The Myth of the Exceptional Employee

Hiring and managing employees is arguably one of the most important aspects of running a business. There is a common pitfall that I’ve seen in businesses of all sizes and stages of growth: the tendency to become dependent on the unlikely skill combinations of rare individuals. Some may see this as unavoidable, but it’s simply not true. When building a business to scale, it’s essential to accept a simple fact: every employee, no matter how valuable, may leave the company at any time without notice.

Small businesses often stay small because they refuse to acknowledge this unalterable truth, and larger businesses often suffer from high turnover for the same reason. I’ve seen the story play out a number of times, and a business owner will typically describe the experience as “getting lucky.” You might hear someone say, “Carla has a degree in accounting, knows our software, came in the door with a sales and marketing background and is available to work in the evenings. She just happened to be exactly what we needed. She was a Godsend!”

Unfortunately, there is a dark side to this type of divine intervention.

Exceptional employees have leverage, and they know it, and the savvy ones use it. They know that they are hard to replace. They know that they have the power to put the business in a bind. They may not speak the threat out loud, because they don’t have to. The threat is implicit, and it’s always hanging there in the background. Sinister motives aside, rare employees leave a gaping hole in the business when they get sick or take vacation. When a business owner is dependent on an employee whose skills would be hard to find in another person, the fear of losing that employee is always on their mind to a degree.

Resistance to Solving the Problem

In my experience, business owners often recognize the problem and the solution, but are reluctant to put effective measures in place. The solution ultimately boils down to documenting standard operating procedures and creating standard training protocols. I have seen business leaders recognize this necessity at an instinctual gut level, yet resist it emotionally. Many feel that reducing a business to a set of processes will dehumanize the business or kill off its soul. Ironically, it is usually the failure to do so that drains the creativity and extinguishes the spark from a business. When every job in a company is defined by the person who occupies it, several specific dysfunctions begin to eat away at the business culture.


When information lives inside one person’s head and nowhere else, communication begins to break down and walls pop up. Contrary to popular belief, silos are not unique to large corporations. I’ve seen this happen in companies with fewer than five employees.

Hoarding of Information

In a culture where being rare and one-of-a-kind is a basic necessity for keeping the company alive, employees begin to keep secrets from each other. They perceive it as job security (even though it almost always works against their interests in the long run).


When only one person is capable of performing in a business-critical role, that person puts in long hours and seven-day workweeks, and vacations become a thing of the past.

Breaking the Pattern

The key to breaking free from this particular cycle of mediocrity is simple but not easy. It amounts to taking a close look at the duties performed by the exceptionally talented individual, and carefully breaking them down piece by piece, step by step. By taking the focus off of the person and putting the emphasis on the process, it is often possible to find simpler and more elegant solutions, such as re-assigning certain tasks to different individuals within the organization.

Extraordinary businesses hire extraordinary employees. People with uncommon talent do not like to stay stuck in their careers. They like to grow, develop and evolve. By exercising the discipline to constantly evaluate how to get better in simple ways, a business allows its best employees to do their best and highest work, rather than confining them to a dead-end job, simply because no one else knows how to do that particular job.

Paradoxically, the keys to reaching extraordinary levels of performance are quite ordinary. There are no secrets and there is no magical formula. All that’s required is to break down the steps.

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