and experience with the process itself and the underpinnings and inner-workings behind what is being done that makes it work one way and not another.

What Else is There?

Now of course if the only advice I had to offer was that someone should job shadow the outgoing employee and do the work themselves for a while with the go-to person’s assistance, this would be a much shorter article with a different title, right? Having someone learn by doing is a key component of knowledge retention, but all we have really done so far is walk hopefully the future go-to person through the outgoing go-to person’s work routine with access to some one-on-one time to ask questions and get some valuable coaching. What happens if that next go-to person ends up deciding to leave too?

Knowledge retention and holding onto institutional knowhow needs to be not just one-to-one, but one-to-many, and not just in the moment, but recorded in a format that can be accessed in the future after that valued employee is gone.

The person or people who are job shadowing the outgoing team member need to be documenting what they are seeing, hearing, doing, and learning. This does not need to be burdensome or exhaustive. Most jobs do not need a manual, and most manuals do not get referred to at great length even if they are put together. We live in a world of voice-to-text apps and video recording devices and data storage is cheap. We live in a world where a few bullet points and explanatory notes can bring a lot of clarity to something that people who do the job think is obvious and people learning the job will realize when the lightbulb comes on for them. Make it fun to do and fun to review.

One way to make the documentation more effective? Make creating that documentation the desired final outcoming of the job shadowing project, have all the participants including the go-to person actively contributing and editing the documentation, and build an incentive to be delivered once you are confident their output will be useful even to a new employee in the future who never meets the authors. I struggle to imagine any employee given such a project refusing a cash bonus for good work, but if the budget does not stretch that far, even something like pizza for lunch or having a Friday afternoon off are great incentives to go beyond the bare minimum and actually create something useful.

There are organizations that do this sort of knowledge retention on a regular basis throughout their employees’ careers. Internal company wikis allow localized innovations and expertise to be both stored for the future and shared with other parts of the company who might otherwise never benefit from a go-to person’s deep understanding of their job. If you do find success getting your people to create excellent walkthroughs of their processes as a way to hold onto the knowledge of people leaving the team, perhaps you would consider scaling up those efforts to capture more of what everyone is doing for the benefit of both future employees and the business at large.

As a final thought that is really just highlighting something you already know, a lot of go-to people who either retire or move on to other things are would consider coming back at some point in a limited capacity to consult and offer assistance. If that is a door you want to leave open, you want to have that conversation with that valued employee before they leave the company. It can be as simple as gauging their interest in a broad hypothetical and asking what the best way to reach them would be if it is something you want to explore further.

Depending on the nature of the job and the circumstances of their departure, that discussion could even go as far as suggesting they set up a one-man-band consultancy practice. If you offer your company’s resources to help make owning their own business a reality, a lot of people are going to respond very positively to that and may even end up doing more good work for you in the future operating under their own flag than they did during their time working for you directly.

Let’s be honest. Maybe the person or people who were job shadowing your expert leave the company themselves soon thereafter, or they are reassigned away from where they can duplicate the work, or maybe they just cannot transition from what they were already doing to fill the vacancy you need filled. There is no shame in that. You cannot know the future when you put plans in place.

Maybe the documentation they created will never be more than a useful reference for someone trying to figure out a better way to do something who stills need to earn their own experience and expertise, even if that involves reinventing the wheel in places where you used to have a metaphorical wheelwright on staff. There is no shame in that either. At least you did create reference materials that did not exist before.

If there is the option for bringing back that go-to person in some kind of limited capacity consultancy where you get their knowledge and expertise in the short-term while giving new people another opportunity to see and learn what this one-time go-to person brings to the job, that is something that costs nothing to discuss the possibility and may well pay enormous dividends down the line if your knowledge retention efforts do fall short.

I have known many go-to people in my working life. I like to think from time to time in some of my jobs I have been a go-to person. Everything I have suggested in today’s column is based on things I have seen, things I have done, and the discussions I have had with people throughout my career.

Institutional Knowledge is important and valuable, and it is so much harder to rediscover from scratch than to record and retain even imperfectly.

The go-to people in your business have been the people you rely upon when you have questions or need results. Let them know you have questions about what you need to know before they go, and let them know you need results. They will not disappoint you, and they may well inspire and equip other team members to step up and take their place after they have left in a way that is only going to help you continue to do well as a leader, as a team, and as a company into the future.

Geoff Micks
Head of Content & Research
Executive Platforms

Geoff joined the industry events business as a conference producer in 2010 after four years working in print media. He has researched, planned, organized, run, and contributed to more than a hundred events across North America and Europe for senior leaders, with special emphasis on the energy, mining, manufacturing, maintenance, supply chain, human resources, pharmaceutical, food and beverage, finance, and sustainability sectors. As part of his role as Head of Content & Research, Geoff hosts Executive Platforms’ bluEPrint Podcast series as well as a weekly blog focusing on issues relevant to Executive Platforms’ network of business leaders.

Geoff is the author of five works of historical fiction: Inca, Zulu, Beginning, Middle, and End. The New York Times and National Public Radio have interviewed him about his writing, and he wrote and narrated an animated short for Vice Media that appeared on HBO. He has a BA Honours with High Distinction from the University of Toronto specializing in Journalism with a Double Minor in History and Classical Studies, as well as Diploma in Journalism from Centennial College.