Thoughts on Sustainable Systems and Key Employees

The other day I saw this video on LinkedIn with a caption like: “When you don’t appreciate your key employee.”

That’s a charming video, but that caption…

My Experience as a ‘Key Employee’

I’m having trouble articulating my thoughts on this for two reasons:

  1. I’m attempting to write about something that I’m really not an expert on. I’ve had some experiences with this topic, and can make some observations, but that’s about it.
  2. I also think that the problem with the caption is self-evident. If you have a business with one or two “star employees” that your business simply can’t live without … you should really be worried about your business.

You see, I was the ‘key employee” once and it was an unpleasant experience. Being the ‘key employee’ means that people will heap praises on you, but that praise comes from the fear of losing you, and not for appreciation for what you’ve actually done. Being the ‘key employee’ means that you are trapped – you are no longer mobile within the company, and there’s pressure on you to stay because if you leave then bad things can happen, and do you really want that on your conscience?

What if you’re not the ‘key employee’ but it’s obvious who is? How does that affect morale?  How long will either of those employees remain engaged? How stable is your business model if the loss of a single (or a few) individual can bring it to a halt?


I think that sustainable systems should be prioritized and sought after over key employees. I’m not saying that employees are unimportant, or that high-performers shouldn’t be rewarded. I am saying that if you have processes and policies in place that enable people to work within a proven framework that emphasizes automation, documentation, and transparency that you’re more likely to be in a safer position when those employees turn over or when that high-performer chases an opportunity that you simply can’t compete with.

Like I said, I’m not an expert on this, but those are my thoughts. As someone who values diverse viewpoints, I’d be interested to know if anyone disagrees.

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Sustainable Systems and Key Employees”

  1. I love what you have done with this, Chad. Very creative! There are a couple points that I disagree with philosophically. I think that people are predisposed to act in certain ways based on the individual. For example, a person who is more driven to be the best is going to safeguard their knowledge of a certain responsibility and make themselves the Key Employee for that specific field. This can be a mark of pride for that individual. Whereas someone who is driven by their interactions with their fellow employees, a “social butterfly”, can be more driven by working as a team and teaching/learning from those around them. Even in this case, that individual can find them-self in a new position at a new company where they now know that same system or responsibility better than anyone around them, making them the Key Employee for that position/responsibility.

    In either case, it can put a lot of stress on the individual to keep performing well. However, there are so many more factors that can play into how that Key Employee *feels* about that position and how the employer/coworkers treat that person. It can be a mark of pride for some, especially those who thrive on praise, or it can be a mark of frustration for someone who just wants to teach and learn from their coworkers. The employer/coworkers can either shower them with praise, support them with anything they need, or honestly abuse their knowledge to just “keep things running” until that employee is completely spent and they have to find someone else to do the job.

    The whole point is that there are so many factors that come into play on this one that it would not be fair to assume from one bad experience that the whole thing is bad. Remember your scientific method. One test of a system is not enough to draw a knowledgeable conclusion of the system. You must consider controls, variables, and your instincts and try again. Personally, I don’t think it is inherently bad to be a Key Employee or for an organization to have specific Key Employees. It is all about how all parties involved treat that situation.

    That’s my thought. Miss you Chad!

    • Hey Jeff,

      Good to hear from you!

      I loved getting your thoughts on this. I agree that taking pride in your work, or in your level of competency is a good thing. I certainly enjoy my own role a lot more when I feel good about the work I’m doing.

      I think that you and are defining the “Key Employee” a little differently. I whole heartedly agree that the way you are defining that person is a good thing and can bring a lot of value and satisfaction to both the employee and the organization.

      What I’m describing is a little different. I see two problems with *my* definition of a “Key Employee”:

      (1) this is someone who is unfairly burdened with a disproportionate responsibility to the company – whether that responsibility is real or perceived. For example, I don’t think the company that I worked for *actually* relied on me as much as some people made it seem. But because those expectations were there, it created a level of pressure (and, probably, trust) that was disproportionate to my role. In reality, that company is still running strong even though I’m not there. From an infrastructural standpoint, my leaving was little more than a “blip”

      (2) From a leadership standpoint, if you actually *do* have an employee that you’re company can’t exist without, then you’re setting yourself up for failure. That employee *will* leave. Maybe my inner Buddhist is coming out, but “nothing is permanent” and it’s only a matter of time before that employee outgrows the company in one way or another, or before the company outgrows the employee. There’s something to be said for redundancy and contingency planning. The reason that Old Company didn’t go out of business when I left was because there were other people there with similar skills who were able to step in and keep things going. Those redundant skills, and the ability for rapid recovery, are part of the “sustainable systems” that I spoke about in the original post.

      I hope that makes sense. I’m a poor judge of the coherency of my own writing.

      I miss you too, man, a whole lot. Take care and don’t be such a stranger! You have my personal email (if you don’t, it’s on the Contact Page)


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