Monday, May 11, 2009

Being Irreplaceable - The Good and The Bad

In my work with career development, I often hear stories of professionals who are quite happy with the fact that they are irreplaceable. They take it as a sure sign that they have job security. While in this economy, there are few who would look a horse in the mouth with regards to that view, in the long run, being too irreplaceable has it's downfalls to.

For those who are upwardly mobile, being irreplaceable should have an upward bias. That is to say that if you are looking for a promotion, you should be looking to add value outside of your position which apply to broader scopes.

Being irreplaceable at lower levels is not healthy for individuals or organizations. To have a foundation which rests on one point is extremely unstable and does no one any good. Also, if you are irreplaceable, there is a strong bias NOT to promote you. Not only is it detrimental but also selfish, as it prevents those below you from organic and professional growth as well.

[Case Study] An administrator for NPO was promoted for her work with a one of the organization's leading programs where she was the program head. She moved into an acting director position for all similar programs while continuing to act as program head for her previous team. She had always been proud of her work and the team celebrated the fact that there was no one people in her staff who could replace her. She had years of experience and knew all the in's and out's of past and running projects, fund raising and soliciting contributions from members.

However, after she received her promotion and new responsibilities across a broader field, her previous program began to suffer. She was repeatedly called back to deal with issues and ended up spending more time at her old position than the new to the detriment of both. After much effort, she finally trained a junior team lead to take the position of program head and was finally able to focus on her new position.

[Case Study] A software programmer was developing a module for communication infrastructure. He was absolutely indispensable as he was the only one who was able to do maintenance on the code due to legacy technology issues. As a result, he was a talented programmer whose skills could be transferred to another bigger more profitable project, however because he could not be replaced, he was passed over.

Finally, when he understood the situation, he went to his manager and put forth a proposal: "If I can find a suitable replacement, will you authorize a transfer?" Upon approval from the manager, and mentoring a junior developer, the programmer was able to successfully transition to a new position.

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