Why your employees could surprise you as much as my 26 year-old raincoat

26 years ago I walked into an outdoor clothing shop in Cambridge with my new wife (now the long-suffering Mrs Benfield) to buy a raincoat.  My criteria for selection were simple: It had to be waterproof, well made, and be able to fit my long, gibbony arms. I made the wise decision to buy the Helly Hansen jacket you see in the photo.

Since then this jacket has been used whenever the weather has looked unsettled (ie, lots).  It has travelled the world, been used as a groundsheet at open air concerts, walked up mountains and given two dogs hundreds of miles of exercise. Whilst it may not be the height of fashion (and I have no idea what is), it’s still totally waterproof.

You’ll also see from the photograph that the hood is quite big, which can be irritating when I want to see where I am going. Always prepared to push things to their limit (!), it only took me about ten years to realise that there was a clever velcro tab at the top which allows the hood to be pulled back off the face (see the second photo).  Why didn’t I notice this before? Well, I can give many reasons, but none of them are particularly convincing. I guess I just didn’t examine the garment properly. Then I started to asked questions about other clever drawcords, pockets and seams, and the whole thing made much more sense.

One of my clients has been looking at their workforce and wondering if the right people are doing the right things, or as Jim Collins would say, in the right seats on the right bus. One of them in particular has been with the company for ages. They have become part of the furniture, and as a result they can also be overlooked. They are also, shall we say, more senior than other employees, more traditional in their thinking and, to some degree, more resistant to change.

But an objective study showed that, just like my raincoat, this person was reliable, performed well in all conditions, could be used for other roles when required, and was generally a good fit for the company, despite one or two wrinkles along the way.  And here’s the thing – by observing them properly, it became clear that (like the velcro tab) they had one or two tricks up their sleeve that had never been tested because nobody had asked. By using these talents the employee has had a new lease of life – they are more energetic and aware of their contribution. The Company has saved money by not having to employ additional staff.

Of course, one day they will need to retire, but in the closing words of the movie Gladiator, “not yet, not yet”.

Who are the old raincoats in your organisation?