Managing Key Personnel – Do What Is Inevitable – evasion and self-deception will not work

Recently I was speaking with the owner of a financial services firm. She has 15 people in her organization which is now almost 18 years old. By any measure a successful firm.

She told me about one person who has been with the firm for eight years. The owner described this person as the most professional and reliable person in the organization. She performs all sorts of important customer-facing activities flawlessly. This employee is a key person in the organization. The owner went on to tell me about a recent conversation she had with this key person who confided that she did not want to be just an “insurance geek”. She was emphatic about this. The owner told me that this statement jived with other comments this person had made recently. She believed her and felt that her days are numbered.

The owner then went on to describe how she had begun to put together a job manual for all of the key tasks now under the wing of the key employee. This seemed to me to be just the right step. First, the key employee was cooperating in constructing the job manual. This is a great sign of continuing good faith. Second, the owner is testing out the manual to be sure that it really will be a solid platform for training a replacement.

So, all of this struck me as good, sound steps to take. When I asked whether there might be another position in the firm that would be suitable for the key person, she said no, firmly. Well then, I asked, have you taken steps to find a replacement? The owner gave me a slightly surprised answer of no.

I said to the owner that if we had a video of these preceding three minutes of conversation, almost every manager would say, “It is inevitable that this key person will leave. Why wait around to take action only when you a presented with a fait accompli and have no replacement ready to go for these important tasks?

After a moment of surprise and, I think, self-recognition that this was right, she promised that she would take action. Time will tell. It is in fact very hard to essentially push someone out the door on your time schedule. It seems easier to allow events to roll along and then be surprised when the person actually leaves. Part of the difficulty is that we do not like to hurt someone. And, pushing them out the door, even when we rationally know that they will leave, seems hurtful.

A bit of re-framing is in order here.

First, the key person in this case is also doubtlessly struggling with the decision to leave. She knows that  “she did not want to be just an “insurance geek”.” But, like most, she is struggling with moving on from a comfortable, known environment where she is valued as a “key” person. On your side of the equation, you feel a desire to avoid the “hurtful” act of firing her, pushing her out the door you know that she will inevitably exit. The re-framing step is to understand that you are not doing her a favor by not acting on the shared knowledge that it is time for her to move on in her life. In the guise of avoiding hurting her you are actually aiding her own avoidance of the step away from the company. And, you are setting yourself up for a disturbing, if not destructive, void in the personnel of the company.

It is very likely that by extending the willingness of this key person to help with the job manual to actually training her replacement, you can create an environment in which a much happier and productive close to this person’s tenure can be made. Time will tell.