What is a key employee, and who is worthy of such a title? Much has been written on the subject of key employees, and in my opinion most of it flat misses the mark. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that what most people refer to as key employees are not really assets, but rather large contingent liabilities. If you allow your organization to be held hostage by those employees who feel like they are indispensable, you are only exacerbating the problem. I’m not disputing the need to retain talent and reduce turnover, but I am vehemently disputing the conventional wisdom of how most businesses address the risk of managing key employees. In today’s post I’ll give you a fresh perspective on the age old dilemma of how to deal with key employees…
As a CEO or entrepreneur your problem with key employees begins the very second you publicly identify someone as such. In fact, I would go so far as to say the phrase key employee is an outdated, elitist term that creates angst and animosity among the ranks. Good leaders view all employees as key, and great leaders cause all employees to view themselves as key. The fact that you single out someone as a key employee to begin with means that at a minimum you have a lack of transparency and continuity in your organization, and more probably that you lack depth of talent and are weak in process and knowledge management.
How would you answer this question…Is your company talent poor and key employee dependent, or talent rich or key employee independent? From my perspective a superstar is not necessarily the same thing as a key employee…There is a monumental difference between real tier-one talent and a primadonna who thinks of themselves as tier-one talent. Employees who represent true tier-one talent see themselves as part of the team seeking to make those around them more successful. Contrast this with those primadonnas who are interested solely in their own success without regard to those around them. Any company that bestows a primadonna with recognition as a key employee is a company about ready to experience a completely avoidable disaster.
Over the years I have learned that no one, and I mean no one, is indispensable. A well managed company is not dependent upon the performance of any single individual. Those individuals who attempt to hoard knowledge, relationships, or resources to attain job security are not to be valued as key, but are to be admonished as ineffective and deemed a liability. Corporate talent that cannot be shared, duplicated, distributed, or leveraged is not nearly as valuable as talent that can.
If you want to eliminate dependency on key employees don’t allow any individual to create ultimate domain over anything that is considered key or mission critical. Instead create a culture that values transparency, knowledge management, mentoring, coaching, and process. By doing these things you will add both depth and breadth to your organization and increase the overall level of talent across the enterprise.
Mike Myatt, is a Top CEO Coach, author of “Leadership Matters…The CEO Survival Manual“, and Managing Director of N2Growth.