“Always fire an indispensable person,” goes the old wisdom. Otherwise you become overly dependent on them. But in today’s “Scalable Capability” organization, there are few who aren’t uniquely indispensable. How to deal with this contemporary organizational paradox? We answer that not-so-ancient riddle in this week’s podcast, coming right up.
Early in my career, there was a manager who seemed to run the company’s production operation, almost single-handedly. One day, he came to the director and threatened to leave unless the company was willing to at least match the financial terms and title status of an offer he had just received. The director calmly responded, “Have a nice career,” and let him go. I, along with many colleagues were aghast! This man was indispensable to the operation. What would we do without him?
I learned a valuable lesson in the weeks that followed. His subordinates stepped up, not only picking up his supposedly indispensable work, but without the restrictions imposed by his penchant for control, were able to flourish, innovate, and far exceed what we thought were the limits of possibility only a short time before. What was the lesson? If someone is able to convince you that they are indispensable, fire them. Otherwise, they can hold you hostage in fear of losing them. And, when they are gone – one way or another – you have to scramble to back-fill. Not all companies are as fortunate as my former employer to have had such high-potential bench strength that, as we discovered, had mostly been squandered, sitting on the bench.
“But Mark,” I can hear you say. “You’ve always maintained that everyone is unique to the point of effectively being irreplaceable.” And that’s true: Each individual brings a unique set of knowledge, experience, sapience or wisdom, a network of contacts, and a unique way of showing up. Each person’s particular recipe of knowing, doing, and being makes them irreplaceable—not necessarily in an instrumental or functional way, but certainly in enabling the effects and creating the emergent dynamics of the organization as it is. When someone leaves, the company is transformed, for better or for worse.
So the advice goes: If someone is indispensable, fire them. Yet almost everyone is indispensable (and if they aren’t, then for sure you should fire them)! How do we resolve this apparent Paradox of Indispensability?
The first point of view comes from the traditional, industrial-age, organizational standpoint. It is predicated on the notion that people are functionally replaceable components in the industrial machine. The risk of becoming over-reliant on one person to the extent that they can dictate terms to management necessitates their replacement. And, in the replaceable machine parts model in an abundant labour market, pretty much anyone is easily replaceable.
On the other hand, in the Scalable Capability model that best describes today’s business operating environment, it’s the interactions, the relationships, the flow of knowledge, the ability of one person to ignite another that are the key determinants of organizational success. In this model that is most effectively theorized by my Valence Theory and practically demonstrated in workplaces almost every day among relatively younger workers, financial considerations are far less important and strict functional limitations of the scope of their work equally become limitations on the organization’s potential. If someone has reason to leave, or is being put into a position where leaving becomes their only viable option, management’s question should not be, how quickly can we hire into that function? Instead, managers might want to consider how their organization is about to transform with the impending departure. If they don’t like that projected trajectory, then maybe the about-to-depart individual truly is indispensable.