How to Replace a Longterm Employee
by Brian Monette and Jennifer Hanna
So how do we replace an employee with thirty years of experience? This is the question routinely asked by managers and leaders on a regular basis. The answer to this specific question is quite simple. You cannot. In the majority of cases expecting to find the perfect candidate to succeed a 30-year employee is often like looking for a purple squirrel. The good news is that when we change the question, we change the conversation and discover new answers and opportunities for knowledge capture.
Here are 3 questions that every organization should ask when an employee with decades of experience, expertise and institutional knowledge is heading out the door.
1) HOW DO WE IDENTIFY AND CAPTURE THE KNOWLEDGE THAT IS KEY TO OUR INDUSTRY AND ORGANIZATION?
When a long time employee leaves an organization, some experts may argue that capturing their decades of experience and knowledge is not desirable because the objective is to bring in fresh ideas and lead in new directions. In this case, there may be a decision to discourage the transfer of knowledge from previous incumbents, under the assumption that it could narrow the view of alternatives and innovative approaches to doing things. While this may be more of a consideration in industries that inherently strive for fresh approaches and that have a very low tolerance for variation, maintaining a deep understanding of key expert experiences and knowledge-bases ensures sustainable performance during periods of change. Industries such as nuclear power generation, aviation and complex financial services must understand precisely what it is their experts do and execute a comprehensive transfer of knowledge between departing employees and the organization. In these industries, very specific knowledge transfer necessities are more obvious and central to organizational safety and success. The need for knowledge transfer in other industries like sales and marketing, insurance, and retail may be less obvious but equally critical to business growth and transformation. Although there may be a clear case for new and fresh perspectives in a role or within an organization, the importance of extracting the key knowledge, experiences and perspectives from any longterm employee is mission critical. Sometimes the most innovative and creative ideas sprout from understanding the past and present. The question is not, ‘Is knowledge transfer important?’ The question is, ‘Precisely what knowledge transfer is important and how can it be accomplished?’
2) HOW CAN WE REORGANIZE OUR KNOWLEDGE CAPTURE TO ALLOW FOR CREATIVE AND EFFECTIVE RECRUITING AND RESTRUCTURING?
Instead of taking the conventional approach to problem-solving the loss of a 30-year employee, organizations need to rethink their response to this increasingly common situation. The traditional route usually involves unsuccessful attempts at finding a candidate that has all of the knowledge, experience and expertise of his/her predecessor. While understanding all the insights, capabilities and perspectives of a predecessor is critical, finding a candidate replica of a predecessor with 30 years experience is next to impossible. Companies need to find innovative and creative strategies for filling the gaps created when longtime employees exit their organization. One innovative approach is to break down these roles and to search for opportunities to transition elements of the job within the organization. This practice would reduce the recruiting challenge of finding that single expert who has the same productivity levels as your retiring employee. In addition, by finding elements of a role that can be effectively absorbed into other areas of the organization, companies increase the size of their candidate pools and ensure better onboarding during the critical first one hundred and fifty days. When knowledge management is targeted, organized and accessible, leaders are equipped to develop strategies for recruiting and restructuring that successfully respond to the challenges of today’s retiring workforce.
3) HOW CAN WE CAPTURE 30 YEARS OF KNOWLEDGE IN A WAY THAT CREATES CLARITY AND INCREASES ENGAGEMENT FOR SUCCESSORS?
Employees newer to the workforce are seeking opportunities that deeply interest them. As managers, it is important for us to bring tremendous clarity to what we expect from these employees and to set clear pathways for their success. As these successors flow through talent pipelines, hiring managers and leaders need to have access to the types of information and knowledge they value and will build their commitment to the organization. In the case of the retiring 30-year employee, capturing the key aspects of the role that speaks to business purposes and values allows younger workers to more readily connect and succeed. In many industries including financial institutions, power generation companies, health care providers and the broader public sector, there is an increased pressure to do more, at a faster pace and with fewer resources. As we venture into this new world of change, in order to ensure that we are in the right “swim lane” we must increase the cadence in which we meet, evaluate and provide clarity around what it is we expect success to look like. This is what will define successful organizations that are capable of growing during periods of profound change.
Now is the time to stop looking for the perfect replacement for 30-year employee and instead to focus on the what, why and how of knowledge management. When organizations are able to identify all of the key expertise, experience and institutional knowledge held by their exiting employees, they are armed with the tools necessary to quickly and creatively respond to the competitive and constantly changing business environments of today.