There is a belief that a person being mission critical to a project or organization is good for your career. That person is likely good at their job. They have some piece of unique knowledge or skills. Maybe they were the creator of something and are the only one who understands it. Some believe that this is path to job security. Management will recognize and reward this unique contribution to the organization.
But flip the script – what if you are a leader and someone on your team is “critical” – is this a good thing? What if that person “gets hit by a bus?” Or gets sick? Or quits? As a manager, this person is now a risk to be mitigated and managed.
I was given different advice.
“Always have a second.”
The language is somewhat military – the idea is that of a second in command.
Practically, this meant to always seek to have someone who was a deputy, who I was teaching or training to perform the tasks and functions that I was doing. When I went on vacation or sick, there was someone to delegate responsibility to – I could leave and not worry about decision that they would make. If I was too busy working on something else, they would take on the task under my supervision.
This meant that I was replace-able. *gasp sound effect*
This dovetails into another principle: the best engineer is humble. In addition to be willing to receive criticism, embracing your replaceability is actually just facing the fact that everyone should be replaceable in a healthy organization. (I’ll jump back to this point later)
But, let me give you selfish reason to be replaceable. Say your boss has a new role that she needs fill. And say that she has two options. The first option is more qualified but taking him out of his existing program would create a huge problem. The second option, although slightly less qualified, has an immediate and obvious backfill for her current role. Which option would you pick? Who gets promoted?
If this choice isn’t obvious to you, it’s likely part of why you’re not the boss making this choice for your organization. If you picked the more qualified candidate, consequences be damned, expect a phone call from your boss.
Healthy organizations are growing, with a regular introduction of new opportunities. Organizations that are healthy have teammates that are personally and professionally growing. Individuals in the organization are willing and able to take on additional responsibilities. And when those opportunities arise, healthy organizations can often internally promote candidates to fill those new opportunities. And this internal promotion flows down through the organization in such a way that projects don’t suffer when such opportunities arise – individuals step into the next role that they have been equipped and training for. Healthy organizations have this mobility.
And what enables this organizational mobility? “Always have a second.”
The cynic replies, “But if training someone how to do my job, then ‘they’ will just replace me with cheaper labor.” If your business isn’t growing, this might be true. This situation might also be a self-fulfilling prophesy. Remember in my example, a “critical” employee requires a good manager to mitigate the risk of your untimely death, vacation, sickness, or flat-out quitting. And that mitigation plan often includes training someone who will be willing and able to train others.
“But I’m good at my job, and no one else can do it.” This is said by one of two people: the arrogant or the isolated. If you’re the former, I would encourage you to reconsider. This is only true because of the unique opportunity that you’ve had – others would be able if given the same chance. If you’re the latter, the isolated, raise your hand to leadership, ask for help, seek to find a second.
If you’re on a team, here are some practical steps that you can take:
- Use vacation as an opportunity to test a deputy. Fully empower them. Don’t push off important meetings until you get back – delegate. And if they make a poor decision, don’t undo it – let them live (and learn) in the consequence of that choice (within reason of course). Allow them to feel the weight of the role.
- Always Be Teaching. In every role, you should have someone else on the team that you’re investing into. Take the time to explain the what and the why.
- Cross train. If there’s only two of you on the team, cross-train each other. Solicit review on work products. Use them as a tester. Write each other’s documentation.
- Intentionally delegate tasks that you could do (but strategically choose not to) as it would be helpful for the learning process for the other to do.
- Being responsible results in greater responsibility. Take on the additional work, but be sure it comes with budget, which you can then use to bring on a second. Note: This is often part-time at first.
If you are team lead:
- Task diversity – don’t always give the same kind of work to the same person. It might feel less efficient. It is. But it’s still often the right choice.
- Peer Review – Require a peer review prior to a task being complete. Reviews force one to “teach” the other. As a reviewer, set the example that you’re entitled to understand before you give a pass on a review.
- Identify the “seconds” – for each person on your team, have someone, by name, who would be the backfill. Then intentionally work to get them ready for that transition.
- Tell your team “always have a second” as a value of the organization.