New businesses are full of dependencies. You rely on your small team of workers, your narrow pool of resources, and your limited understanding of the market to carry you through until you can establish yourself as a bigger, more stable presence. If you’re like most new entrepreneurs, you have at least one “star” employee or partner, with whom your business could not exist. For example, you could have a partner who knows everything about the operations side of your business while you know everything about the marketing and sales side, or you could be running a tech enterprise and know nothing about coding, leaving it all in the hands of your star developer.
Obviously, the people you choose for these keystone positions must be trustworthy and dependable — but these qualities can only guarantee you loyalty for so long. What happens if your star employee decides to leave?
It can be a scary thought. You may even believe such an event would mean the destruction of your business. Fortunately, there are ways to survive — no matter how devastating a blow the departure might seem at the time.
Step 1: Realize That Every Position Is Replaceable
You don’t want to think of your team as replaceable. After all, you spent months building your bench and you’re as invested in your workers as they are in your company. Because you have so few team members and they’re all working so closely together, it’s hard to imagine replacing them with anyone else. But when someone does leave, the first truth you must remember is that every position is replaceable. You may not get someone with the exact skillset or the exact culture fit, but you can find someone or multiple people to close that gap if you look hard enough. This will help get you through any initial fears that might be overwhelming you.
Step 2: Evaluate the Damage
Not all exits are clean and pretty. Your next step is to objectively evaluate the damage that’s been left behind, and consider all the immediate consequences to your star employee’s departure. Did this person cause any immediate destruction on his/her way out that might sabotage the company? This is rare, but it has been known to happen. Did this person give two weeks’ notice or storm out, never to be seen again? How many of your current projects are dependent on this person for successful completion? Obviously, the range of potential damage here is wide, but you need to have a firm understanding of its full scope before you move on.
Step 3: Stop the Bleeding
This middle step is perhaps the most important, because it’s the first step where you’ll be taking action and it deals with short-term consequences. Make a list of everything that has been damaged or compromised by your partner’s departure that either is or will be important in the next month. Separate these into “A,” “B,” and “C” level priorities based on both importance and immediacy, then start addressing them one by one. Don’t try to do everything at once or you’ll get overwhelmed. Instead, stop the bleeding one step at a time, and get the rest of your team involved to help lighten the load.
Step 4: Consider Your Options
Once you’ve addressed the short-term fixes, you can start thinking up long-term solutions to your new situation. Is it worth trying to find someone to replace your missing team member, or should the original position be broken up into multiple smaller positions? Should you keep the same business model, or adjust your company’s mission to adjust to the new circumstances? Operationally, how does your business need to change? You have tons of options here, and how you go forward is completely up to you.
Step 5: Build a New Model With Redundancies
Your final step is to make sure you’re never taken aback again. No matter how you choose to change or update your business, you’ll need to ensure that your business model is complete with redundancies. Consider employment contracts that protect your interests. Consider building a bench of freelancers and independent contractors to step in should your full-time employee leave. Consider creating thorough SOPs to ensure your employee can be replaced if/when he/she ever chooses to leave. The more failsafe conditions you have, the better.
No matter how much you’ve invested in them, no single person can ever destroy your business. You may suffer a serious blow and be forced to deal with a plethora of hard decisions, but if you stay agile and adapt to the new circumstances, your business will invariably survive. The nature of entrepreneurship is growth and adaptation, so don’t consider any major departure to be a loss — consider it a test.
For more content like this, be sure to check out my podcast, The Entrepreneur Cast!