A colleague once told me, “The best time to fire an employee is the first time you think about it.”
Early in my career, I did not act fast enough to remove problematic employees. I’ve learned the hard way that no one is irreplaceable — even myself. The quicker you remove the problem, the better.
The first person I usually fire in a turnaround is the one who says “it cannot be done.” I make a point of asking for something that needs to change three separate times, and if the answer on the third time is still “it cannot be done,” that employee is out the door by the end of the week. In a way, it’s refreshing to fire someone who’s irreplaceable because you realize the general vulnerabilities of the company and you can systematically fill the gaps. As long as an irreplaceable employee is still there, the organization’s skeletons are hidden.
How do you spot someone who thinks they’re irreplaceable? Most employees who are unwilling to share their knowledge and teach others fall into this category. They do not share information and do not approach or coach other employees. They do not like to collaborate and typically consider themselves the only man for the job. It is important to figure out if the employee is doing this on purpose or not. Some people are not naturally good at sharing. Therefore, you need to create the right rituals and systems to accumulate information that’s shareable. In many cases, people make themselves irreplaceable by design. Keeping knowledge close to you seems beneficial because you know that knowledge is power. In this situation, it’s the wrong kind of power.
In one turnaround I led, a woman was in charge of data collection for a network of gas stations that had very rapid growth. All the company’s data collection was done by email and put into Excel. This woman would collect all the information and compile it into a master spreadsheet, and only she knew how that spreadsheet worked. She essentially controlled the company’s flow of information. The spreadsheet wasn’t shared with anyone else; this company was the biggest employer in town and employees protected their territory. What would happen if she were hit by a bus?
Thankfully today there are hundreds of ways you can collect information and share it instantly. The key is to provide an infrastructure and foster an environment that incentivizes people to share. Doing this removes the unintentional ‘becoming irreplaceable’ phenomenon.
At FastCAP, the company I currently run, we share information in several ways. We use a lot of cloud systems. Information is either on the cloud or it doesn’t exist. The cloud allows everyone in the company to share and collaborate with each other. We are religious about meeting minutes (which are also located on the cloud). Anyone can always catch up without needing a brief from someone.
I implemented Continuous Learning & Education using Eloomi as our learning management system. Each employee takes courses to accumulate a minimum of 100 points per month, totaling no less than 1200 points for the calendar year. 25% of each employee’s yearly bonus is linked to our Continuous Learning & Education program. The number of points awarded varies for each course taken.
Everyone is assigned mandatory courses depending on their position in the company and is allowed to take any other course that interests them. We also encourage our employees to take advantage of our state-of-the-art film equipment in the office and create CLE content that can be added as a course for their coworkers. Employees can make detailed videos of exciting work they’ve done and can easily share it with the entire organization all within the same day. More detailed posts about our CLE program at FastCAP will be coming soon to my blog.
As a young CEO just beginning turnarounds, there were times I felt intimidated by what I didn’t know. People often used irreplaceable phrases like “if that guy is fired, the whole refinery falls apart.” That statement is terribly false. But at the beginning there is some discomfort that maybe the employees know something you don’t know. I found that to be totally wrong. Something I did learn to be true was that there is always enough knowledge in the company to put things back together and restart if you need to.
Irreplaceables should be removed immediately. The longer you keep them around, the longer they withhold information. That becomes dangerous in a sense, and makes your company vulnerable. If you want to scale your company’s knowledge, sharing and teaching must be part of your organization’s daily rituals. Even if you are the smartest person in the world, you need to be willing to share ideas with others.
Eric Kish is the author of Everyday Turnaround — The Science of Daily Business Transformation. This post was originally published here.