I frequently hear managers say of long-term key employees, “I don’t know what we’d do without him,” or “She’s the only one that knows how to…” or even “We could never replace him.”
These comments may point to two critical talent-management issues that are epidemic in our industry. The first is the inadequate transfer of knowledge from key employees to those who may one day take their place. The second is a serious lack of succession planning, particularly successor identification and focused development.
But there’s another thing that’s in play here, something that might be even more pervasive than a lack of formal transition structure. It’s the emotional component that enters the picture when one employee is believed to hold the only key to significant processes, programs or client accounts. At a minimum, their perceived value to the organization is artificially escalated. At a maximum, managers get the message to treat this employee with kid gloves.
They might shy away from objectively evaluating the employee, correcting his missteps, or even planning an organizational change for fear they might upset or, heaven forbid, lose the employee. They may not dare ask the employee to share his knowledge or push when the sharing doesn’t occur. They feel their hands are tied, and, because of this, they feel a heightened fear of losing the employee and his unknown “secret sauce.” It is at this point that you have a hostage situation.
The (sometimes) unknowing employee may be considered by others to “have it better,” but the reality is, without the developmental opportunities inherent in a manager’s coaching and counseling, the employee may be slower to develop professionally, may cause problems for others because of behavioral issues, and may get paid above range for it.
What’s missing in the equation, and this is a crucial point for the key employee to understand, is that being a pariah makes that employee less integrated, less knowledgeable, less valuable and less promotable. It separates the employee from the rest of the staff and creates barriers to important, positive work relationships.
It’s the manager’s job to help the employee understand this reality. It’s also a manager’s job to stay relevant. Simply put, leaving an employee alone to his own devices—for whatever reason—works to the detriment of both the employee and the firm and means the manager is not doing the job for which he is being paid.
Managers must believe that everyone is replaceable, even those who seem irreplaceable. To think otherwise is not just misguided, it may create a culture that encourages employees to protect and defend “their” turf, when really it’s the agency’s turf. That said, clearly, there are people you do not want to replace. Clearly, there are people who have unique, marketable, and valuable skills that would be hard to replicate. No human being is like any other, so actually replacing the person is not possible. But refilling the position is always possible.
Some replacement situations are easier than others. For example, a manager who has delegated appropriately, developed the staff under his supervision, worked collaboratively with colleagues, contemporaneously reported significant progress and obstacles, documented processes, and/or populated a common database will be much easier to promote and/or replace than one who’s worked in a vacuum, protecting his territory and eschewing the participation of others. So why do we sometimes not actively encourage the former situation and actively protect our organizations from the latter?
The answer may be disturbingly simple. It takes a lot of time, energy, effort and skill to simultaneously encourage and support a valuable employee and at the same time hold the employee to standards of performance, behavior, communication and corporate citizenship. It can’t be done without organizational and leadership support. For many, it’s overwhelming, and some managers choose not to intervene when things go off track. They turn a blind eye to the problem and then are blindsided when they face an employee who might leverage his perceived power in inappropriate ways.
You may never have experienced the conflict created by a powerful employee who uses his power to circumvent the established standards of behavior and performance. But if you have, you know the powerless feeling of being held hostage by someone who’s apparently in it for himself to the detriment of the organization. Don’t sit by while a hostage situation develops. Cross-train employees, teach managers to delegate, hold everyone to behavioral standards, and don’t sacrifice your agency’s collective integrity for fear of losing one individual.