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.
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.