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What do you do when key people quit

By Dr Greg Story

I once had the perfect team in business. I had spent years hiring well and really putting a lot into training everyone. I thought, “Finally, I have the perfect team”.

That wondrous situation probably lasted about six months before one of them quit. A client poached them from us. Why? Because we had done such a stupendously excellent job of training and developing them, they were considered highly, highly valuable by other firms. What does this tell us? That we will never create the perfect team—and even if we do, it won’t last, so get used to instability.

Whether it is a division within a large firm or a small one, there will always be key people. Sometimes they are in highly specialised roles, and it took years of investment in their training and qualifications to get them there. They are truly unique talents who are almost impossible to replace.

Hanging on

So, what do we do? We start treating these people like princes and princesses. We are very keen to ensure they stay with us, so we pander to their ego, keep giving them more money and cut them a lot of slack we don’t extend to others. As they begin to realise that they are so rare and valuable, their ego kicks into gear and they become entirely entitled and expectant. You can’t afford to replace them, so you just suck it up.

Usually, we come up with brilliant counter moves once they have quit. We start to create workarounds, we inject new processes into the system to cope, we start spending money to compensate for the loss. In retrospect, we would have been better to do all this before they quit. We were busy though. We had hived off that bit of the responsibility to them so that we could concen­trate on other tasks. Everything was working. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” reigned supreme as the dominant ideology.

But there were warning signs we neglected to note on the way. We ignored them because we didn’t want to confront the possibility of disaster. We were very busy, you know.

Seeing the signs

So, in future what should we do? Once we feel we are tip-toeing around on egg shells with particular individuals who are deemed too valuable to lose, the alarm siren should sound in our heads. We should start thinking, “Uh oh, all of our eggs are congregating in the one basket here, and the consequent risk factor is major”. We need to start working on reducing our exposure to a meltdown of epic proportions.

The backup plan needs to get attention. We need to develop another capable individual who can slip into the position if the need arises. Funnily enough, often the superstar doesn’t want that. They only want one sun in the sky, so they use their position to block the development of a replace­ment. They can’t find anyone who would be good to hire. They are too busy to look. They are too busy to train someone. None of the potential candidates are right for the job.

At the time, you yield to their superior know­ledge or their qualifications and accept that what they are telling you is true. You are respectful of the superstar’s position. You never imagine there is a second agenda in play, and you are busy.

Preparing for change

Your superiors or your partners are constantly telling you that we need the superstar, so tread lightly, be careful, keep them engaged, don’t screw up. Your options suddenly look constricted. And, again, you are busy.

Ignore all that superstar smokescreen and do your own search for a candidate, because that is exactly what you will have to do anyway when the super­star quits. You may as well spend the time now, because pain today will be relief of pain tomorrow.

Bite the bullet. Don’t become a hostage to the superstar. Always work on devising a cunning plan in case you need to replace them. It means time out of your already super-busy schedule—and it probably requires unbudgeted monies—but get it organised and do it.

We cannot expect to realise the perfect team and keep them intact forever. Someone will poach them from us, or they will want to do their own thing because they are a genius. It is only a matter of when. We also know that experts can be hired in and budding experts can be developed over time. As soon as you hear the sound of egg shells cracking, get into action.

Custom Media publishes BCCJ ACUMEN for the British Chamber of Commerce in Japan.


©2020 GPlusMedia Inc.

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Ive seen this happen many times. You have to have an unspoken contingency plan in place. This means "carrot and stick" everything, and have the "superstar" staff train up the junior interns, or staff, as a condition of their employment, or keep your intentions to yourself, but make sure it gets done. That way, when the superstar leaves ( they will) you have junior staff ready to roll into their positions.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

It's important to build positions that are replaceable, then find the best people to fill these positions. Though it often ends up best to tweak that job to the person who is doing it.

The problem with building your business on specific people (and this includes owners), is that your business is then dependent upon those specific people. When (not if) those people leave, the business takes a major it.

Conversely, if you build a business where the people don't matter, and all positions are replaceable, it's a bland place to work, and does not create a lot of motivation or a particularly eager community culture.

As such, having core positions, with the best people to fit the positions means you can receive the benefits of having that specific person on board, while being able to replace them with another qualified person when (not if), they leave.

The article describes having to walk around certain people on eggshells. This speaks to me of a situation that often comes around through being dependent upon a person, rather than their position. The company and employees end up in a position where the penalty of tiptoeing around this person is a necessity due to the dependence upon their person. In a healthy office environment, the boss should be able to sit down with this person and tell them they need to change their behavior to a more palatable model. If the boss is afraid to do this, it's an unhealthy environment. The most unhealthy environments are the ones where it is the boss who must be tiptoed around - if you are in such a company, get out. Get away. Get far far away.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I envy them.

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Dr Greg, U have met me, there are lots of people like that , but I figure out , how to deal with them. give them their own medicine x 3 times. Problems solved , next one.

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 A client poached them from us. Why? Because we had done such a stupendously excellent job

I doubt it. Could be the case if one by one had left for different better positions. But you don't lose a team because you did good.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

If the business in question is my former employer, one does not worry about replacing valuable people until they are gone and unable to help in training replacements.

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I doubt it. Could be the case if one by one had left for different better positions.

?? The author specifically referred to it being one person:

*That wondrous situation probably lasted about six months before one of them quit. A client poached them from us.*

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