No person on your team is “replaceable”

I had this boss who had no understanding of what his team actually did who would often volunteer this management “wisdom” to his employees: “Everyone here is replaceable.” Sometimes he’d add: “Except for possibly me.” It was and it wasn’t meant to be demeaning. Unless he was a complete idiot, he knew that it sounded kind of insulting to an employee. But mostly, I think, he meant it as an axiom of management, a harsher way to say, “I’m aware any of you could leave tomorrow.”

But, as the general attitude around the shop continually declined, he never learned the lesson which we all saw: no one was really replaceable. I left and returned to the job (a dumb decision in itself but not so strange in the circumstances). When I left, I was told I was replaceable. I trained my “replacement” for exactly one day (not my idea) during which, in his youthful arrogance, he didn’t listen at all. He knew PHP. What, after all, could I tell him about WordPress and the 300 sites we ran with it that he didn’t already know?

In my new book about work, good.simple.open, in a chapter called “Flatten the management pyramid,” I mention that:

The pyramid paradigm leads managers to believe that anyone beneath them is replaceable. Roles may be filled by others but when you’re truly making something good, you’ll find that makers are often irreplaceable. The person you hire to “replace” a maker grows into a different role. He may be great but your team dynamic is going to change and so is your work output.

When I returned to that job 9 months later, I found complete disarray on the WordPress side. The guy who’d “replaced” me hadn’t stuck to a process for setting up sites, he had garbage code on various sites to do things that WordPress core functionality already took care of (he’d just never bothered to learn it), and he hadn’t documented anything (the wiki I’d started to document the processes for the sites was untouched in that time I’d been away). The “replacement” for the person who did the admin of the Linux server and built all the WordPress themes (me) turned out to be a PHP coder who never dove into the role of the person he was replacing and as such wasn’t effective for the agency. They let him go.

This sort of thing happened over and over at that agency. We’d lose a graphic designer with years of experience and they’d hire an intern to do her work. Then the receptionist would leave and they’d move the intern to reception. So they’d have a graphic design intern receptionist who wasn’t interested in that position and we still didn’t have a “replacement” graphic designer. Because the boss refused to see that people weren’t replaceable, he kept mutating the roles of people and sowing dissatisfaction. We had graphic designers who’d been moved into development who then refused to do graphic design because it was so disrespected at that agency.

Unless they’re literally a cog in an entirely mechanical machine, people really aren’t “replaceable.” They’re absolutely not replaceable in any creative agency or team. It’s not to say that teams can’t thrive once a valuable person moves on. New perspectives and experience are good for teams but we shouldn’t think we’re “replacing” another person. We’re just hiring a new graphic designer or whatever. We shouldn’t look at people as butts in seats but individuals who contribute to the overall fabric of our team.

This is another reason we have to take care to choose the right team. (Another chapter in good.simple.open is “Choose your team.”) The boss who thought everyone was “replaceable” never took much care to evaluate individuals before putting them on a team. Sure, he brought them in under a 90-day evaluation period during which they were contractors but cutting them was difficult after he’d spent so much time on their training. He did no pre-hiring evaluation. He didn’t introduce candidates to the team. He was lousy at reading personality types. So almost every person he brought in was an adjustment to the existing team.

At my last job, my first manager was excellent at choosing a team because she took the time and the care before hiring a person to evaluate how he or she would perform on the team. She studied portfolios and sample assignments. She conducted multiple interviews. She had the team meet the candidate. As a result, she put together a solid team for herself that lasted after she left.

If you’re paying any attention, you’ll know that the first step to assembling such a great team is knowing that none of them is fully replaceable.