How to Reduce the Risk of Over-Reliance on Your Key Players

By Mike Figliuolo

Every team has key players. They take us to new highs. Innovate constantly. Bring powerful personalities to the game every day. (Why do you think they called Gretzky “The Great One,” huh?)

At some point, though, they become such a huge asset that they’re a liability. If you’re not careful, you put all your proverbial eggs in their basket. Without some deliberate planning, you’re going to end up with a big scrambled mess.

Why is reliance on these luminaries dangerous? Aren’t they the ones who got you there? Absolutely! However, over time their personality can take over your company or organization. The halo effect of that founder or “hi po” associate becomes a burning flame that, if and when it goes out, could darken the whole organization along with it.

This dynamic happens in both large and small companies. In large companies, these are the rising stars we come to depend on and build teams around. In smaller ventures, they’re typically the founders.

What happens though when these people quit, retire or move on to another organization? If you haven’t planned for this event, you’re in trouble. The good news is there are a few things you can do to avoid a calamity (that is such a cool word — I’m thrilled I got to use it today. Related: I’m a geek).

How can you reduce these risks? Here goes: Build the Team Around Them

When you have an all-star founder or an A-player in your organization, it’s easy to let them do everything. Why? Because they’re incredible at what they do. The problem is no one else ever gets a chance to learn and grow so they’re prepared to fill those gigantic shoes.

I hate football analogies but they’re easy. You have an all-star quarterback. If you let them take every snap and never give a backup player a single play, how is that backup going to build their skills and be ready for the big game? They’re not.

Give second and third string players a chance. Have the all-star mentor and coach them in those situations. Begin building bench strength early because you never know when a founder or A-player is going to vanish.

Plan for Their Departure

Stop right now and imagine your founder or all-star just quit. What would you do? Who’s calling your key customers? Who now reports to whom? Who takes over running those key projects? You haven’t thought about that, have you?

Create a list of major projects, customer relationships, reporting relationships, etc. and identify those that your founder or A-player is a critical part of. Then designate a “backup” for each one. Have that backup spend time regularly with your A-player. Have him or her go visit those key customers along with your key player.

Being prepared for a rapid departure of your all-star is critical. Having visibility into the major pieces of work as well as a transition plan in place at all times lessens the risk of the wheels coming off the bus when your founder or all-star leaves.

Manage Your Portfolio

These folks are superstars for a reason. They seem to have boundless energy and can manage every project, every customer, and still have time left over for tea and scones. You should be very concerned, though, if this individual has his or her fingers in everything.

Just like your 401k, you need to diversify your portfolio. Put “rules” in place that force you to re-balance key accounts every year (translation: the founder can’t be solely responsible for your top 10 client relationships). Spread projects around. Diversify. Diversify. Diversify!

Putting rules in place and looking at your business on a quarterly basis can help you ensure you don’t put too much in the hands of a single individual. This way, the whole world doesn’t collapse when they walk out the door.

No one wants to envision a time without the founder or all-star. Reality dictates otherwise. The more deliberate you are about regularly reducing reliance on a single individual, the better off you are. Take a risk on people and build their skills. Plan for meaningful transitions. One day that A-player will indeed depart. Don’t be the one standing there holding a basket full of broken eggs.

Mike Figliuolo is the author of “One Piece of Paper: The Simple Approach to Powerful, Personal Leadership.” He’s the managing director of thoughtLEADERS, LLC — a leadership development firm. An honor graduate from West Point, he served in the U.S. Army as a combat arms officer. Before founding his own company, he was an assistant professor at Duke University, a consultant at McKinsey & Co., and an executive at Capital One and Scotts Miracle-Gro. He regularly writes about leadership on the thoughtLEADERS Blog, read the full original post here.
Originally published: Oct 5, 2011

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