In his blog Can you shim like I shim?, John Justice introduces the concept of a Shim as refering to an employee who serves an important organizational purpose. One might think…don’t we ALL service an important organizational purpose? I believe management and senior executives would like to have us all believe that, but what John is talking about is that person who “brings a unique skill set often combined with a personality or demeanor” which allows them to easily move from function to function, to act as the glue that holds the team together, that person who performs the dirty stuff behind the scenes with a high level of competency and never complains.
What I’d like to address here, are his final questions: "There is an organizational design and role/responsibilities question that's interesting to consider. Do you create a team of shims and put this person in charge, do you attempt to train others in the art of shimming, or is that even possible? If not, do you risk losing your shim to another organization because of money or career opportunity? And how would you replace that mystery skill set?"
Before I can address John’s questions, I have a question of my own: “What motivates Shims in the workplace?” This seems to be a crucial question that must be answered before we start speculating where to place them and how to hold on to them. Regarding creating a team of Shims, I do not believe that this would create a productive work team. It’s like trying to build and install a new interior door using only shims and not large pieces of wood. I believe that there probably needs to be a healthy balance of Non-Shims and Shims in a team and in an organization. I don’t know what that magical ratio is, but if I had to take a guess maybe it would be 1 Shim for every 8-10 Non-Shims. It’s also possible that you need to have at least one Shim in every work team regardless of size, and then for teams >10 we introduce the Shim to Non-Shim ratio in order to have a productive organization or team. Do you put them in charge? That’s an interesting question. I don’t think I have an answer to that question. It might be that Shims are more productive when they aren’t assigned an official “in charge of team” title. It seems likely that Shims would emerge as the leader in leaderless groups and maybe that is what gives him/her the ultimate power (acting as an informal leader). Do you attempt to train others (to become Shims)? I don’t think that this is a trainable attribute. It’s like trying to train someone to be creative or have charisma. I think that Shims are a perfect collision of many traits which makes training others to become Shims extremely difficult. Actually, I should take that back. You can train someone on how to behave like a Shim (notice I said behave, not become – there IS a difference). You can tell them all the things they should and shouldn’t do in order to become a Shim, but they won’t be nearly as effective as a real shim.
Do you risk losing your Shim to another organization because of money or career opportunity? It is good practice to recognize that you are always at risk of losing ANY employee to another organization because of money or career opportunity. There are also numerous other reasons employees leave their organizations, which is why my question of motivation is so important. It is likely that some of them are perfectly content where they are and do not need more money or career advancement. I know that most people believe that money and advancement are the only things that matter in a career, but research is proving that this is NOT the case. Without writing a dissertation (really, one in a lifetime is more than plenty right?), a couple of brief examples are the new generation of employees known as the Millenials or Generation Y (who appear to heavily favor organizations who value and incent involvement in community service, as a major reason to work or not work for a company) and Parents (and no I don’t mean just women anymore, men too; who value flexibility, daycare services, and work-life balance programs in their companies). The key here is to sit down with the valuable Shim in your team or organization and find out from them what makes them tick. What do they value? What do they want to do? Where do they see themselves in 5 years? Then, if you are able to accommodate them, do it!
How would you replace that mystery skillset? You hire an expert in the art of selection (unless you are lucky enough to have one in-house) and you put a lot of time, effort, and financial dollars towards finding, assessing, and selecting another Shim.
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