No one is irreplaceable, and that is a fact. Teams often find ways to overcome the loss of staff, even creatively. Some losses hurt more than others. One key factor is institutional knowledge. This is one area that often makes employees feel irreplaceable, but should be avoided at all costs by a business.
What grows institutional knowledge? Ambition. Employees invest into their companies by digging their heels in, often learning and growing to be the best employee they can be. It's natural: ambitious people evolve over time - they are not stagnant. And, businesses often encourage this. They want creative thought leaders and problem solvers, not robots who can be programmed to do the same boring thing time and time again.
A business has far worse problems than having employees with institutional knowledge. In fact, some welcome it. The company Basecamp (formerly 37 Signals) framed this perfectly in their book, Rework. The basic idea: the ideal team consists of a small and lean team of very capable, invested individuals. They have found that this structure engages and stimulates their employees. And, they claim employees reward them with loyalty and engagement. A smaller team likely means that there is less overlap in roles and responsibilities. It suggests that institutional knowledge is actually a key component to the success of Basecamp.
The nemesis of institutional knowledge is employee turn over. The minute you let an employee go or the employee leaves on their own accord, all of the knowledge they have from the company walks out with them. This has to be accounted for. At least, prioritize that knowledge. Every company has resident experts. The key is to ensure that these folks are not the only expert in a crucial business function. A business should be prepared for any of it's employees to walk out at any point in time.
Change is inevitable, but being prepared for that change is a choice to be made.
Collaboration and cross training is one way to ensure institutional knowledge is not wrapped up in one resident expert. This can also be a great way to share responsibilities, allow employees to take vacations, and promote employee growth.
Another potential avenue is to standardize and document work processes to maintain consistency. This can serve as a hand-off to allow others to become more involved, but is ideal to have your resident expert there when the documentation fails. And, while this is good, don't stifle creativity by driving your entire business off of prescripted processes.
The least discussed, but most viable option, is to keep your rockstars happy. Hank Gilman frames this perfectly in his book You Can't Fire Everyone: And Other Lessons From An Accidental Manager. There are some employees that could leave and it would not severely impact the operations of the business. There are others that are crucial to it's success. The last thing you want is for these folks to become disenfranchised. Gilman recognized this as an editor-in-chief of many well-known publications in which he was responsible for teams of journalists. While acknowledging how time consuming and draining difficult employees can be, he non-discretely favored his rockstar employees. Why? He wanted to keep them happy because he recognized that would make him more successful. Plus, he wanted other employees to strive to be them.
What are the keys to keeping your rockstars happy?
First and foremost: trust. Gilman acknowledged this first and foremost. In fact, he defined a rockstar as an individual that could be counted on to do the right thing, one who makes smart decisions, and has a proven track record. Gilman trusted these folks to do their jobs; he didn't micro-manage them.
Next, a positive culture has to be one of the priorities of those running a company. There is nothing more toxic than an employee that does not buy into it. Sometimes it is important to know when to let the wrong people go to keep the right people happy. Countless times, I have seen incredibly talented people walk away from an organization due to discouraging and systemic cultural issues. Avoid it!
Finally, rockstar perks. Show the rockstars the love or someone else will - give them a raise or a bonus, listen and support them, give them more vacation time, involve them on strategic decisions, let them work remotely - just to name a few. Each employee is different. If you really want to keep someone, learn what makes them happy and ensure they stay that way.
Sometimes this is unavoidable. But, be opportunistic, a fresh set of eyes is never a bad thing. New employees can bring new life and energy into a team. It also presents opportunities to revisit policies and procedures that may have grown stale over time. Bear in mind, routine stifles innovation. Sometimes a new employee is exactly what is needed to help a team head in a different, but beneficial direction. Consider coaching changes in sports. Sometimes players tune out the same message that is delivered and it no longer sticks. Losing an employee, and their specific institutional knowledge, may just be the right thing.
If not, try to hire a rockstar. I hear they are in high demand, though.