What to do when a key person is leaving

One of the most difficult transitions for any company / team / organisation is when a key person is leaving. Maybe they were the founder, maybe an influential executive, maybe a charismatic informal leader — or maybe they’re the only one who knows how everything works and where all the bodies are buried. The upshot is the same: this will be a real test of your organisation’s strength and resilience, all of the focus needs to be on a successful handover, and the immediate and likely long-term future of the company hang in the balance.

The handover

As soon as you become aware that a key person will leave, it’s time for them to drop absolutely everything and focus on handing things over: their knowledge, processes, contacts, client lists; all the extra things they did on the side; all of the concrete guides and run books, as well as their cultural insights and recording their history and philosophy. There is no point continuing with business as usual (beyond the most important work to keep the business running) considering the imminent threat to long-term continuity. Ideally, the person would be willing to act as a ‘consultant’ in the future, either out of the goodness of their hearts, a vested interest in the company, or an explicit commercial agreement e.g. paying for their time directly. Of course this is not always possible.

But to whom do they handover? There are a few options:

Consult an expert. You could bring in someone who is already experienced in the industry, who can come it at a high level and already keep the ship in the right direction, or even help with taking it further. This would typically be an expensive stopgap, and it would be critical to identify the correct person to make the investment worthwhile. Even a seasoned veteran would struggle to simply step into a situation and become productive immediately.

Employ a replacement. The best-long term investment would be to hire the right person and train them properly. Even if they don’t have the most perfectly-relevant experience, they’d still become effective in the long run, if they’re open to learning and hard work. You would need a plan to ensure the transition goes smoothly. It’s also possible to hire an expert in the short-run while you find and train a long-term replacement.

Find a partner for the business. It may be that you cannot afford to hire the person you need. In that case, you can offer equity instead of cash: in other words, a share in the business; to become partners. This is a long-term strategic decision that must be made with the utmost of care, since it is quite possible to severely limit or completely destroy the business like this. The most important qualities that you are looking for are: someone who is ideally smarter or more experienced than you, who you can work with, who is prepared to work just as hard or harder than you, and to act as an owner of the business.

Source expertise from your team. It may be that your team has the collective ability to cover some of the responsibilities of the person who is leaving. You could try hosting workshops with the team to make progress on specific topics, and see how they get along. If they are able to collaborate and have enough combined knowledge to progress, then this may work as a stopgap. It will however distract the team from its existing tasks.

• Train and promote a “right hand person”. Think of the people in your organisation. Who is a rising star? Who is someone that you can depend on? Who has been showing more initiative and ambition? It may be that the perfect person is already in your organisation. They might already be interested or need to be sold on the idea. A plan would be needed for them to step up to the next level, which could include training, professional coaching, and a timeline of how their responsibilities would increase; as well as your clear expectations of them in the new role.

Sell the organisation. This is an option that is always on the menu, as a reference point if nothing else. What is your exit strategy? There are better and worse moments to cash out of the game. If your whole business pivoted around this one key person who is now leaving, then it could be time to offer them anything possible to stay; or for you to abandon ship.

Whichever route you choose, I wish you the best of luck managing this tricky situation.

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