Startups Cannot Afford to Have Indispensable Employees (and not for the reason you think)

“Become indispenable to your employer.” That’s the advice I see from job training and professional coaches all the time. And I can empathize with why it exists. Many employers are not supporters of their teams, and treat human resources as, well, resources that just happen to be human. That fleshy cognition thus imbues them with all sorts of problematic and bothersome traits that employers seek to minimize or control. Hence, employees fight back by being the only person in the company who knows how to accomplish a critical task or the only one capable of leading particular groups of people.

That model sucks. It’s broken. And in the startup world, it’s the antithesis of how to get ahead as either an individual or a company.

(via honzajirasek on Flickr)

Our world demands teams and leaders that have trust in one another. Thankfully, the incredible availability of opportunities for potential startup employees (especially engineers, designers, and marketers) combined with the relatively demanding and less-than-market-rate pay nature of a startup gig means that leaders quickly put their workforce first.

But, weirdly, there’s still a lot of focus on becoming that “indispensable” member of the group. I think it’s not in the interest of either the employee or employer, and I’ll explain why.

Startup Employees – you’re at  a startup to learn, grow, and reach beyond the bounds of what your career history would enable at a larger firm. You may also be there because you believe this startup is the 1/10,000 that might actually make you a millionaire. Guess what? All of these goals can be better accomplished if you’re never (or, at least, never for very long) the only cog that can make your team function.

If you document your work, make replicable all your processes, insure that 2-3 other people know your tasks well enough to keep things running smoothly, and have built redundancy across your position, you can be promoted. You can be trusted to build a team. You can help the startup scale. And those will mean much more to the potential for your own career to accelerate, for your professional growth and knowledge to skyrocket, and for your startup to hit those 1/10K odds than if you become the essential cog that cannot be removed.

Startup Employers/Founders – I know we’ve all had that one engineer who’s the only one that understands the middleware code and without him/her, everything could fall apart. Guess what? That’s a business risk that you created and you need to fix. And until you build a culture where redundancy, not superstar individual efforts are rewarded, your startup will stay tiny and your growth pains will be excruciating.

The same holds true for the marketer (or growth hacker if you have a semantic preference) who controls your customer acquisition channels, the salesperson who dominates your revenue creation, or the operations person without whom, you wouldn’t even know how to issue paychecks. These are fundamental flaws in your organization just waiting to explode and cause interminable chaos. They’re part of the reason you’re working nights and weekends, and feel like the next crisis is only a heartbeat away. They’re also what separates the first-time founders from the recitivist successes who built company after company that scales and exits.

Many of us know this truth deep down, but too few of us are acting upon it. Don’t hold yourself, or your startup back – become replaceable, and help your teams become replaceable, so they can move on to bigger and better work, and achieve the promise that startupdom holds.

p.s. This excellent post by Distilled’s Rob Ousbey is worthwhile reading on the topic: My Career Advice: Make Yourself Redundant