Prioritize Your Keystone Positions – Learn A Valuable Lesson From Nature (Borrow position prioritization from natural ecosystems)

A Think Piece – that recommends the greatest extension of talent management thinking in your lifetime. 

Most organizations already prioritize their key positions. But that group of prioritized positions usually only includes key executives and managers. However, nature teaches us that the less prominent “under the radar positions” often have an equal or stronger business impact on business results. Those “under the radar” positions and individuals are known as “Keystone employees.” So if you’re willing to actually think outside the box, realize that you can learn an important lesson from natural ecosystems. And that lesson covers the importance of going beyond a title and hierarchical rank. In order to identify every one of your Most Valuable Keystone Employees (MVKE).

Don’t Automatically Reject The Borrowing Concepts From Natural Ecosystems 

Think about it… natural ecosystems are quite similar to organizational ecosystems. Both rely on a complex web of interrelationships and interdependencies in order to survive and grow. So if you have an open mind as a talent manager. You can gain a competitive advantage for your organization by realizing that you can learn a great deal from how natural ecosystems operate. And one of the practices to consider borrowing involves identifying and prioritizing “Keystone positions/individuals.” Because these Keystones have a much higher impact on business results than their position in the organizational hierarchy or their pay may indicate. 

Keystone Species Definition – in the animal world, a keystone species is a species that has a disproportionately large effect on its natural environment (i.e. ecosystem) relative to its abundance. It is a species on which other species in that ecosystem largely depend. Such that if it were removed from the ecosystem, it would change drastically. In the ocean, Keystone species often include sharks, sea otters, and starfish. On land, wolves and elephants have been proven to be Keystone species.
Keystone Talent Definition – in corporations, Keystone jobs/individuals have a disproportionately higher business impact; both within and outside of their team, than you would expect given their title, pay, rank in the hierarchy, and the number of employees working in the job. Keystone positions might include informal leaders, innovators, and crisis problem solvers. In many cases, they are “the glue” that keeps your organization cohesive. So prioritizing these Keystone positions and individuals will dramatically improve your business results

An illustrative example – most corporations treat call centers as a low-impact but necessary unit. While companies like American Express, Amazon, and Zappos have identified their call centers as a critical “Keystone group” that provides them with a competitive advantage. You can learn more about corporate position prioritization here.

Research On Natural Ecosystems Revealed The Powerful Impact Of A Keystone Species 

The entire concept of keystone species was founded on breakthrough research surrounding the influence of a marine predator on its environment. Professor Robert Paine’s experimental research showed that removing a single species, the sea star, had a huge effect on the ecosystem. Lacking this keystone species, the tidal plain’s biodiversity was cut in half within a year.


How Failing To Prioritize Keystone Positions / Individuals Will Hurt Your Organization 

In order to get managers to fully support the concept, you need to build a compelling business case. Which would include understanding the many ways in which failing to recognize and prioritize Keystone positions and individuals can hurt your organization. Those impacts can be broken into two categories: overall talent impacts and impacts on the Keystone employees themselves. 

Overall talent impacts if you don’t prioritize keystones

Failing to identify and prioritize Keystones can have many negative impacts. They include:

  • Change will be slower – if you fail to adequately support Keystone positions and individuals that facilitate change. Your organization will experience a much slower rate of overall change and improvement.
  • Productivity will suffer – failing to recognize these positions and individuals’ impact on team cohesion and productivity. Will limit any improvement in that productivity. 
  • Innovation will be reduced – failing to prioritize risk-takers, collaborators, and innovators will dramatically reduce the most valuable employee output, innovation. 
  • Talent and leadership development among all employees will decrease – failing to recognize and support the importance of those that excel at informally coaching and developing leaders and high potentials. Will limit your overall leadership and talent bench strength. And that slower development may increase turnover.

Impacts on your individual Keystone employees

  • The retention of keystone employees will go down – failing to recognize the impact of your keystones may mean that these positions won’t be prioritized for retention purposes. So that outside recruiters that fully recognize their tremendous value will be more able to poach them away.
  • The development of keystone employees will be slower – without being prioritized and recognized by management. The continued development of these Keystone employees won’t be accelerated. And that could limit the expansion of their capabilities and impacts.
  • The recruitment of individual Keystone replacements will suffer – when their importance isn’t recognized. The recruiting effort to fill vacant Keystone positions won’t likely be prioritized and extra heavily resourced within the recruiting function. Hiring managers may also fail to give the recruiting of replacements a similarly high priority.


Examples Of Typical “Under The Radar” Keystones

Obviously, you need to develop a process to identify your own keystones. However, here are some common Keystone positions and individuals that should be prioritized.

Those in Keystone positions must be prioritized and treated differently

Key product/project managersLiaison positions
AI and technology specialistsData analysts 
Customer service leadersSupply chain integrators
Business development specialistsExecutive/technical recruiters
Retention specialistsWorkforce planners

Typical Keystone individuals often include

Informal leadersFuture developing leaders
“Go to people” that excel during a crisisThose that build your culture
Internal coaches and mentorsHigh potentials
Managers that continually develop talentHighly adaptable employees in VUCA
InnovatorsCalculated risk takers
Diverse leadersCross-trained employees that “fill in”
Those that accurately forecastProblem solvers
Those that make those around them betterEssential contractors in key areas
Those that lead affinity groupsOnboarding / new-hire buddies


How You Should Treat Keystones Differently 

Some of the actions that you should take during your Keystone effort might include:

  • Identify them – develop a continuous process for identifying these critical but under the radar Keystone positions and individuals.
  • Prioritize them – so that their importance is recognized and their business impacts are maximized. Assign them a top priority for resources, communications, development, and recruiting and retention.
  • Recognize them – make sure that these individuals are fully recognized and that they are fully aware that you understand their impact. And yes, you should make sure that your team knows who they are, understands their impact, and why they are receiving priority treatment.
  • Listen to them – make sure that you proactively seek out these individuals. And that you periodically schedule a time to listen to their problems and ideas.
  • Retain them – identify your Keystone individuals and treat them like they were flight risks. As part of that targeted retention effort, make sure that each Keystone individual has “a stay interview” at least once a year. They should also be prioritized for retention when you are compiling layoff lists.
  • Develop them –– develop and fund a self-directed learning and development plan for each Keystone employee. And go out of your way to provide them with stretch assignments that will increase their capabilities to influence and impact others.
  • Give them extra consideration for promotions and development opportunities – where feasible, consider your Keystone employees are all relevant promotions and opportunities.
  • Connect them with other Keystone employees – once you identify a cadre of your Keystone leaders. It makes sense to connect them with each other. So they can support each other and share problems and ideas.


How To Identify The Keystones In Your Organization

Most HR leaders automatically assume that the highest-ranking employees have the most business impact. However, most keystone positions and individuals don’t appear using these criteria. So don’t expect to identify them by job level, pay, performance appraisals, or how difficult they are to recruit or retain. Instead, identify your keystones by utilizing one or more of the following data-driven approaches.

  • Ask your most successful leaders in many cases, the COO and other operations managers will immediately know their Keystone positions. At Agilent Technologies, we found that managers could instantly identify their Keystone positions. In this case, an ASEC engineer was universally identified as the most impactful employee among all positions. Surprisingly the #2 highest impact Keystone position during a high corporate growth period was the technical recruiter position.
  • Survey those that would know – although Keystone employees and positions are not usually recognized by executives and senior managers. Many throughout the organization instantly know who they are. So you can identify them by surveying the leads of your top performing teams, the recently promoted, your top performers, and your innovators. And if possible, survey a few key customers. And in that survey, ask respondents these questions. Who has made the highest contribution to business results? Who is indispensable? Who comes through in a time of crisis? Who would you fight to keep if there were a retention risk?
  • Problems after a position is vacant – ask both formal and informal leaders to identify the positions that create the most serious problems after they become vacant.
  • Ask managers, who are the keepers? – assume that your managers would know the Keystone employees in their team. So utilize the “Netflix keeper approach” approach to identify Keystone individuals. Based on how hard a manager would fight to retain them.
  • Ask other Keystone employees – after you identify a handful of keystone employees. Ask them to help you identify other Keystone individuals and jobs.
If you can only do one thing – start with a single struggling business unit. And ask its leadership group to identify their top two positions with the highest business impact. And then prioritize the development, recruiting, and retention of the employees in those Keystone positions. And after six months, determine if the prioritization and focus had any measurable impact on overall productivity and business results.

Final Thoughts 

It’s a fact that there actually are Keystone positions and individuals. And that they actually do have a much higher business impact than you would expect based on their pay and job title. And even with that knowledge, it’s only natural for talent management leaders to question the relevance of applying biological principles to talent management. Unfortunately, immediately dismissing the many things that talent leaders can learn from nature and biology is a huge and costly mistake. So instead, for smart talent leaders, it makes sense to identify and then prioritize those high-impact Keystone positions/individuals. 

Because failing to recognize their importance and the impact of their position will result in a failure to prioritize them. And not being prioritized, they won’t be given the resources they need to maintain and increase their tremendous impact on overall productivity and business results. And finally, realize that there are many other approaches from nature that can be adopted by businesses, including brand image, teamwork, and attraction.

So take a minute right now and mentally identify a few of your current Keystone employees. And then ask yourself, have you shown them that they are appreciated? And have you proactively gone out of your way to provide extra support for them? And if the answer is no, begin prioritizing them today.

Author’s Note 

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About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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