The Most Dangereous Mistake in Talent Planning

In a startup, everyone is doing all the things. There are no swim lanes because the goal is survival and risk-taking and growth and juggling as many priorities as humanly possible.

But as the startup grows, each employee's area of expertise begins to narrow.

And when it becomes a thriving small business, roles start to completely change. More people are hired. Job descriptions are defined. Teams get to delegate and focus on their strengths and assign work based on a "who-is-the-best-at-this-ok-let's-have-them-do-that" mindset. 

Once teams start flexing their specialized skill muscles, certain people become harder to live without. Which means that without a plan in place, if certain employees leave, the business can suddenly be in a tough spot, potentially one never even considered because leaders didn't think it was important enough to talk about.

I call it the "what if they got hit by a bus tomorrow" conversation.

The technical term is critical role planning. Boring. Basically, it's an annual assessment of each employee, the role they play within in the company, and what would happen without them.

This misconception here is that only leaders need to be discussed. The CEO, the COO, the rest of the C-Suite folks. Ok sure they need it because they run the company.

But a big miss among small businesses is planning deeper down, to the seemingly smallest of roles, because those are the folks who make the company run.

See what I did there?

It feels like a waste of time. Why do I need to think about what will happen if Derrick leaves? He told me he's committed to our company for the long-term. It can feel complex. How do I even know where to start when it comes to identifying who we can't live without? Everyone on the team is too important and I can't get the senior team together for a full day to try to talk it through. We don't have that kind of time. It probably even feels expensive. I don't know how to do this and there's no way we're taking this month's profit and paying someone to do it for us. 

The most dangerous mistake in talent planning is not having the bus conversation. Here's why:

  • There are people who are critical to core operations. They keep the lights on. They're a single point of failure because of what they know or the process they can do and their absence would be detrimental to the business.
  • There are people with a specialized skill set. Their role is hard to fill because what they do, who they are, and what they know is so unique and difficult to duplicate.
  • There are people who directly impact performance. Aka: they make the money. They are critical to financial goals and drive bottom-line profit or incoming revenue.

As a business grows, responsibilties change and people fall into their niche and suddenly Jane is the only one who knows the invoicing system (and maybe that's ok because it's an easy system to learn) and Andre knows the entire history of the company plus every client that's ever been and Carl is the best at closing deals (and revenue will plummet if he's gone).

Can they be replaced? Should they be replaced? What's the short term plan if they're gone? Is there an internal successor? 

An annual bus conversation leads to those questions being answered, which ensures that the business keeps moving forward, no matter who leaves. 


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