Key Employees – Asset or Liability

Key Employees - Asset or LiabilityWhat is a key employee, and who is worthy of such a title? Much has been written on the subject of key employees, and in my opinion most of it flat misses the mark. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that what most people refer to as key employees are not really assets, but rather large contingent liabilities. If you allow your organization to be held hostage by those employees who feel like they are indispensable, you are only exacerbating the problem. I’m not disputing the need to retain talent and reduce turnover, but I am vehemently disputing the conventional wisdom of how most businesses address the risk of managing key employees. In today’s post I’ll give you a fresh perspective on the age old dilemma of how to deal with key employees…

As a CEO or entrepreneur your problem with key employees begins the very second you publicly identify someone as such. In fact, I would go so far as to say the phrase key employee is an outdated, elitist term that creates angst and animosity among the ranks. Good leaders view all employees as key, and great leaders cause all employees to view themselves as key. The fact that you single out someone as a key employee to begin with means that at a minimum you have a lack of transparency and continuity in your organization, and more probably that you lack depth of talent and are weak in process and knowledge management.

How would you answer this question…Is your company talent poor and key employee dependent, or talent rich or key employee independent? From my perspective a superstar is not necessarily the same thing as a key employee…There is a monumental difference between real tier-one talent and a primadonna who thinks of themselves as tier-one talent. Employees who represent true tier-one talent see themselves as part of the team seeking to make those around them more successful. Contrast this with those primadonnas who are interested solely in their own success without regard to those around them. Any company that bestows a primadonna with recognition as a key employee is a company about ready to experience a completely avoidable disaster.

Over the years I have learned that no one, and I mean no one, is indispensable. A well managed company is not dependent upon the performance of any single individual. Those individuals who attempt to hoard knowledge, relationships, or resources to attain job security are not to be valued as key, but are to be admonished as ineffective and deemed a liability. Corporate talent that cannot be shared, duplicated, distributed, or leveraged is not nearly as valuable as talent that can.

If you want to eliminate dependency on key employees don’t allow any individual to create ultimate domain over anything that is considered key or mission critical. Instead create a culture that values transparency, knowledge management, mentoring, coaching, and process. By doing these things you will add both depth and breadth to your organization and increase the overall level of talent across the enterprise.


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Mike MyattMike Myatt, is a Top CEO Coach, author of “Leadership Matters…The CEO Survival Manual“, and Managing Director of N2Growth.

Mike Myatt




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No Comments

  1. Jacqueline Nagle on April 6, 2011 at 11:56 pm

    Mike, fantastic article and a perspective that resonates very strongly. I have recently embarked on the development of a new leadership coaching program which is aimed at the strata in our organisations often missed….key talent is showered with attention, the first-time front-line managers are inundated with transactional management training, and somewhere in the middle true organisational capability and capacity is missed, for many of the reasons you have covered above. Love the integration as well of great leaders developing an environment where all regard themselves as key; this is one of the only paths to capturing discretionary effort.

  2. Claudio Vignali on April 7, 2011 at 11:33 pm

    I liked so much your article. I have to say that I have been a key employee, but not a primadonna. Not like to be egocentric. But you are so right to say that when key employees exist, is because of lack of talent or management’s knowledge. I’m agreeing that key employees, as you almost say, are enemies of the organization, maybe not now, but in certain point. Any good manager need to identify them and make his knowledge to be diversified. Nobody wants one of your employees can blackmail you, and sooner o later this will happen. However from the supervisor perspective, is not simple to resolve this problem if one of your employee becomes a primadonna. How to solve the problem if you are a CEO and one of your directors or Vice-presidents or CFO, CTO, or any high management is a key employee? The answer could be in lower level of organization structure.

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