Your business is doing great when all of a sudden your key employee tells you they decided to leave. They got a better offer, decided to start their own business, or they’re moving to another city - the reason doesn't really matter. What matters is that your company can’t function without them. Preventing this from happening is the best solution, of course - but what you do at that exact moment?
5 Things You Should Do Immediately When a Key Player Decides to Leave
You can't let the fact you lost your key employee frazzle you. Instead, you must keep the wheels spinning. The show must go on.
You can't let the fact you lost your key employee frazzle you.
Plan how to fill the role
First, evaluate if you really need to fill the vacant role. Maybe you don’t need that particular role anymore and the company could use some restructuring.
You can split job responsibilities between your team members so everyone does a part, or you can promote an internal team member to do the job. If you really need someone to fill in, and there's no one on your team who can do it, put up a job ad and wait.
In the meantime, offer a person who leaves to hire them on a contract basis, thus buying some time until you've found a permanent replacement. You can also hire a consultant to help you out during the transition.
Carefully use their notice time
The person leaving will usually give you their notice two-four weeks before they leave. You should carefully plan what they should do during that time. You can't afford to lose them while all their things are up in the air. Make a detailed plan with them on what they should be working on and closely follow it.
In addition to their regular job, they should get their affairs in order, create a training plan and onboard their successor. They should stop getting new assignments so they can focus on completing their existing tasks and documenting their workflow.
Announce the news
Rumors are nasty things as they can dampen morale and make others feel something is wrong. Stop the rumors and announce the departure yourself, wishing the employee all the best in front of everyone. After all, what's good for them is good for you too. Organize a farewell party, acknowledge their contribution, and stay on the best terms - it’s always good to have friends in the industry since you never know what tomorrow brings.
Do an exit interview
Talk with the person about why they're leaving and see if you could've done anything to prevent it. After all, they're one of your key players and you need to know why they decided to leave so you can spot the signs earlier in the future. This is also a chance for you to take some time off work and reflect on where your company is headed.
Take care of administration
First, make sure you have all the work files once they leave. Often, a person leaves without transferring their archive because no one asked. Then, one day you need a particular file and have to track down the person in order to get it. This is especially important in when working with designers as you can't make adjustments to existing assets without having the original files.
Second, cancel/restrict their accounts on all your platforms, like analytics, chat, help-desk, git repository, etc. Since they're not a part of your company anymore, they don't get the privilege to see what you're working on. Some tools even allow you to replace them with a different user.
4 Things You Can Do to Keep Your Key Players
The best way to deal with a sudden departure of your key player is to prevent it from ever happening in the first place, but that takes a lot of time and work. You have to nurture a positive culture, manage risks, and change the way you do things so no one is indispensable - not even you.
Risk management is a big topic but it all boils down to this: list all the bad things that could happen and devise a backup plan. The point of the exercise is not so much to make the backup plan but to prepare mentally for anything that may come your way. You don't need any fancy tool for risk management, a simple spreadsheet will do.
Do stay interviews
Contrary to popular belief, people don't leave because of bad managers. They leave because they're either: a) criminally underpaid, b) stop growing and getting new challenges, or c) want to do their own thing. You can't do anything regarding the latter, but you can find out if they're unsatisfied with work or pay and fix it.
To prevent your best players from thinking about quitting, conduct stay interviews. Take half an hour every month and have a cup of coffee, have a nice chat, and see how they feel. Find out if they have any problems or what they would like to do more. Usually, good employees will tell you exactly what is on their mind because they trust you and know you mean well. Just a cup of coffee a month, that's all you need to keep key talent.
Lower the bus factor
The bus factor asks you one simple question: “If certain team members would get hit by a bus one day, would you still be able to finish the project without them?” The more people can replace each other, the lower your bus factor is. This means having someone who's indispensable is a bad idea as it puts you at great risk.
To lower the bus factor, you should first standardize processes. Then you can disseminate knowledge by documenting processes and keeping a company wiki updated. Also, you should encourage cross-training programmes so others can learn different skills, do code reviews and pair programming, encourage mentorships, and do daily standups.
The other (more extreme) option is to fire indispensable employees. For example, fire exceptional programmers is a good management decision because others can’t read it or work with it.
When things are complex, you need specialists, which are hard to replace and make your risk factor go up. But when you keep processes simple, one person leaving is not the end of the world; you can easily find someone else and train them.
Use technologies that are widely available and easy to learn. Instead of a custom CMS, use Wordpress, Instead of Scala, use Java, etc. Use tools that are simple yet powerful. You can also automate complex processes so no one has to learn arcane processes like how to set up a virtual machine just so you can publish a blog post, for example.