Key-Person Dependency Risk is the threat posed by an organization or a team’s over-reliance on one or a few individuals.
The key-person has sole custody of some critical institutional knowledge, creativity, reputation, or experience that makes him indispensable to the organization’s business continuity and its future performance. If he/she should leave, the organization suffers the loss of that valued standing and expertise.
Small businesses and start-ups are especially exposed to key-person dependency risk. Tesla, for example, faces a colossal key-man risk—its fate is linked closely to the actions of founder-CEO Elon Musk, who has come under scrutiny lately.
Much of Berkshire Hathaway’s performance over the decades has been based on CEO Warren Buffett’s reputation and his ability to wring remarkable deals from companies in duress. There’s a great deal of prestige in selling one’s business to Buffett. He is irreplaceable; given his remarkable long-term record of accomplishment, it is important that much of what he has built over the years remains intact once he is gone. Buffett has built a strong culture that is likely to endure.
Key Employees are Not Only Assets, but also Large Contingent Liabilities
The most famous “key man” of all time was Apple’s Steve Jobs. Not only was he closely linked to his company’s identity, but he also played a singular role in building Apple into the global consumer-technology powerhouse that it is. Jobs had steered Apple’s culture in a desired direction and groomed his handpicked management team to sustain Apple’s inventive culture after he was gone. Tim Cook, the operations genius who became Apple’s CEO after Jobs died in 2011, has led the company to new heights.
The basic solution to key-person dependency risk is to identify and document critical knowledge of the organization. (Capturing tacit knowledge is not easy when it resides “in the key-person’s head.”) Organizations must also focus on cross-training and succession planning to identify and enable others to develop and perform the same tasks as the key-person.
Idea for Impact: No employee should be indispensable. A well-managed company is never dependent upon the performance of one or a few individuals. As well, no employee should be allowed to hoard knowledge, relationships, or resources to achieve job security.