Ahh, that feeling that the whole place would fall apart without that one employee. Have you ever felt or thought that either about yourself or someone else? If you are an employee and you have that experience, let me tell you that is not a great position to be in. If you are self employed, I’d recommend that you revisit your business strategy quickly regardless if it is you who feels that or if you know you have an employee like that.
No doubt at some point you have encountered someone who knows so much about the business/organization that everyone goes to them (or was it you?!). When that person goes on vacation or gets sick, everyone else scrambles to fill in the gaps. Things may not get done perfectly, but they do get done somehow. Funny that – the indispensable employee isn’t as indispensable as you or they thought.
Nobody should be indispensable in your team or wider organization. Ever.
This issue of being indispensable isn’t just about running an organization though – it is about the Risks to the organization and the Ego and Self-Identity. Why? Well, what if that person does get into a car accident or gets sick or gets so burned out that they quit suddenly? What if they hold all of the computer administration passwords or other financial or security information? How much is it going to cost for you, or your company, to recover from them taking the foundations of the controls of the business with them? Ever heard of former employees having ‘backdoors’ into financial or information systems and making off with either private, financial or your unique competitive property? Well, this is one way that it can happen – letting someone become so central that they have the ability to get away with criminal behaviour. Of course, most situations don’t involve criminal behaviour. The risks and costs that result because of them leaving are more often around training others, recovering or developing new processes and systems, often breaking down work tasks that were personality based as opposed to best for the business, and a myriad of other ‘catch-up’ types of activities.
Fortunately there are some steps that organizations can take to mitigate some of these risks. One of them is writing out your processes for the critical tasks in your organization. You don’t have to get really formal, but do record the required steps that people need to do and any unique steps that aren’t intuitive. Task someone to revisit your checklists and processes twice a year – maybe as part of the lead up to your regular business planning. That way you can also avoid surprises by verifying if there have been any regulatory or legislative changes in your industry that affect you.
Another method is a ‘buddy system’ or cross training. Always make sure that at least two people know each and every position in the organization. This method can also be used as an excellent selling point for hiring and retaining your staff, as well as it being a sound business practice that reduces your risks. If you are the one with much of the knowledge in your head, let me ask you: do you really, really, really want to be held accountable for everything? Trust me, sharing the load reduces everyone’s stress, allows for better decision making by individuals, teams and the owners. It may take a bit of time, but knowledge transfer is a fantastic way to build up coworkers, improve the business and of course, ensure that oneself or one’s employees have healthy work loads.
For many of my clients, their business is themselves – without them, there is no income. This is a common approach for many entrepreneurs when they start out and for some, it can be pretty scary. For others, that is just how they want it. I have to say that I have been particularly influenced by a book my big brother (hey there Joel!) recommended to me years ago. It’s called The E-Myth Revisited by Michael E. Gerber. I highly recommend that you read this book, or others like it. You are not going to be able to apply all the principles overnight, but you will get some serious food for thought about how you might want to move forward with your own business. Or indeed, if you want to keep it the way it is.
One of the ideas I took from this book is to step back and examine your business from the perspective of systems that can be replicated. For example, as mentioned above, set up a solid and regularly reviewed checklist or process. For myself, I ask a particular set of questions during my free initial consultation with prospective clients. I have developed these questions over time so as to help me quickly and efficiently get a good start on understanding my potential client’s needs.
What about technological tools – haven’t we all developed different habits and reliance on certain software applications? Are you using those tools consistently or using two or three at the same time? Maybe it is time to commit to just one?
Now, what about the Ego and Self-Identity? Well, I am not a counsellor or a psychologist. What I do know though, is that high functioning teams learn early on to share the wealth of work and the wealth of knowledge. Great leaders, business owners, and those who are intent on long term success, make the time to help their employees grow as individuals as well as workers. Certainly it is hard work – but if you are working in a leadership position, own a business with employees, or are wanting to be a leader in your team it is fantastically important to get skills in relationship building.
Frankly, if you have an entrenched ‘super-knowledge-super-star’, it is more than likely that their ego and self-identity is inextricably tied into their position in your organization as the ‘go-to person’. They may take pride in that role while at the same time resenting it and possibly their managers or you for ‘being placed in that situation’. The thing is, if you care about this person (and your business), you can perhaps see that they probably need help. Yes, they have to take some self-responsibility, and yes, you want to mitigate risks to your business, but you also want mentally healthy people around. Setting up a series of respectful conversations with them that explore how you can together begin to transition them from being overly relied on, identifying who they can begin to train, shifting their work load so that they can focus on knowledge transfer, are all steps you should consider. And if the person becomes distressed as you start to work more closely with them, do be prepared with information about services in your community. This isn’t about micro-managing them though – this is about honoring their knowledge and skills and honoring what you need in your business. And then finding a path that works for you.
If you are the one feeling like you are ‘indispensable’, my friend, please hear me – “no one is indispensable”. The best thing you can do for yourself is to recognize the unbalanced load you are placing on yourself. Eventually the stresses will begin to show themselves in your health, mistakes made, difficult relationships, and any number of challenges. This goes for the self-employed as well – you are going to need strategic partners who can do some of the work for you, like bookkeepers, house cleaners, dog walkers, tutors, etc. I know. I’ve been there. It takes awhile to change your patterns of behaviour, to ask for help, and to learn that your job is not to do it all, but to enable those around you to be the best that they can be. Challenge yourself to embrace this principle and arrange your work with the goal to not be indispensable. Your employer will love your contributions and your loved ones will love your availability. And you, well, you will love being able to focus on what you love to do with better energy and results.
I do not financially benefit from any of the external links in this post. They are provided as a courtesy only.