The invisible roles

Outstanding teams thrive thanks to unsung heroes. It’s time we recognized their contributions.

Shane Battier is one of the great former US basketball players, but not by traditional metrics. In 2009, Michael Lewis of Moneyball fame dubbed Battier “The No-Stats All-Star”. Battier did not stand out for his personal numbers. But when he was on the court, revealed Lewis, his team fared “much much better” – and opponents did “much much worse”.

Not only did Battier typically defend the toughest opponents, he was a source of emotional cohesion and inspiration to his teammates. Among his ‘superpowers’, as I would describe them, was his emotional intelligence and the ability to communicate how his teammates and opponents relate to each other. Those qualities are not easily measured in box scores.

We have precisely the same blind spots in our organizations. To realize the potential of great teamwork, we need to look at factors beyond the current corporate box scores.

In my work with chief executives, teams and students, I have noticed a set of vital ‘invisible roles’. These roles are not found on organizational charts and they do not equate to the familiar posts of supervisors, managers, directors, officers and so on. Such jobs are clearly defined, structurally reinforced, and highly visible; invisible roles are the opposite. Often, they are not rewarded, incentivized, or even noticed – yet we keenly feel their absence. There are four invisible roles.

The Catalysts make us question our assumptions, reframe our challenges and deconstruct what has been. These individuals are thoughtful game-changers who are always forward-thinking. They offer pushback, new ideas and can provide a healthy dose of scepticism. Catalysts help us to make a leap in our thinking, innovating beyond the current linear path that our project or organization may be on.

The Mentors are responsible for transferring knowledge and cultural norms. They are eager to listen, apprentice new team members, and ensure continuity between generations of leadership. They are emotionally generous, praising the accomplishments of others and helping team members
set goals.

The Glue are individuals who, like Battier, promote team chemistry and create emotional bonds. They are energizing, focus on teambuilding, and increase joy capital. They keep morale up and ensure everyone works cohesively.

The Integrators are big-picture people. They excel at weaving ideas together and connecting people in a team. They spend time outside of their own department, building a diverse network, so they know how the company functions as a whole. They use their insights to help the organization fully leverage its assets. That includes diversity and inclusion: integrators help connect differing parts, making them greater than their sum.

These invisible roles can as easily be found in the executive assistant as they are in the chief executive. They are not found in job descriptions, but lie in how a person uses their relational or virtue superpowers. It’s an expression of what’s core to who they are, and what enlivens their work.

In an era of disruption, organizations are struggling to survive. Hundred-year-old powerhouses are on the brink of extinction; startups can flare out as suddenly as they arrive. Leaders have to ask: what do we need to not only survive, but to prevail? The focus is usually on the organizational architecture, processes and resources, or those in positions of power – the leadership team or the board.

But it is the contribution made by people – and the invisible roles they play – that are paramount. Such people are needed in every strata and department of our companies. If we can recognize these extraordinary superpowers in individuals, we can learn how to search for their qualities when hiring, promote them in our existing structures, and leverage the best of what our companies have to offer.

Sanyin Siang is a Pratt School of Engineering professor and leads the Fuqua/Coach K Center on Leadership & Ethics at Duke University.