Key Person Risk: Everyone Isn’t Replaceable

The common phrase "everyone's replaceable" is such a misnomer. Yes, you might be able to replace a hardworking employee who knows how to do everything right, but at what cost?

By Chally Kacelnik

Some years ago, I was undertaking a current state analysis for a team that hadn’t historically been managed well. There was one team member who had come to take on the equivalent of the work of several people, and, while other people in the team weren’t pulling their weight, some of those team members didn’t want to share information about how their bits of work were performed. (Sadly, when some people hear “knowledge is power,” they jump to hoarding power rather than using knowledge for good.) Not a lot of organisational knowledge or processes were documented, and people were hostile to changing the status quo. I gently broached with some of the team what they would do if a particular knowledge-holder wasn’t there, and the response was “she’s always here”. They weren’t prepared for what to do if someone went on extended leave, or was unable to work anymore, or quit, or retired. They saw no need for this to change (and their leaders weren’t doing anything about it).

What would they have done in particular if the person they’d been loading down with everything under the sun had finally had enough? The organisation would have lost critical information about how to go about all kinds of processes, both for day to day and emergency situations. Without documentation and cross-training, that person was irreplaceable.

The common phrase “everyone’s replaceable” is such a misnomer. Yes, you might be able to replace a hardworking employee who knows how to do everything right, but at what cost? You can’t onboard new people with corporate knowledge you don’t have documented.

Key person risk – the risk that someone who generates significant value for your organisation might leave – must be accounted for. Do performance management, succession planning, and knowledge documentation well. Not only will you have a lower risk organisation more generally, but doing these things well will probably also encourage your key people to stay, both because they will feel more appreciated and less burdened.

Everyone has something unique to offer – they’re human beings, not interchangeable. Account for key person risk in your organisation by documenting what you do and treating people well.

At LKS Quaero, we help organisations to effectively organise their work. For more information, visit us at or follow us on LinkedIn and Facebook.