Is someone you know indispensable?

Many small businesses have someone (or several someones) who is indispensable. We hear or say: “This business would simply not run without Bill or Donna or LeAnn.” We rely heavily on employees who develop a skill or a certain knowledge base crucial to the functioning of our business. Unfortunately, this kind of reliance can often lead to an unhealthy dependency. Eventually, it seems like the organization exists to serve the needs of the “indispensable” people instead of the employees being present to serve the needs of the business.

A fairly common tale

Once upon a time, there was a young bookkeeper who was hired by a business owner to do exactly what she did best:  keep the books. As the business grew, she took on extra responsibilities such as helping and advising the owner. As she did, she felt involved and needed. And life was good. The owner didn’t have to worry about how certain parts of his business were functioning since his employee knew what was going on.  The business grew and grew, eventually growing so much that the owner (smartly) began assigning some of the extra responsibilities to others. Slowly, the bookkeeper turned into a defensive and confrontational ogre. Everyone in the company avoided her - including the owner! Life was not good. After months of reduced production and strained communication, the owner woke up one morning in a cold sweat. He suddenly realized that the one thing holding the business back was the bookkeeper. He gathered all his courage and understanding, and approached the ogre...

Dispensing with indispensable

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As business owners, we can’t have healthy employees if we don’t see to their needs. Yet the opposite is true as well. We can’t have healthy companies if our employees don’t fit the needs of the business. When one person becomes “indispensable,” it’s too easy for us as owners to begin working around the shortfalls of that person. Suddenly, the business exists to keep that person employed and happy as opposed to that person being there to keep the business functioning. Whether you value timeliness, teamwork, or tradition, the successful collaboration of everyone in the business depends on putting the needs of the business first.

Oh, and the rest of the story? The owner laid out the situation to the ogre, and to his surprise and delight, she turned back into a bookkeeper. The bookkeeper was actually relieved to return to the work she felt most comfortable doing. The owner continued supporting her, so she wouldn't feel threatened as she changed her behavior to support the company. The pressure eased—production went up—and everyone lived happily ever after.

Actions you can take today

  1.  Ask yourself: What if one of your employees won the lottery and decided to quit work today? Would your business continue? Identify employees to crosstrain as backup, or find an outside resource to make sure your business can weather employees' departures.
  2. When you notice people acting contrary to the business’ needs, ask them (in a neutral way, of course): “How are your actions serving our business?” If their answer doesn’t align with yours, discuss the differences. Help your people know what the business needs from them!
chris hutchinson, CEO

chris hutchinson, CEO

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Chris Hutchinson

As CEO of Trebuchet Group, Chris Hutchinson thrives working with clients and his team to improve organizational clarity, teamwork, and leadership impact.

After years of building Legos® and tree houses around the world, Chris earned his Mechanical Engineering degree and followed that with an MBA. His experiences in the military and the business world taught him great leadership can be learned, and everyone is in some way a leader.

Clients and peers describe him as an inspirational catalyst for positive change. He is the author of Ripple - A Field Manual for Leadership That Works.

Chris and his wife live, garden, and bike in Fort Collins, Colorado, and have four children. He has an unrequited love affair with brownies.