The Leader’s Dilemma: No One Should Be Indispensable — Not Even You

“The graveyards are full of indispensable men.” — Charles DeGaulle

The Leader's Dilemma: No One Should Be Indispensable -- Not Even You by Laura StackOne of the basic tenets of popular business advice, publicized even by industry leaders like Forbes, is that you should strive to make yourself indispensable to your boss. But just like pop culture, pop business advice can be, well, weird. Worse, it can damage your career.

I understand why some people would advise workers to become indispensable in their roles; and given the current economic situation, it’s even more understandable that some would listen. But that doesn’t make it good advice.

Think about it: why would a manager promote away the one person their team literally couldn’t do without? Indispensability = stagnation for the worker. From the management perspective, it limits team productivity, because it encourages specific team members to develop processes, systems, and skills that only they control. Once they’ve built their little fiefdom, many become convinced they can never be fired, because no one can do what they do.

Sometimes they’re right. Let’s say you’re in charge of a profitable start-up, and only one person knows the code that makes your flagship business app so useful. What happens if they decide you don’t pay them enough? How about if they die suddenly, or just decide to take their talents elsewhere? As the old saying goes, you’re up that creek without a paddle. This happens more often than you might think. Even in large companies, the loss of one key person can plunge a team over the cliff of unprofitability.

So as nice as it sounds, no one on your team should be indispensable. Ever. Not even you. Would you want a car with irreplaceable parts? Of course not; eventually it would break down, and you could never fix it again. The same holds true for a business team. Instead, make sure you and your teammates are somewhat interchangeable, so you can maintain your productivity no matter what. Keep these strategies in mind:

1. Hire for redundancy. While you may not need two writers or two chief coders for your new online game, it’s still a good idea to hire people with a wide range of skills that overlap, just in case. As you build your team, look for people who can act as pinch-hitters for others as necessary, or whom you can groom to take over another position in the future.

2. Cross-train. To maintain the integrity of the team, send members to classes so they can better understand or even learn what their other teammates do. You can also host brown-bag luncheons where one person explains the details of their job, or have one team member “shadow” another to learn their duties. Make the training appropriate to their position; your support staff and storyboard artist may not need to master PERL and Java, but your assistant programmers certainly do.

3. Document everything. Record each task each person on your team does in plain English, complete with graphics, so anyone with basic knowledge of that discipline can pick up the manual and roll with it. One of the world’s largest corporations, McDonald’s, does exactly that, which is why they can quickly train inexperienced teenagers to produce a consistent product worldwide. We have a “white binder,” where every team member documents and stores, step-by-step, exactly how to do each function of their jobs. If needed, any temp can step in and figure it out—it might not be pretty—but it will get done.

4. Bulldoze information silos and fiefdoms. As leader, you have an obligation to make sure the duties, processes, and information necessary for the successful functioning of your team don’t become too centralized. While it’s nice to compare your team to a well-oiled precision machine, do you imagine a real machine would function at all if you removed even one important part? Imagine a Formula 1 racecar without a functioning camshaft; it would break down instantly. You can’t allow that to happen to your team, so you can’t allow anyone to be the only one who can fit into a particular position. Nor can dedicated, specific knowledge lie with just one person. That doesn’t work for machines, and it doesn’t work for business.

5. Plan for the future. Someday, you’ll retire or move up to another position; you may even leave for a different company. (In some industries, the average tenure of a CEO is about three years). Therefore, you’ll need to groom a successor to handle your duties, either when you leave or when you simply can’t due to illness, travel, or vacationing. The same goes for your senior team members. Succession planning is a basic duty of all organizations. Hire with succession in mind. When we nominate new board members of the National Speakers Association, we always ask, “Can we see this person becoming president of NSA someday?” If you don’t handle the hiring personally, impress upon HR your precise needs. Once you’ve chosen a successor for a position, start providing the training they need to move up as circumstances require.

Up or Out

It may sound good to be considered indispensable or irreplaceable—but don’t you believe it. The truly indispensable person is stuck, and heaven help their team if something happens to them, or they simply quit in frustration. Rather than let anyone become indispensable, make sure they’re replaceable. That way you can safeguard your team productivity, while rewarding individual competence and initiative with promotion.


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