For the last four years, I’ve been racing in the 24 Hours of LeMons, an amateur racing series that involves 16 hour long races with teams that have 3–5 drivers per car. When I was measuring my success by best lap times, I was the slowest driver on my team. I constantly felt like I was holding the team back and worked on improving my best time. Still, I wasn’t closing the gap. It wasn’t until my teammate did an analysis of our total performance during an entire race that I learned that I was, as he called me, our “Secret Weapon”. Because I was very consistent and stayed out of trouble, I had the best average lap time on the team. I knew I was climbing the charts consistently with each stint in the car, but ascribed this to dumb luck.
Secret Weapons are secret because they don’t call attention to themselves. The best system administrator in the world is someone you’ve never heard of. The best engineer works 30–40 hours a week and gets more done than her colleague who lives in the office and commits code at odd hours. These secret weapons can be hard to find. Some folks are good at singing their own praises, others are not.
In a meritocracy, they’d be found and recognized, but meritocracies are a utopian ideal, something to strive for but never fully achieve. Why? Because it assumes that the people of merit are known to all. This is a faulty assumption because as an experienced manager, I will be the first to say that I haven’t always known who the great people are on my team. I have to actively look for them. I sometimes need help.
Part of my responsibility to my team is tied to compensation and leveling. I try hard to be as fair as possible and I know I will never be perfect. To be more perfect, I listen when someone from my team feels they are not appropriately compensated or leveled. In some cases, I agree and move to make changes. In other cases, I disagree and work with them on what their path looks like. In all cases, I learn as much as I can to understand the discrepancy between their perception and my own. And I have never thought negatively about a person coming to me for a raise or promotion.
Some final thoughts- secret weapons have different reasons for being secret. Sometimes, they don’t realize how good they are. Other times, it’s because the “reward” for good work involves a promotion to a different role that they don’t want. And there are folks who’ve been told that asking for recognition will work against them. Regardless of the reasons, they need to be found. Otherwise, they may leave, bad things may happen, and no one will ever understand why.