When the Employees Steer the Ship

A company Jessica and I have been helping has a dependency problem, which is not uncommon in small businesses. Unlike most, it’s not the owner and it’s not a customer concentration issue. It’s an employee, specifically the (former) operations manager.

I should say “almost former” because she’s ingrained herself so deep into the operations that she’s still working part-time even after she moved out of state. There are a few things only she can do, and they’re important tasks, some critically important like pricing.

You may ask, “How does this happen?” Just look at some of the causes (at this company and in general):

  • The employee takes over, is controlling, and won’t delegate (just like a founder/owner). This is what happened in my above example.
  • The owner is lazy and may think he’s delegating but he’s really offloading. 
  • The technical aspects of the business are not the owner’s expertise (and don’t often need to be) but the company isn’t large enough to have depth.
  • There’s not cross-training, no team building, and maybe not training in general.

It doesn’t take much effort to have this happen and I can speak from personal experience. Jessica’s been off for a couple days, there are some things I have to do using Salesforce, on which she’s much more accomplished than me, I got some done, and needed to speak with her before finishing.

When things are going well it’s no big deal. But if the employee leaves, gets sick, or is in an accident there’s a problem. It’s just like exit planning. Most owners don’t think of preparing the business for sale or they ignore it until it’s time to sell and then it’s too late. An employee dependency is something that can usually be prevented (or cured) if you pay attention to it.

“Children aren’t happy with nothing to ignore. And that’s what parents are for.” Ogden Nash

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