Don’t Be Irreplaceable

If you have made yourself so important to your company that it cannot survive without you, you have not created a lasting business — you’ve just created a big job for yourself.

Don’t Be Irreplaceable

No matter how profitable your company, how many employees you have, or your legal status, your business is — for all practical purposes — a sole proprietorship if no one else knows what you know or can do what you do.

You’re a hands-on owner, and that’s good. But what if for some unthinkable reason you couldn’t be there tomorrow? Could your business carry on if something happened to you?

Or what if you just want to take your spouse to Hawaii for a month? Or take a week off to attend the SHOT Show in Las Vegas? Could you do it and come back to the same successful company you left?

Making yourself irreplaceable puts a huge burden on you and your family and could put your company in jeopardy. If no one else knows the ins and outs of your operation and the word “vacation” is not in your vocabulary, you’re heading for burnout and you risk leaving your employees and customers stranded. 

Are You Your Company?

When customers call, do they always ask for you, the owner, and refuse to deal with anyone else? And do you gladly serve these people yourself because you believe customers who are handled by the boss become more loyal to the company? This may result in loyal customers, but it means you have to devote all your time to daily problems that arise and give these problems priority over long-term planning, which never seems to get done.

Decisions made on the fly as you handle daily operations are not based on any kind of in-depth thought about the situation. Simply put, if you are always putting out small fires, you don’t have time to think about how to fireproof the building.

Making yourself replaceable by delegating daily tasks to others frees you up to do some long-range planning and permanent problem-solving. This will make the business run more smoothly whether you are there or not.

How to Become Replaceable

Much of the information a business owner needs day to day is stored in his or her head. To become replaceable, that information needs to be made accessible to others. Start by making a list of everything you did today. What information would another person need to complete those tasks to your satisfaction?

Do this for several days and you’ll have enough information to create a written manual detailing how every one of your tasks is done. Make sure at least one person knows where this manual is stored and that it is to be referenced if something prevents you from being on the job. Include information about who is to do what in your absence. Clearly outline exactly who is to be responsible for what.

This contingency manual should include instructions on logging into your computer, passwords, and the names and locations of important files. It may be useful to include a log of your daily routines so your stand-in knows what needs to be done and in what timeframe. Other information to consider sharing in the manual: the combination to the safe, company tax I.D. number, security system codes, location of extra keys, and names and phone numbers of support providers like your accountant, attorney, suppliers, bankers, insurance agent, etc.

You may want to make two copies of this manual — one to be used in case of an emergency that includes the more sensitive information mentioned above, and another more general version to be used for training purposes. Things will go a lot smoother during a crisis if others are already trained to do your jobs.

A Matter of Trust

Making yourself replaceable is easier said than done, especially if you view your business as an extension of yourself. The first step is to consider who in your company shows leadership potential. The next step is actually giving them some responsibility.

If the person you’ve tapped to take over some of your duties hesitates or is reluctant to take over, tell the employee you’ve identified them as someone who can help you become replaceable. After assigning one of your usual tasks to someone and carefully explaining what needs to be done, step back and let the person do it. Establish a standard of quality and set a reasonable deadline for accomplishing the task, but stop yourself from micromanaging unless you can clearly see that things are headed in a dangerous direction. Let them make mistakes. Be patient. Don’t expect perfection right away. If they have different ways of doing things than you, try to accept it.

Working Smarter, Not Harder

Delegating responsibility is a way of teaching people new skills, and eventually it can help reduce your workload. But don’t just teach your employees tasks — try to develop their problem-solving skills so they can handle the unexpected in your absence. If an employee comes to you for help when a problem arises, resist the temptation to take over the job and do it yourself. Point out what the issues are, suggest possible solutions, and ask for your employee’s ideas on solving the problem. Make it clear that you still expect the employee to handle the situation on his or her own.

A good start toward becoming replaceable is to simply step out of the way occasionally. Get away from the business for an afternoon, a day or even a week. Then you’ll learn the secure feeling of having a more capable staff to keep the business up and running in case you can’t be around to steer the ship.


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