Leaders need their “water carriers” now more than ever 

Not like that.
Not like that.
Image: AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
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Seemingly every company has at least a few people who quietly go (or sign on) to work every day, skip the watercooler chatter, and get right down to business. They don’t seek attention or recognition, and very often they fall into the shadows of their louder, more visible colleagues. These individuals aren’t always your most talented or high-level employees, and they might never be nominated for employee of the month. But they quietly get more work done than anyone else.

There’s a name for these people: “water carriers.” And I recognize them, because I am one. Most of my career I’ve quietly worked in the background while others with bigger personalities were in the spotlight. Back in the day, water carriers did the hard work of hauling water from rivers and wells to people’s homes. In the modern business context, the work of the water carrier (when it’s not being used in an outright negative context) is at odds with the prevailing “work smarter, not harder” ethos popular today.

I don’t see it that way, of course. And having lived the experience of a water carrier, once I moved into a position of managing global teams, I made a dedicated effort to look beyond the people gunning for attention to uncover the hard workers who are easily overlooked. But as I step into the role of CEO at my company, I have less time to do the legwork necessary to find —and reward—my water carriers. So I’m encouraging my leadership team to do this instead.

Why? Beyond the simple answer of employers showing fair recognition for hard work, knowing who your water carriers are, and how to keep them, can create a critical advantage for your company. This goes double in the Covid-19 era, when organizations everywhere are seeking to do more with less and embracing remote models where deliverables increasingly outweigh charisma. You need to find your water carriers.

It’s easy to overlook your water carriers

Some researchers believe the US is the most overtly self-promotional culture in the world. Nowhere is this more evident than in business, where everything from MBA programs to advice columns preach the benefits of constantly touting your own achievements.

As a result, attention often goes to the biggest personalities in the office, with water carriers fading into the background. These quiet, conscientious folks don’t announce when they’ve finished an assignment, sealed a deal, or solved a nagging operations problem. They just move on to the next task on their list.

Taking the time to seek these people out and talk to them about their work can provide crucial insight into how your business operates, and where your blind spots are.

Often, you’ll find your water carriers in unlikely places. For instance, my company creates software for people analytics and workforce planning. Whenever we’re getting ready to release a new product, process gaps emerge between our R&D, sales, marketing, customer success, and support teams. It never fails: R&D says the product is ready to ship, but the other teams say they need more time. Someone then has to step up to find a way forward. Navigating multiple team dynamics, approval processes, and timelines may not be a glamorous role, but at that moment, it is literally the most important job in the company.

After talking to several members of each team and asking them to walk me through their workflow, I found our water carriers: the few people who’d regularly taken it upon themselves to coordinate all the groups involved and ensure a timely release. This let me know a couple of things: 1) we probably need to create a new position to coordinate our releases, and 2) who was holding an imperfect system together all this time. Needless to say, that kind of passion and commitment is anything but commonplace. These individuals can be exceptional assets—provided you can spot and acknowledge them in time.

How to find, and support, your water carriers

Identifying your water carriers isn’t about separating introverts from extroverts; it’s about identifying a difference in work ethic and finding the people who consistently go the extra mile.

As a newly named CEO, my first order of business was a 30-day “listening tour” in my company, in part to uncover our water carriers and alert our leadership team to their presence. This is a practice I’ve developed throughout my career. Teasing out the people who are quietly doing their job (and then some) requires both judgment and patience. Data tools, such as organizational network analysis, can point you in the right direction, but finding your water carriers takes some old-fashioned detective work. Importantly, water carriers won’t always be your high-level, heavily credentialed employees, or top talents; in fact, many often aren’t.

Spending time with frontline workers and managers, asking for details, and observing team dynamics in action is critical. These tactics have been a hallmark of great leaders, and for good reason—they’re the only way to find out who’s really holding teams together and pushing projects to the finish line.

Rewarding your water carriers is equally important, and requires a unique approach. Giving them a trophy in front of the company or promoting them to VP is often the wrong move; in fact, many have no interest in becoming managers. However, without some form of support and acknowledgment they can grow frustrated, lose interest, and quietly leave — and you won’t know everything they’ve done for you until they’re gone.

Start by ensuring that they know you know. Simple acknowledgment from senior leadership can speak volumes. I have often had one-on-one chats with my water carriers to thank them for their efforts, and I sometimes offered a small bonus or a gift (unbeknownst to their own managers).

But don’t stop with kind words or gestures. Identifying your water carriers can be an opportunity to actively gather their insights and feedback. What’s working? What isn’t? These individuals are keepers of institutional knowledge and keen observers of bad systems. Tap their expertise and reciprocate their efforts by ensuring they have the resources they need to continue to excel in their role—no matter where in your organization that might be. Help identify blockers, from budgets to bad managers, and use the occasion to map out career pathways and opportunities for advancement that make sense for them.

Why go to all this effort? A healthy company requires a variety of personalities. While it’s technically possible for successful organizations to exist on evangelists and ambitious all-stars alone, without a balance the result is a cutthroat culture full of people crying for attention, while execution falls by the wayside. Even the best-built processes have gaps and flaws, especially processes that span across functional groups. Organizations count on people to fill these gaps—make sure you keep those people happy, and do the work to keep them around.

Ryan Wong (@ryanhywong) is an engineer turned CEO of Visier, a business intelligence platform.