Of planks and people Featured

1:03pm EDT February 26, 2002
Imagine a great wooden ship is built. To maintain the craft, planks are removed periodically, replaced by new ones. Eventually, all the planks are replaced. However, the old planks were kept and reassembled into an identical ship. Two ships now float side by side.

Which is the original?

Most managers assert that people are largely interchangeable, like the planks of our ship. They come and go, but the organization remains basically the same. Others believe that people are the organization and each plank is unique. Which is right?

Both views hold water. No one is irreplaceable but everyone is critical, some more so than others.

To the extent that you feel people are essential and irreplaceable, you should direct your efforts toward the activities, processes and policies that attract and retain the very best people. These include a great corporate culture, outstanding benefits, salary, work setting, desirable promotions that are evident to employees, stock or options.

If you feel the planks (and people) are interchangeable, you worry about different things and focus your efforts differently. People change careers every few years, so you don't worry about retention. Rather, you gear up systematically to hire great people. Use them up. Let them move on. There will always be a new cohort of good people coming along.

This also means that you want to implement a plan to recruit outstanding employees from others. The flip side of this is to get rid of the worst employees, although a great corporate culture is somewhat incompatible with doing so. If you have fair and reliable performance appraisals, however, you can use them to jettison poor performers. Lance Kurke is the president of Kurke & Associates Inc., a strategic planning and leadership development firm. He serves on the faculty at Duquesne and Carnegie Mellon Universities. Reach him at (412) 281-2930 or lance@kurke.com.