In a previous blog, we talked about how we can use knowledge transfer to mitigate talent risk by creating an ecosystem of experts who can provide backup for a departing executive. I mentioned that one of our clients was preparing to replace a retiring executive. They had identified his replacement, Dan, and had already begun the work of getting him up to speed over the course of several months. In this post, I’m going to talk more how we’re using knowledge transfer to mitigate risk at that company by ensuring that Dan, the successor, learns not just the technical expertise that Mike, his mentor, needs to transfer, but also the tacit knowledge and “softer skills” that will be critical to his success.
I was speaking with the VP of HR at this company. She had a good read on this situation and her ability to talk about it was really clear. She said, “I am confident that Dan will learn the technical aspects of the business, like the financials and pricing, the deal structure, and the other data driven pieces. Still, I’m worried about Dan’s ability to take on the relational aspects of the job. How do we transfer knowledge on that?”
My answer was that we’re not going to talk about relationships in the academic or general sense. That can be too soft or fluffy. We will talk about the practical ways that relationships develop. We will start with listing the actual names of the actual people that Dan has to build relationships with. Then, we’re gonna use the 20 Test Questions to help Mike transfer this knowledge to Dan, giving him his best advice on how to build a relationship with each of these key players. This is how our process works with not just technical people, but also with executives when it comes to the softer skills such as building relationships. For example:
For the skill of building a relationship with a colleague named “Sarah”, here is some guidance that Mike might give to Dan using the KT test questions as a guide:
Test Question #2, What are the steps in the process of building of a relationship with Sarah, and why is each important?
Mike could say, “Well, I would start reading her documents, or I would start with meeting her admin, or I’d start with buying her a cocktail.” There are very different approaches to starting a relationship with somebody, and Mike would give advice on the best way to do that.
Test Question #3, What are the top 3 things that often go wrong when someone is trying to build a relationship with Sarah?
Mike: “Well, if you come in with a lot of talking, and a lot of ego, and a lot of bravado, she will shut you down in 30 seconds and never give you another chance. What I recommend is that you come in with _____ (fill in the blank). “ Mike can use that test question to really give Dan advice on approaching a working relationship with Sarah. By the end, Dan will be able to say, “This is what I ought to do, and this is what I’m going to avoid.”
Test Question #18, What should I look for, listen for when building a relationship with Sarah?
Mike: “During the quarterly business review, Sarah has “x” kinds of pressures that she’s under. Look for where she is managing quarterly business reviews because that will really help you decide when to approach her and how.
Test Questions #19, What are the relevant historical issues to consider when building a relationship with Sarah?
Mike: “Sarah’s been with our company for “x” years. She comes with “x” background. This is her point of view on things and why we value it.” For example, if she came through an acquisition, she might have a very different lens on the company than somebody who grew up in the company. That kind of relevant history could be really important.
Those are four examples, four test questions that Mike and Dan can use to hone in on the practical work of transferring the knowledge and experience that Mike has acquired after all his years in the company.
Summary: When executives, or any employee, transition from a company, it’s not just the technical aspects of their job role that the company risks losing. They also take with them tacit knowledge that is critical to the future success of their replacements and the company as a whole. Having a process to methodically and measurably transfer knowledge allows the “soft skills” to be taught with the same degree of rigor one would expect of more technical areas.