Years ago, I was the expert for two specific products in a small development organization. When it came time for my manager to divide up the work, I always got those products to add features to, or maintain. That was fine for a while, until I got bored. I went to my boss with a request for different work.
“Who will do the work if you don’t?” My boss was concerned.
“Steve or Dave will. They’re good. They can take over for me.” I knew my colleagues. They could do the work.
“But, they’ll have to learn what you do.”
“I know. I can take a few days to explain, if you want. I don’t think it will take a few days to explain. They’re smart. I’m still available if they have questions.”
“I don’t know. You’re indispensable where you are.”
I faced my boss and stood up. “No one is indispensable. And, if I am, you should replace me on those systems anyway. What are you going to do if I leave?”
My boss paled, and asked, “Are you planning to leave?”
“I don’t know. I’m bored. I want new work. I told you that. I don’t see why I can’t have new work. You need developers on these projects.” I named three of them. “Why do I have to stay doing work on the old stuff when I want to do new things. I don’t see why I should. Just because I’ve been doing it for a year is no reason to pigeon-hole me. No. I want new work. I’m not indispensable. You can hire someone and I can train that person if you want.”
My boss reluctantly agreed to let me stop working on the old systems and work on the new projects. I was no longer indispensable.
The problem with being an indispensable employee is that your options are limited. Your boss wants you to keep doing the same thing you’ve always done. Maybe you want that, too for now. The problem is that one day, you realize no one needs what you do. You have become such an expert that you are quite dispensable. You have the same year of experience for several years.
Instead of being indispensable, consider how to help other people learn your work. What do you want to learn next? You need to plan your career development.
What do you do if you’re a manager, and you have indispensable employees? “Fire” them.
I’m serious. When you have people who are indispensable, they are experts. They create bottlenecks and a cost of delay. If you need flexibility in your organization, you need people who know more than one area. You need teams who are adaptable and can learn quickly. A narrow expert is not what you need.
When I say “fire” people, I mean don’t let them work on their area of expertise alone. Create a transition plan and help the expert discover new skills.
Why should you do this? Because if not, people and projects across the organization decide they need that person. Sometimes with quite bad results.
This month’s management myth is based on a true story. The organization wanted an expert to change teams and move. All because of his expertise. That’s nuts. Go read Management Myth 36: You Have an Indispensable Employee.