Just like households should be putting money into an HR emergency fund with every paycheck, HR has a responsibility to prepare for the unpredictable yet inevitable. Only for HR, the “emergency” in question isn’t a natural disaster, car accident, or other disaster in the “Hollywood blockbuster” sense. HR emergencies are often as simple as turnover of employees in critical positions, the loss of invaluable human capital.
The business world can be as predictably unpredictable as life itself: people die, projects end. Relationships fizzle, and employees quit. New opportunities arise as old passions and plans dissolve. Nothing is guaranteed, but to the forward-thinking person, nothing can truly be considered unexpected.
We take steps accordingly in our personal lives. Although unpleasant to think about, the practical guidelines for individuals and family preparing for death and other disasters is pretty straightforward. An HR emergency fund savings target of roughly three months’ worth of income is generally agreed to be a solid starting point. For couples, or especially parents, just add on premiums for a life insurance policy, and — at least financially — you sap disasters and emergencies of much of their negative impact.
Managers and HR teams have a comparatively confounding challenge. On the one hand, everyone at an organization wants — needs — to feel valued, appreciated, and needed. A sense of purpose is important to performance, to a healthy work culture, to progress and growth. So people need to feel essential to the work they do and the companies they serve.
At the same time, no one should be irreplaceable. Ultimately, all employees are filing positions; they are performing work defined by the needs of the organization, industry, and customers. In other words, the existence of the need supersedes the person fulfilling it. Over-relying on a single person is a recipe for failure; it is unsustainable and unstable.
So how can you make your team both essential and replaceable?
No Retention Strategy Lasts Forever
Prioritizing company culture, engagement, and other retention strategies are important and worthwhile. However, even the best retention strategy has to leave room for employee turnover. There is simply no situation in which talent can be counted on indefinitely.
- The best and brightest are apt to find better offers; as much as you can invest effort and attention to cultural matters, there is a real limit on any company’s ability to pay and provide perks for top talent compared to competitors.
- Even the best employees must eventually retire, go down to part time, or otherwise leave the workforce. Culture building can reduce the incentives workers have to leave, but it can’t prevent an accident or a life-changing event from rendering talent unavailable to you.
- No one is immune to sickness, injury, the death of a loved one, or dying themselves. Morbid thoughts are unpleasant, but you simply cannot prevent something, even if it is extreme or unlikely, from taking employees out of your organization suddenly and permanently.
The point of all this isn’t to play “what if” games, or to force you to confront your own mortality. The point is simply to acknowledge that it is important to plan ahead and communicate plans as a matter of routine. Fortunately, this doesn’t require you to assume disaster is waiting around every corner or adopt a worst-case scenario mindset. Effective emergency planning from an HR standpoint is as much about opportunity as it is security.
Professional sports provide an actionable example of the challenge, and a possible solution.
Turning Star Players Into Mentoring Assets
In professional sports, there is always a star player, usually several, and sometimes on a single team. But no successful team stakes its entire season on the performance of one player; rather, it capitalizes on the strengths of its stars, while making sure to prepare backups, second and third-stringers, etc. The power of a player should boost the brand of the team and generate interest in the sport. This kind of strategy is part of what makes sports teams valuable: they leverage star power for celebrity as well as skill, but the team still trains together, wins together, and loses together. The individual is an extension of the team brand, not the other way around.
Having incredible talent in your organization or on your team doesn’t mean your worries or need for strategy is over. Rather, find a way to leverage the talent you have, while grooming people to replace and support that talent. At the very least, this can turn into a mentorship situation, where your own “star player” shares wisdom, insights, and passion with others. The best mentoring does more than improve retention because it ensures that skills and knowledge are shared and thus retained. If and when the star player is gone, their legacy will remain, and it will be distributed across the team or organization.
This is more than just an emergency preparation strategy: it is a way to fill talent gaps and solve immediate challenges as well.
Talent gaps crop up because either you can’t find people with the skills, knowledge, and experience you need, or you need to replace someone who is taking away the skills, knowledge, and experience you’ve come to rely on. In either case, if you are able to define, identify, and measure the things your company needs, then you ought to think about whether you can teach, train, or groom them in an existing employee. That might mean recruiting younger or less-experienced hires and showing them the ropes. This is a long, potentially costly investment, but one which gives you very direct influence over habits and knowledge.
When it comes to losing the skills and talent you need, your training regimen shouldn’t ever allow you to get to the point where a single employee can torpedo your whole organization by simply not showing up or leaving altogether. If you can identify someone in your organization of exceptional value, define what skills, knowledge, behaviors, or other intangible assets they bring, then you should immediately devise a way for them to replicate their value through training and mentorship.
Preparing for disasters is a matter of habitual, consistent saving. It is insurance whose premiums you can pay to yourself. For HR departments, a similar habit is needed, only instead of investing money, you are investing talent and skills development. The result is the same: you are that much better prepared when the unexpected changes your plans and challenges your resilience.
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