Sunday, February 14, 2010

Beware the indispensible!


Tara was by far the most experienced and knowledgeable. She had the tribal knowledge of what happened since the project started. Everyone depended on her for everything. When she got an internal job offer to leave the department my management team said we must stop it and make a counter offer. I listened and tried to talk her out of leaving. It did not work. She left. And you know what happened? The performance of the total department increased. I learned a valuable lesson – sometimes the person that makes themselves indispensible actually holds everyone else back.

I saw it again a few years later at the senior levels above me. There was a SVP that was considered the indispensible and the next potential president. When he left because he did not get the job, the whole company grew and performed better. I thought about this and realized the leaders that make themselves indispensible hoard information, limit people’s potential and don’t allow teammates to make mistakes and learn from them. They instill fear to make themselves more powerful. For that time on, I study the dynamics of all organizations and when I find that so called indispensible person, I visualize how much the team is being held back and how well the team might be performing. Dispensable beware.

Can you remember a time when someone the organization just could not lose left and the whole team benefited from the exit?

73 comments:

ken kuang said...

Simple, yet profound insights. Need to think more now....

Ed said...

I agree with your comments on that kind of indispensable person. Read LinchPin by Seth Godin to learn about an indispensable leader. A leader in the sense of artist who leads us where we didn't know we could go. A leader who shows by example how we all should behave. An open and honest leader who doesn't have to have the leadership title to be a leader, which is to say we can all become indispensable leaders for our tribes.

Ed Callahan
blog: www.edcallahan.info

Dan said...

Thanks for your post. You are spot on. Leades can actually get in the way.

http://leadershipfreak.wordpress.com/2010/01/27/get-out-of-the-way/

Regards,

Leadership Freak,
Dan Rockwell

davidburkus said...

Ed,

Godin describes a different kind of indispensable. Linchpins are indispensable because of the value they give freely to the organization.

Politically indispensable leaders, on the other hand, do what the above post talk about. They don't give. They take, relying on the fact that they have so much to save their job.

Anonymous said...

Oh yes, I can remember a time wthen the organization just could not lose someone. I see it now at the client site. He hoards his knowledge and always refused to document his work. He is responsible for millions of units sold. However the problem is the product line is near its end. The company knows he hoards info. They showered him with bonuses and stuff in the past. But when the product line ends, he has no more growth. It will be a scary situation to see what happens.

Nkechi Ejimadu said...

Excellent Post!

I really like this post, this is very true! When we don’t work together we actually hold the team, organization, and people around us BACK! No-one gains by this. I remember at Clarkson Univ. the importance of team work and also leading vs. hoarding! I think it's important to show your value in an organization especially in these vital times (value proposition) but, it's also equally as important to dispense knowledge/information/skills in an organization to make it run efficient.

I can remember a person in my organization that ended up leaving, although this person was considered indispensable, his emotional drain and information blockage held the work potential of the department back. This person was moved to a different organization, in a matter of 2-months the productivity of the group flourished.

People might say, it was the recently moved “indispensable” person which caused the groups lag/incapability or the people within the org, who gave this person too much control, thus decreasing their own ability to be of equal value.

Or there is no correlation, whichever position you want to take is fine. But, it’s clear that there is never an “I” in team. And there can never be any profit when one person works against the group rather than for the group.

Brian Kelly said...

I'm told this is an old Irish expression:

If we take a bucket of water, violently rip our fist into that bucket and thrash around making untold impact upon those otherwise still waters, then quickly and unceremoniously yank our hand out of that bucket... the size of the hole that is left in the water due to the absence of our hand, is the measure of how much we'll be missed.

Brian Kelly said...

Food for thought. "Sometimes the person that makes themselves indispensible actually holds everyone else back." Sometimes though, it is WE collectively who identify a particularly capable person to whom we (again collectively and cumulatively) assign a vast quanity of responsibilities. That extremely capable person has then, by us, been set to fail. They will give 120% effort and will execute only 80% of the tasks.. and at 80% effectiveness. We set them to fail us, and then we impact their career negatively.

Audrey Herzberg said...

This happens at all levels. We own a metal stamping company, and several years back one of our experienced multi-slide (four-slide) set up men threatened to leave. We didn't think we would be able to find someone with his skill set, so we literally begged him not to leave. He ended up staying for a couple more years, but became increasingly more difficult to work with, almost to the point of insubordination. After he "finally" left, we found out he wasn't as good as he thought he was and our other set up people quickly stepped up to the plate and made significant improvements in the culture and efficiency of out plant.

Robin Katarya said...

That's a great excerpt. Thanks for sharing

Micole Franklin said...

Hello John!

The owner of the company where I work is always saying this. She says that if you have a bucket of water and you drop a penny in it, the water it will separate for a short time, but eventually all the water comes back together. She says that if you lose someone that appears to be “Indispecible”, things may be a little rough for a moment but eventually it all comes together. I just don’t understand why people don’t see that everyone should have a common goal which is to help the company advance. I have worked with so many people that have so much knowledge and if they would just share what they knew with others in the company the growth potential would be astronomical

Bill Mokrzycki (Mo-Kris-Ki) MBA, CPIM said...

What if the indispensible person is a family member in a management position who hires and retains zombie-like friends and relatives? Someone with any ambition would be highly frustrated in working there if they are not pushed out with a 'constructive termination" first.

Stacey Aldred said...

Reproduce...

If we reproduce ouselves then we've developed those who'll replace us and they can stand on our shoulders and do even greater things than we did.

What hinders this concept/process is insecurity and job security.

Keith Rodgers said...

In my experience its usually the quiet and fairly shy people that are the most productive in any business. They usually keep there heads down and are happy with there lot until you get an inexperienced line manager who is so nervous that they try and micro manage everything or change things without open discussion.
The team starts to "live in fear of the person" and fear is infectious to the point were it stifles bright ideas and also productivity drops. They start thinking I cannot do that what would he or she say?, he would give me a right shouting down!
Loud people who appear to be multi tasking and doing everything and appear busy are generally not the most productive ones.People work better with an approachable boss, and not one that puts the fear of god in to them.
The phrase being used a lot is emotional itelligence, people will cover your butt and pull out all the stops for you if you treat them right. I always make the point you can delegate the tasks but not the responsibility, I operate an open door were any one of my guys or for that matter customers in the business can come in and discuss things.

Brian Kelly said...

I peel potatoes often enough for my wife. Once, just once, many potatoes ago... I distinctly remember cutting myself VERY badly. The blood was everywhere before I even felt the pain. Take it from there, you know what I was feeling. Ever since then, I've adjusted my grip and remain particularly vigilant... I watch that darned potatoe and the peeler to be sure "it" doesn't grab me again, LOL!

While I am 100% in full and fervent agreement with Stacey's comment, I will add that the unfortunate reality is that there are those dysfunctional environments and conditions (all too many of them) where truly training our own replacement is a fatal act to one's employment. To that end, I believe we "leaders and thinkers" are responsible for creating and supporting an environment where our people feel confident, in fact eager, to better themselves and their team by creating their own "bench" and their own replacement.

We can't blame the seed if it doesn't grow on infertile ground.

;-)

Stacey Aldred said...

Brian,

What about this idea?

Optimism -- I train my replacement and then I move to a higher or better job.
Pesimism -- I train my replacement and I get benched.

Leaders and Thinkers need to take some risks and be optimists.

--Stacey

Anonymous said...

John, I could not agree more. I had a similar experience when an indispensable person left we discovered they were a serious log jam. As it turns out the person actually went out of their way to appear indispensable by throwing a wrench in the works and then fixing it to appear to be the hero, again..

Alan Commike said...

I see this often within engineering organizations - "if XXX leaves, we're dead" or similarly, "XXX just left, how could we possibly get along now". Having exceptional engineers on a team is certainly one of the greatest assets a team can have, but that does not make anyone indispensable. Other people step up, new hires are made, new and possibly better ways of doing things are put in place, and everyone moves on.

John, do you feel the indispensable person is holding back the organization due to hoarding information and limiting failure or is it due to failure to elicit change in the organization? In order to become indispensable the person necessarily has been in the role for a long period of time, holds great institutional memory, and may stick to "the way it's always been done". When the person leaves, it gives the team the ability to incorporate additional efficiencies. If the indispensable person was a good manager in the first place, those changes to drive the team to efficiency would already have been done?

T R Volpel C.P.M CPSM said...

It has been my experience that people who crave power often find it through knowledge and it is in the withholding of that knowledge that they force others to come to them and therby make themselves appear indispensible. Sometimes this "power" is the only way they have to feel themselves worthy or important. this "silo" efect happens not only in Supply Chain but often between Departments and I have seen it most often in IT and Finance where the "special language" often becomes a kind of suit of armor worn by those who wish access to the C-level table. This, in a nutshell is why Supply Chain practicioners must learn the language of Finance, the importance of such methodologies as Six Sigma and Project Management and finally the critical views surrounding the larger supply chain. Cross functional teams and interdepartment cross training are ways in which we can disseminate the knowledge we so often closely hold.

Anonymous said...

I can absolutely relate to this, when I was a Customer Service Manager for Black and Decker, we had a Vice President for Canadian sales, he epitomized the arrogant bullying person in the organization who used his power to influence others. He inevitably alienated himself. I often wondered why the organization tolerated his antics for so long until one day the HR Manager told me" He makes his numbers" and they like that, So for that time the company was willing to overlook his behavior. Eventually it did catch up to him. In the end, I think the company was better without him.

Anonymous said...

Dear John --

I am truly enjoying your posts. And you are a very prolific blogger. Good show.

Balu said...

This is very different from what we thought of! Normally making one indispensable restricts the growth of the indispensable as person cannot be moved out of the current role. However, after reading this blog, I did call up a few places where I had observed 'indispensables' in action. The team is not even missing them! Seems like they were better off without them.

Rob said...

Spot-on post! I'm sure most of us have either experienced the same situation or have seen the power of these people holding departments and companies back, while others around them are mesmerized by the perceived value of the individual. How do you work around these individuals?

Richard Fernandes said...

This is really true, I remember when I was in the Airforce the whole operation and maintenance set in the squadron always had the dilema what if this pilot or engineer is posted out to another squadron our operatios could halt. But this never happened newer ideas brews up with new people and things always got better.

Anonymous said...

Hi John

I remember a case in my previous business where a person left from a top performing team where it took months to refill the position. Due to the workload and the gap the leaving person left behind the whole team performance went down for a long period of time. If you take the two examples given at the beginning as a positive impact on team building, where one person was too strong for the overall group success, the example I'm showing impacts a bad development of the group.
Just as something to think about, in the ideal world if a team is made out of team players (who want to play in the team only), without additional interests I think this would be the best for a given period of time. As soon as team members show additional (career) interest it's time to change the structure or the team. How do you think about this?

Kind regards

Anonymous said...

Cemeteries are full of indispensable people...

Sravan Kumar Marur said...

True and agreed all above at times when you are free and frank with the system and make your role dispensable then you lose your job
Always remember the cat story: teaching the tiger to hunt but not climbing the tree

Scott Griffin, MBA said...

Very true. I also seen where people who hoard information sometimes don't get promoted because of the information they are hoarding. To me, if you are hoarding you are insecure in your job, position, and in yourself.

I, instead offer information freely to those who are willing to listen and learn. I 'raise the bar' for everyone as per my management during a review.

Brian Kelly said...

G'mornin' Stacey... I remain 100% in full and fervent agreement with your original comment. To it, I add all-too-common perspective manifest from an all-too-common dysfunction in many organizations and / or at various levels of management.

Dean Call said...

Let us not forget that those who are "indispensible" are also the favorite targets. They have proven their worth, and their capabilities, so they are the first person thought of when "this" needs to get done. Because of this, others never get a chance to expand their roles or to flex their muscles (intellectual or otherwise), this is why when the indispensible roadblock is cleared, others can achieve more and more.

Eric Henry said...

Great post, John! As you note, managing an indispensable person is tough. Trying to coax them into either sharing information or changing their behavior is very difficult. The primadonna will actively resist, and the quietly "indispensable" will passively resist.

I thought I was one of the indispensable at a previous company, and someone wise reminded me that leaving a company was often like pulling your hand out of a bucket of water. There are a few ripples for a few seconds, but soon no one will ever be able to tell your hand was there. He was right.

Brian Kelly said...

KUDOS in harmony to Carrie and Stacey. Just throwing in the distasteful elephant in the living room. There are unfortunately, "leaders and thinkers" out there (though backward) whose actual or perceived personas and practices functionally dissuade subordinates from developing their own bench. This is an absolute shortcoming of such management. Of course, we're all wonderfully informed, more broad and deeper thinkers and would never create or tolerate such a predicament... but it's important to know that they do in fact exist... and are unfortunately not a rare occurence in the world of industry.

;-)

Carrie Nicolini said...

First of all, hats off to those of you who have shared your thoughts/comments/experiences, thus far! I would only like to add to the above by saying a true and effective leader understands the value (to them, as well as the organization) of developing the individuals on their team-through cross training, regular departmental informative meetings, on-going communication/interaction with team members, etc....

A well respected leader usually isn't concerned with or threatened by being replaced. As Stacey mentioned earlier, a leader recognizes the importance of "reproducing themselves", by drawing out and improving the skills of others, and how this will only strengthen the organization and increase the opportunity for future growth.

Rod Satre said...

We may also rely on the indespensible person to perform all tasks, thus taking a back seat on producing results. When that person leaves, sometimes due to their perception of an unbalanced burden, the others must either participate or the project could fail. Of course when more people actively participate, the productivity flourishes.

We need to be careful of those that accept all work requests due to a need to seem in control. They do no one else any favors when they get bogged down and don't have the time to "share information." That may be a symptom of overwheliming demands on their time and not the primary desire to "horde information."

This type of employee needs to learn the art of delegation. Teams need to realize that if they don't preform their roles, someone else is not actually supposed to "cover for them." So, this is a different perspective with the same results. The only difference is that perhaps the "lost empoloyee" was actually worth salvaging and mentoring into using their head more than their heart on the job responsibilities.

Government Lists said...

I worked for one of these indispensable attitude people for 6 years. I learned from the investment, gained from the experience and prosper in this market. Now I can breathe and grow every single day.

Lawrence van Rijn said...

@John:
Yes, this is one scenario we stumble upon in many area's. There is however another option. Sometimes a person becomes indispensable, not because he/she is holding or hoarding on to the situation, but because the others around him/her can't be bothered or care not to learn certain skils. This is often linked to legacy software and data systems. it's old, looks like DOS, so noone wants to learn it. And until the technology is upgraded that mindset will hold everyone back.
Added to this, there are still these niche solutions that were never upgraded and the company won't upgrade a functional solution. NOT because they want to tighten the belt, but quite opposite, noone improved the solution. Over the next 5-10 years a decent amount of companies will be confronted with the Niche solutions bought and designed for in the early 90's.Their sustainability is ending and no next generation solution has been built.

Karin Wills said...

There should never be anyone that is considered indispensable in any organization. It isn't difficult to imagine the numerous situations that could create a negative fallout from that issue.

Insist, that all experienced members of the organization share their knowledge through various forums: peer coaching, procedure writing on the intranet, mentoring, job shadowing, one-to-one training of others. This should be a mandatory part of the job for all experienced staff, especially if the word indispensable comes up as a descriptor for that person.

This is why training and development for all employees is so important. It is in fact a bottom line imperative.

John Bushling said...

As a Lean Leader, I facilitated a team during a kaizen event with an 'indispensible' on the team. All of the players kept deferring to the 'indespensible' to the point that the event was paralyzed. No improvement could be made as a result of the fear of crossing the indispensible. I had to remove him from the event.

Once the indispensible was disposed the team was free to think and act on new ideas and ultimately had a very successful event. New ideas weren't burdened with the only possible way 'we do things'.

As Karin noted, training and development and cross-training are so important.

I have suggetsed that companies develop an expert list, a list of 'indispensibles' who are the only 'goto' person and proceed to dismantle it.

Thomas Donovan said...

Thanks!

Himanshu Ghughtyal said...

Hi John!

Cant share any example as such, but i very much agree with the point you are trying to make here. A critical part of the team when parts, it gives all the more opportunities and drive to other members to do much better and the overall development of the teams take place.

thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Cheers!
Himanshu

Sravan Kumar Marur said...

I agree with John Bishop
One cannot grow if he hoards information and same goes for the organization culture and net effect the organization loses. Its necessary to weed out people who do this be it either at senior levels or at junior levels.

Robin Clifton said...

John, I have seen nearly identical situations put in the question (usually in other departments). People are a great resource and rarely are they put to anywhere near their full capacity. When given the reason/opportunity to use what they have, it is fulfilling for them and raises morale as well as productivity. However, if there is a strain on resources to begin with - this may well NOT be true.

Also - keep in mind that to lose tribal project knowledge can be very costly -- especially initially.

As per my experience in IT:

What that "indispensable" person could do in a few minutes might initially take hours or days for someone else to do. (If this is to resolve an issue holding up production or shipping - costs are multiplied.) In the process of cutting their teeth, the new people will get better - but there is always a cost when it comes to losing that kind of knowledge. And proficiencies take time to build. Stuff the lost person did to maintain or keep things running smoothly often falls between the cracks with costly ramifications down the line. If the person is cut from an bare-bones staffed area - the costs paid for the lost knowledge could linger for several years - as there really is not the time/energy to fully pick up the pieces.

I have seen a couple cases where these knowledge hoards have been politically savvy, but simply a legend in their own minds. And it took almost nothing for someone else to come in, learn and do better. But in these situations, it has often been the lowest level jobs (or a non-critical high one).

It is good experience for those who have to come in and pick up the pieces. And for some people, this becomes an opportunity to shine much brighter than expectations.

But.. realistically .. depending on the knowledge ... don't underestimate the cost. I think you got my point.

Linda Chambers said...

Twenty years ago there were some people who were put on a corporate pedistal, could call the shots, make demands and hold their ego's high. I remember the verbal threats heard in the office, the bold comments they made to management, and the often unprofessional behavior that these people displayed. I was always surprised that they not only got away with it, but that their bad behavior paid off for them.

I hope that no one believes themselves to be indispensable in business today, because it could limit their full potential. But I still see a glimpse of the behaviors in business today, often still being rewarded, ignored or even excused by their management.

I believe it is important to look for what leads people to the perception of someone else being "indispensable". Often taking the time to research the "why?" uncovers more about the people around them. Was it because that person was such an spectacular force of achievement, gave 110% and had special skills that no one around them had? Or did Management set the tasks to be done only by that person, siloing them and subsequently creating the risk of loosing experience? Or did the coworkers choose to not do the functions (because they were not fun, easy enough or high profile enough to warrant them taking time to do them)?

As for others who are similar to John's example that I have known, they attempted to get out of the silo and involve their co-workers and teammates, even asking management for assignment of new tasks outside of their expertise. But no one wanted to take the time to learn, and they provided a host of excuses for not participating. Management did not want to deal with the hassle of dealing with the complaints that their employees had, instead focusing their time on growing and enhancing their own careers. That Tara (John's example) did not stay with the company, could indicate that there was a personal need for more personal fulfillment and growth. That there was a loss of this person's strengths from the company could be an indication that management did not spend enough time cultivating their departments employees potentials.

If I reward my child for doing something good, I see that they grow more from the positive reinforcement and they tend to want to do more for praise and reward. Wouldn't it be wonderful if businesses took a similar approach, where management rewards the good behaviors and all coworkers strove to achieve more without having to wait for someone to leave the company before they picked up the pieces and do their jobs to the fullest?

Danny Lanz said...

I believe this scenario is very common in today's workplace. I have also seen how the culture of a company can avoid/minimize these scenarios through an open-book approach that involves a lot of cross-training and teamwork. I have worked in large companies (Fortune 100) and small private companies (<50 people). In small companies, everyone wears many hats because they have to. In large companies this is more of a rarity and you see some very niche experts, but it doesn't have to be. I think goal setting is a big part of the fix. If different people wearing different hats have misaligned goals, they easily fall into the trap of guarding and hoarding their workload and their expertise. When goals are well aligned, everyone is incentivized to work together and share information as no one person can achieve the common goals by themselves.

Leanne Hoagland-Smith said...

Some very good comments - To the original question, when looking up the word dispensable, I was directed to dispense which came from dis - out + pendere to weigh or to weigh out which evolved to give or deal out, to distribute.

My sense to John's experience is one of conditioning. It is much easier to ask someone who has the answers than to find the answers for yourself. With time directly related to energy being expended in securing that critical or not so critical piece of information, the brain is always looking for ways to conserve it energy stockpile. Ken Blanchard wrote a short book - The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey. Beyond hurting the team by being indispensable, this may increase the individual stress of the indispensable person because she or he is carrying on her or his back everyone else's monkeys. This behavior can only as noted previously reduced that person's overall performance.

The brain is designed for conditioning because that creates efficiency. Within that process, the brain will create a value system where it will get the most bang for its own energy distribution. I suggest reading "Why Choose This Book" by R. Montaque to appreciate the intricacies of this 3 pounds of mass.

Brian Kelly said...

Countless courses in undergrad and grad school, seminars in the professional world, and so many settings featuring authorities of this particular subject matter will and have told us for years... they've recited the text proudly and sung the song elegantly... telling us all about the standard and powerful realities of creating one's own bench and improving one's own team through sharing knowledge. Over the years, we too learned to sing the song and march proudly in the parade. We hear this song (and many others) and see the parades oft times.

There is absolutely nothing wrong or unhealthy about the concept. I am a huge proponent of it. At the same time, it beneifts us all to listen to some of the experiences posted here that clearly demonstrate that dirty realities that exist in many real life industry circles. As with the use of all tools and resources, one must be careful to make the right decision specific to each scenario. The world does not always mirror what we learned in "Management Psychology and Organizational Behavior 101". Making a less desirable decision in a given environment can have repercussions that may be very painful.

Stacey Aldred said...

Brian,

It is possibe that Jesus was addressing such an issue when he said:
....Matthew 10:16"I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves."

Robin Clifton said...

Linda - have you followed me? Your comments have brought fresh understanding and appreciation to some of the things I have observed through my career.

I once worked on a high profile project (building a data warehouse.) I took it on as "my baby" working hard to ensure success. My boss was supportive yet challenging every step of the way. The project WAS a success. When the time came to "hand off my baby" to someone else - it was hard. On the one hand I wondered if I was doing a good enough job. On the other, I didn't want someone else to get in there and screw it up. But he said something that I won't forget. He said that he was handing it off so that I could move on to better things. That mentored me. In a sense, it seemed as though he saw and understood how to better meet that need for personal growth and development than I did.

I tend to think with John's example though, that because productivity increased as a result of the person leaving - either management was not to blame, or more likely - management learned through their experience.

Leanne - so true about conditioning. Within the business world especially [time/energy expended = money expended]. That conditioning is brought on by the bottom line. This is the information age. It makes sense to have sources of quick information - experts - within an organization. But just like a computer disk can fail losing critical information -- so also can our people leave and again we lose critical information. Personal development that cross trains is like ensuring safty by creating a back-up. (pardon the illustration.)

Brian Kelly said...

Ohhh Stacey... very smooth, big guy... perfect! Nice work!

Heath Davis Havlick said...

Great post on a topic that isn't discussed much. Not every high achiever is a high achiever in the positive sense. It's an important lesson for our achiever culture.

Iqbal Noor said...

John

What you say is true. I think there are a lot of "indispensible" people who really hold that position because they hoard information, spread disinformation may be and limit potential.

I have seen a few!

While, for sure, I believe that nobody is indispensible, I do think that not all "indispensible" people fall in this devious category.

Mike Charron said...

Thanks for this post!

While I can't think at the moment of a particular time when an indispensable team member was holding the team back, I do recall the opposite--the highest performance teams I have seen have had no one critical member that we all could not do without. All members were viewed as critical, but none as indispensable.

What I take away from this is, as the leader, it is my responsibility to not let myself become indispensable. 100% of my people are not located near me--I am near our sales team and customers in one country and they are all near suppliers in other countries. While it may be easier to allow my people to rely on me for oversight and approval of their work before it goes to our sales team, the much harder but right thing to do is to get out of the way and encourage and guide direct communication. This requires a high degree of trust from everyone involved (which, but the way, is also a key element among the members of any high performance team)!

It is also my responsibility to not allow any one person on the team to become indispensable either. It is easier to continue to load up my "star player" with work because I know it will get done, but the harder, right thing to do is to challenge and develop all my team members to all become "star players" in their own right. This involves a lot of work, leadership and trust on everyone's part.

Indispensable people probably fall into two categories--those like the SVP that actively hoarded information in a bid for power, and Tara who was the project expert because it was easier for everyone else to go to her than to learn the ropes themselves. The fault for letting either happen is with the leader (the SVP himself, with the "assist" by the CEO in the one case). Likewise with the leader is the responsibility for the remedy.

Prashant Bhaskaran said...

Dear John,

It is a wonderful observation and true.

But the so called Indispensable Employees have reached the place the hard way either by the sheer loyal length of service or their high dependability clubbed with Appetite to take on additional workload/accountability/Risk beyond their "call of duty".

Some good Organizational practices can restrict such long term bottlenecks towards growth.

- It is important that a shuffle in roles is done either laterally or vertically depending on the organizational bandwidth.
- Ensure a fairly audited matrix of Roles & Responsibilities. Clear accountabilities spelt out. Ensure no dummies exist who delegate it to somebody else conveniently.
- Have such Indispensable persons identified and send them on a Short term or long career development course (A win-win for both). It will give enough space for the down the line leaders to emerge.
- Have adequate forums or projects or opportunities for down the line leaders. It will help in keeping the Organizational structure Flat, Transparent & less bureaucratic which Indispensable employees tend to encourage by restricting information flow.

Above may be easier said than done. It is a call that the key stakeholders within an organization must take at some point of time to break such trends. But fail to do so, to avoid upsetting a smoothly running operation (Short Term Objectives).

Rgds,

Prashant

Greg Waite said...

I could see either scenario playing out, largely dependent upon the traits and qualities of that 'indispensable' individual. Some experts in a given workgroup can tend to "hoard" information, whether it's a subconscious decision or not... Information hoarders recognize the leverage they can create in being that "go-to" person and may use it to their advantage. However, if the person was always willing to share their expertise and colleagues simply never took advantage of it until that person left... Well, I think that says more about the other players than it does about the individual leaving.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Bishop, I've read a lot of your posts and disagreed with most but this is the first time I feel compelled to reply.

I couldn't agree more that allowing people to maneuver into "indispensable" positions is a bad idea, both for the people and the organization. I obviously don't know all the details of the situation with Tara; however, from the information provided your conclusion about the productivity improvement is an unjustified jump to a conclusion and laughable.

Let me summarize this very simply: If B follows A, it DOES NOT always mean A necessarily caused B. Just because the productivity went up doesn't mean Tara was holding everybody back. It seems pretty clear you had one person doing the majority of the work with everybody else just doing what they had to do to stay. Once that one person was no longer there, the others decided they had to do something to justify their existence. Don't confuse the base instincts of people with brilliant management. The manager who settled for the productivity of essentially one person of the team prior to Tara leaving is the real villain here. Instead of patting yourself on the back excessively for coming to a wrong conclusion, I would have tried to find out how many OTHER teams consist of one or two main contributors and a majority of hangers-on. Also, did it ever occur to you that Tara wanted to leave because she was tired of working with a team that did not carry its part of the workload? Additionally, even if in the extremely unlikely event that Tara WAS holding others back, why didn't the other team members complain, or if they did why didn't the direct supervisor do something about it? In the former case, motivated professional people will not put up with that kind of situation unless they know the organization doesn't care, which turns it back on the direct supervisor and/or his/her superiors. In the latter case, the direct supervisor either found that it's easier not to do anything as long as the job is getting done or was told this by his/her superiors. Since you didn't say that you knew Tara was holding others back, it either wasn't happening or you didn't know it was happening, which again points to the direct supervisor.

The ultimate cause of the "indispensable person" situation is management failure, and one of the main causes of management failure is to attribute coincidental solutions of complicated problems to the results of faulty or incomplete analysis.

Andrew said...

What about the person that is holding the team together? What happens when the person who has built the team around them and created better leaders? I have struggled with these thoughts on what my team would be like if I were to let another person run the group... I confess- fresh blood is always an interesting thought.

Robert Schaefer said...

Aren't program managers and VP's similarly replaceable for the same reasons?

Philip Harriau said...

Excellent post! I run a small business, and one of my employees over a 12-year period had become rather expert in a number of tasks within my organization. I thought she was "indispensible" and the company would suffer. But during the downturn, I was forced to let her go. Guess what? I now have a network of outside consultants who...

1. Need to compete for my business, get these tasks done quicker, better and without complaining.
2. Are not on the payroll when we are not busy.
3. Don't take sick days.
4. Do what it takes to keep their committment.
5. Brought in fresh ideas from the outside so we can do our job better.

When indispensibles leave, there's a bit of pain and anxiety, but it does not last long...and the rewards come quickly!

Robert Schaefer said...

Would the best organizations then be run by:

1. The unitary boss
2. consultants
3. 100% outsourced workers?

How would those outsourcing supplier organizations be run?
Are the outsourced organizations (payroll, sickdays, morale)
now considered someone else's problem. Dog-eat-dog.

Does this style of play go on within the outsourced organization, which can also outsource?

And I've worked with consultants - they'll say anything to keep their consultancy
going.

You all are very funny (especially since I don't report to you in the hierarchy.) Do you guys read Dilbert?

Philip Harriau said...

Hey, I'm not suggesting everyone should be fired and that solves all of the problems. I'm just a small biz guy who works hard, tries to satisfy my clients, and get the job done. The other consultants I work with are like me, and they respond to a competive marketplace. They know they're not indispensible so they try harder to satisfy their clients (like me).

I'm not suggesting all companies should be 100% outsourced and run by unitary bosses, but I often think "indispensibles" have a sense of entitlement and have forgotten the big picture.

Perhaps there's a way to make all employees feel more like "owners" or "consultants" within the business, with common goals and shared acheivement. In the meantime I'll let the big organization people ponder that.

walter townes said...

Actually in coaching we called it addition by subtraction!!! Wonderful post and when I sit down with business owners to many times I hear about how great a office manager was and I think why then do you need us to go get your loss A/R back!?
I agree more owners to level the field and not allow one person so much control...

Gary Boss said...

As long as the team is sound, someone always steps up to fill the organizational void. Any operation that depends on a single individual is exposing a fatal flaw that limits the potential of other members. A healthy organization is never completely dependent on an individual.

gloria willis said...

One noteworthy "indispensable person" experience that I recall was in working with a small team where the office manager had partnered with the owner since day 1 of the business. There was an unwritten agreement that she would handle the operations and the owner would work with the customers. Years went by and the business grew. The indispensable person was indispensable because she did know all of the operations and the owner did not--however-she had no real authority--the owner held to that. When the economy tanked, the owner realized that she had to either give authority to this office manager or learn how to gleen this critical information for herself and take responsibility for ALL of the organization. We can make others indispensable with how we divide the work and avoiding talking about what is really important day to day.

Karel Goodwin said...

In my last position, we had to separate the work between 3 people in order to meet the aggressive deadlines for our work. The problem started when our systems and processes started changing and the three of us didn't have time to cross train each other. One of my co-workers was transferred to a another program in November. There are almost no written documentation for his work. It was extremely frustrating for the person who took his job. In January, I was released from my job after 3.5 years of work. However, I wasn't worried about my co-workers. I left them with detailed instructions for all of my deliverable work. In a previous job, the President of my company instructed everyone to create a "RoadKill Manual", which is a detailed set of instructions for major tasks. If a person has the required systems access, they should be able to perform most of my previous job. Learning to document your work is the best thing to you can do to insure peaceful continuance of your work after you leave.

Lawrence van Rijn said...

John Bishop and Frank Asencio are right on the money. These types are debilitating to the future path of any company. The temporary small loss of cutting them lose, or cutting them down are nothing compared to the gain of their departure.

Christian Eppers said...

I happened to be thinking about this topic over the weekend. It reminded me of one of my early bosses about 20 years ago. During a conversation about being indispencible, Bob (manager) in a very straight Bostonian voice said. "If you ever have an employee that acts as if they are indispencible, FIRE 'EM"!

Harsh I thought. Bob's is follow up statement put it in place. "If an employee ever feels that they are indispencible, they will pick up and leave when it is best for them, not most likely not best for you."

I am not sure we should ever behave this abrupt, but as you manage staff, programs and products; having indispencible team members can be a problem for future growth. Regular turnover should be encouraged for development and growth of the team and the individuals. Change can be a good thing and still be win-win!

Frank Asencio said...

I learned a very important lesson as a 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Army. Some individuals may appear critical and indispensible, but their departure is same as if they were stepping out of a small pool. At first there is some turbulence, ripples and then calm. The real issue is change - not key personnel. Employees and Managers in most organizations do not like change or having to plan for contingencies. Empowered gatekeepkers allow personnel to be complacent and avoid the extra effort of maintaining situational awareness. We can all keep up with situational changes by being involved.

Emily Brannon, SPSM said...

I think it just depends on the situation. I left a department behind when I took my current position. I made tremendous efforts to pass along best practices and train the people around me before I left. I left detailed intstructions for pretty much everything. Out of the entire department, I believe there was one person who actually made the effort to learn and do things right, the rest of the bunch just abandoned all process and now they do just enough to 'get by'. That department is poorly managed as well, which just adds to the apathy. Out of our 5 yearly objectives we strive to meet, their department is the only one that fell short.

Brad Burchnell said...

I do agree that there are circumstances where the person that is considered crucial to the success of any program may be a hindrance to improvements. The flip side is when new management comes in, eliminates personnel and de-values the many contributions of the seasoned staff, creating a knowledge vacuum and in some cases the inability to re-fill with any level of quality candidate. However, to minimize it is essential for cross training and encouragement of cross-functional/concurrent teams to interact to minimize this variable.

Kevin Wong, PMP said...

I have seen this at play especially when the level of innovation grows stagnant, and the team goes from "Forward Looking" to "Holding onto what I know". Without the presence of continuous change, folks feel like they have to hold onto what they know rather than sharing it with the team. People define themselves through what they do a lot of the times. If there aren't any new toys to play with, then why would anyone share theirs.

I can definitely see why the whole team will step up and flourish without the role of the expert. They always had the capacity to perform the role, but lacked the internal confidence (perceived authority) & the classification as the "specialist". But once the specialist is gone, the risk beomes more managable, and at the same time, its a new toy.

Andrew Halonen said...

Who defines "indispencible?" If a manager considers a leader to be indispencible, yet the employees underneath and/or at peer levels see the deficiencies, such as hoarding information, micro managing, gate keeper of information to C-levels....at what point does the organization make a change? What price does the organization pay before Mr/Ms Indispencible is gone?

Frank Asencio said...

Just before 2001 I was deemed an "Indespensible Key Person" by well intentioned Management. They sent over an organizational effectiveness consultant to interview me - in search of the key to keeping the program running smoothly. I laughed at him - stating that if I left my position, the younger and more talented members of the team would easily take over. These same team members were shocked when they heard this. They imagined that being in charge and accountable would cramp their style. I assured them that they could easily take on the responsibility without any problem - and thus get promoted. In October of 2001, I was mobilized by the US Army - prompting me to walk away from the lead position and the company without ever looking back. The team resumed without a hitch - I was proud to make way for the next leader.

Anonymous said...

This hit home! I had this very discussion yesterday...and now rather than 'fearful'...I am empowered! I'm going to share this with my team today!

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