In sports, he or she is the player everyone else on the team wants to have the last shot to tie or win the game, the player who makes everyone else on the team feel like winners. As in the world of sports, so too in the world of business organizations. But who are they and how do you find them in large and small organizations? This author has the helpful answers.

“You know”, said the newly appointed CEO of a large company, “I have more than 1000 people in my head office organization; 900 can tell me something’s gone wrong, 90 can tell me what’s gone wrong, nine can tell me why it went wrong, and one can actually fix it!”

While the statement above may be an exaggeration, the essential point comes across: Every organization has a few people — very few people — who are its “Go-To” people….those to whom you can turn when you want a difficult situation sorted out, who will get the job done on time and on budget, and who won’t come up with a dozen reasons why it can’t be done but will discover how to do it.

Who are these “Go-To” people? What is it they do? What makes them so effective? And how do you develop more of them in your organization? This article will answer these questions.


These “Go-To” people – GTs for short — are different in many ways from other people in our organizations not necessarily because they have unique skills but because of the ways these skills are configured and associated with other leadership characteristics.

  • They know how their organizations work and how to work their organizations. They have what we might recognize today as both emotional and social intelligence – a keen understanding at both intellectual and intuitive levels of the people who make decisions in organizations, what motivates them, what skills and capabilities they have and, therefore, what levers they can pull as change agents to get them to do what needs to be done.(Both “emotional intelligence” and “social intelligence” were coined by Daniel Goleman). They understand that they have the ability to help people achieve what they want to achieve – they are great enablers, they clear away road blocks, they resolve impasses and deadlocks that are frustrating people. And they use those skills to build support for required actions.
  • They are politically astute without being corporate politicians. They understand that large organizations are political entities driven by individuals and coalitions with their own interests and ideologies. They know that they have to build multiple coalitions of the willing in order to effect change and sometimes overcome resistance to change by skeptics. They understand how to help people see how to achieve their own goals by going along with the required change even though their motivation for doing so may not be the purest. In this way, they are political back-room operatives, welding together a critical mass of supporters and holding them together through the change process. It is sometimes a bit like making sausages – doesn’t look that pretty, but in the end they taste just fine. But unlike many political operatives the GTs are seen as dedicated to the goals of the organization, rather than feathering their own nests. This leaves them with the reputation for being politically astute rather than being labeled with the stigma of being a corporate politician.
  • They know how to use power when it’s needed but seldom use it, preferring to influence and persuade others to get-with-the-program (1). G-Ts recognize that people tend to be influenced by people they like, so they work at being quite likeable rather than overbearing, demanding or abrasive; they recognize that people are often influenced by expertise, so they bring that to bear either through their own expertise or by recruiting experts who can support them; they recognize that people tend to be influenced by “people like them” …so they build coalitions of like minded-people with whom resistors to change want to be associated; they recognize that people are persuaded by those they, in turn, can persuade so they open themselves up to inputs, suggestions and recommendations from those they are trying to persuade; they recognize that people want most what they often have least of in organizations – recognition – and they reward people who get-with-the-program with recognition for doing so.
  • They are consummate negotiators but getting it done is non-negotiable. They understand both their own and others’ objectives, resistance points and best-alternatives to an agreement and they use all of the tools and techniques of skilled negotiators to bring people into zones of agreement and forge consensus on ways to move ahead. They are adept at seeing situations from others’ perspectives, separating people from principles, building bridges between positions, bringing people to their senses rather than their needs, the other skills inherent in Getting to Yes and Getting Past No. Like all skilled negotiators, they recognize that getting the right kind of agreement from people is often a matter of timing. But they are laser-like focused on project completion and never sacrifice deadlines for compliance. Strangely, perhaps, Go-To-People often seem relaxed because they are not driven by artificial deadlines.
  • They use networks of reciprocation rather than deals. G-Ts always seem to have people they can turn to for favors! That’s because they have learned the value of reciprocity in the art and science of influencing people. However, these exchanges of favors are usually not elements in conditional negotiations. They seldom take the form: “If you support me, you will get this.” Rather, the reciprocity is usually based on having done someone a favor without requiring anything in return. It is often motivated not by future consideration but by a genuine desire to help someone else. There is no ledger of who-owes-whom but, rather, a subtle appreciation of organizational guanxi. (Network of reciprocal obligations built up over time).
  • They think out of the box while acting inside the box. Go-to people are creative people who are constantly looking for different ways to get things done. Barriers are challenges, obstacles represent opportunities for innovation, the words “can’t do” register as “how can we do.” But their creativity is exercised in ways which bring people onside rather than alienate them. They use the culture to change the culture, they know how to use channels effectively and when there are no channels they create new, legitimate ones rather than acting as revolutionaries and mavericks. Unlike mavericks and rabble-rousers these go-to people are smooth operators who leave positive feelings in their wakes and make people comfortable feel good about having achieved program results. How they have done it is likely to leave a legacy in the organization of a new way of doing things rather than a trail of organizational and personal debris.
  • They are analytical and intuitive, aggressive and patient, confident and humble, deliberate and decisive. (2) These sometimes paradoxical characteristics of highly effective leaders are present in abundance in G-Ts. They are aggressive in the pursuit of goals, yet patient in recognizing that many people will have to change what they do in order to achieve them; they are confident that they can achieve their goals yet have the humility to acknowledge the perspectives to others, to listen to their ideas, and to give them the credit for having achieved results; they are deliberate in their approach to complex problems but don’t fall victim to the analysis-paralysis that often goes along with major, multi-faceted decisions. They escalate what needs to be handled at a higher level and don’t feel that they have to resolve everything themselves. In fact, being a G-T often means going somewhere else for assistance, support and reinforcement.

Where ARE the G-Ts?

G-Ts may be anywhere in your organization. Some are engineers, some are accountants, some are administrative assistants, some are MBAs … others have few formal qualifications. Some are organizational veterans; others might be fairly new to their organizations. But it is likely that they have a number of things in their backgrounds or current performance that help to identify them.

  • While many resumes portray people as leaders, they are heavily weighted toward “initiators”, those who started things and developed new ways of doing things. Few talk about completions – driving things that they have initiated through to conclusion. In your interviewing of people for “Go-To” roles or assignments, ask the question: “Describe a situation where you either initiated or inherited a project that ran into trouble and that you had to drive through to completion. What did you do to get-it done or, if you failed, why did you fail?” Then look for the seven characteristics of G-Ts described above.
  • Look for the talent within! Organizations tend to have little difficulty identifying their “stars” – the bright, innovative, originators of initiatives – and they reward them accordingly. But this is often at the expense of overlooking those who glitter less yet have a more enduring impact. As you review your talent pool, be on the alert for these people, ask your lower-level talent managers if they have people who fit this profile and clearly identify their value to the organization.
  • Challenge new graduates with the kinds of projects that bring out these characteristics. In many cases, organizations task new graduates with very short-term assignments that use their analytical skills to the full but don’t task them with anything to do and work through to completion. In many ways, and sadly, this is a continuation of their post-secondary educational experience. MBAs in particular have great reputations for analytical insights but not for being able to design and carry a project through to completion. But, often, this is a bum rap since they have never been tasked with doing so. If you can address this early in their organizational careers, you may well have a significant impact in helping them define the need for developing this dimension of their capability profile in ways that will both further their careers and prove personally satisfying.

Nurturing Go-To People

The great thing about G-Ts is that they not only tackle complex challenges but that they seem to thrive on being perpetually challenged! They are natural high achievers and sometimes the biggest challenge is keeping them challenged. The secret is to never let the GT’s run out of challenging assignments. When you do so, you stand a real risk of losing them.

If there is a problem with G-Ts it’s that they are sometimes used within organizations without being adequately recognized and rewarded and, over time, this use turns into abuse. While others get recognition and promotion and build careers, the GTs may labor in relative obscurity. When they give credit to others for getting things done, they are often not credited with this. When they follow Lao-Tzu’s principle of leadership – the effective leader makes people think that they have done it – they may do it at their own expense. They may not be vocal about these feelings – in the same way that they eschew the glory of being the visible achievers, they may not be aggressive in claiming the rewards.

This puts the onus on organizational leadership to recognize the value of getting things done and build this into an important dimension of organizational culture. The G-Ts must be identified, recognized and rewarded if they are to be examples to others and feel good themselves. Who knows, with such an approach there may be more than one-in-a-thousand who turns out to be that highly valuable “Go-To” person!

1. (Harnessing the Science of persuasion, R.B. Cialdini, Harvard Business Review, 79(9): 72-79, 2001).

(2). The Leadership Role, J. Gandz, Ivey Business Journal 66(1):5.

About the Author

Jeffrey Gandz is a Professor of Strategic Leadership and Managing Director, Program Design, in Ivey Business School's Executive Development division at Western University.