One of the challenges many businesses still face today is key man dependency and how it impacts our ability to get a job done or support continuing projects and operations. We’ve all probably been involved in a conversation at some point that questions the need for more resources such as time, money and people to complete a task.

The reality is that most organizations will never have enough resources and they will have to become more resourceful in their response.

Continuing with a strategy that is dependent upon key personnel to perform specific tasks or maintain systems and processes (at some point) is likely to hurt operations and business functions. Leaders should recognize that this strategy increases the workload and stress on key personnel and can lead to an impact on their wellbeing. Key personnel can become overwhelmed and unable to cope with constant demand for their time against competing tasks and managers.

There is an expectation that a team function will have common skills, processes and knowledge shared between members. That’s not to say that people shouldn’t have different skills, make different contributions or that people have the same level of competency (as we are all human) but there needs to be a general alignment as to the purpose of the team and what it’s mission is.

Key man dependency can create a debilitating culture and lack of understanding of who knows what or who does what leads to vasts amounts of confusion in teams and across teams within the department.

Key man dependency can occur for many reasons…

  • Has the company selected a product and fully engaged with those who are going to implement and support it? The short sighted approach can often leave the company with legacy debt from the moment the product has been introduced with workers unable to emotionally invest themselves if there has been no engagement throughout. This may leave only a few workers that have overall responsibility and limited skills and knowledge to support the lifecycle of the product.
  • Do key personnel feel better positioned or have greater worth by harbouring information which may give a sense of significance. Significance is very human need that makes us all unique, allows us to standout from the crowd but it can also be destructive when knowledge is used for personal gain and not the benefit of others
  • Managers are too comfortable approaching the same members of staff especially when they are under pressure to resolve an issue. This can become convenient and creates a firm reliance and risk on individuals. Key workers can also become complacent with these tasks as their actions can be met with very little opposition or challenge as a task just needs to be completed but the quality is not measured.
  • Organizations fail to identify which areas they have either skill shortages or which key personnel pose a risk based on their overall knowledge of a product or business function whereby this is obfuscated
  • Inability to research and utilize free training resources to enhance knowledge and skill workers appropriately and make the time available.
  • Motivation – Is there a strong enough desire to actually gain or increase knowledge and skills in areas that require it or is it simply easier to make excuses and become involved in internal politics?
  • The volatility of the job market and poaching of staff which can often leave employers unprepared to backfill essential skills or critical experience. This is not affirm that anyone is indispensable but some short term impact can usually be felt.
  • Employees do not want to work with specific technologies or processes and actively seek to avoid any interaction with them

There is no silver bullet here but recognizing the gaps is a good place to start and understanding the potential impact of each will help prioritize which gaps to focus on. This can often lead organizations to use the contract market (gig-economy) to fulfill short-term requirements where skills gaps exist but also fail in equal measure to proactively skill when the expertise is available. Handovers often fail to materialize when key personnel leave jobs.

This is where leaders should adopt a coaching and mentoring culture, put structures in place and identify team members who can be empowered to help develop their co-workers with skills and knowledge they need. This will help ensure the strength of the business unit and the overall contribution it makes.

Coaching and mentoring are two separate roles that often overlap. A coach does not have to be subject matter expert but will set very specific goals and will have shorter term objectives to improve performance. The mentor is an acknowledged performer who can give more detailed advice and insights on how to achieve the goal and will have longer term objectives.

Coaching and mentoring can bridge the gap and in many cases to mitigate the need to use (expensive) external training courses. Most organizations will already have key skills and knowledge internally that can be promoted and shared which is likely to solve some of the gaps. Knowledge is particularly unique in each organization as it will have very specific processes which are independent of technology and perhaps are more valued than the actual technology that underpins them.

Coaches and mentors can work closely with people and introduce new ways of thinking, motivate and challenge people whilst improving a persons self-direction, interpersonal skills and accomplishments. Coaches and mentors can help align training needs to job requirements and ensure that employees are kept engaged and on the right track however tackling key man dependency may not be one of it’s core objectives.

Success of Coaching and Mentoring

The success of developing a coaching and mentoring structure will often depend on the Organizational Culture and Management Style

Power Based Culture

This is where decisions are made only by a few individuals who’s purpose is to improve the performance of others and not themselves. It is very dictatorial approach that exercises power over reason.

People Based Culture

Emphasis is put on people taking responsibility for developing themselves and groups are encouraged to make decisions. Process is prioritized and consensus is one of it’s core principals.

Role Based Culture

This type of culture is very bureaucratic by nature and provides very specific training programmes to align job requirements with skills needed for workers.

Task Based Culture

When an organization has a specific goal in mind they will adjust their priorities over process and align training and personal development reviews to reflect this.

Quality Based Culture

The organizations sets out a list of standards which are part of it’s makeup and expects all employees to conform to. Each department will have teams that will have responsibility to train people in house and challenge where appropriate to ensure all standards are being met.

I hope this was useful, start looking at coaching and mentoring and the benefits it will bring to your organization and employees