There is one phrase used especially in the business world that I just can’t stand. It is usually condescending and fear-inducing, but mostly it is just downright untrue. You’ve heard it:
“EVERYONE IS REPLACEABLE”
Now, at face value I believe that these words are meant to reflect that if any given employee isn’t fulling his or her job duties — due to low performance, incompetence, or some other disqualifying variable — that another person can readily be summoned to take over the responsibilities. Totally valid. But is the person actually replaceable?
PORTFOLIOS CAN BE REPLACED, NOT PEOPLE
Hiring managers will go to great lengths to assess the personality of a candidate in order to “find a match.” And why shouldn’t they? They are responsible for attracting the best and the brightest to help an organization succeed. As part of the hiring process they will typically conduct tests to determine whether or not a candidate is the right fit. These tests try to categorize individuals into certain “types of people” and they generally yield above average results. But they aren’t perfect. Why? I believe it is because every individual is uniquely gifted, endowed with a one-of-a-kind personality, and developed out of the sum of distinct life experiences. You might be able to find very similar people, but ultimately NO TWO PEOPLE WILL EVER BE THE SAME.
At a fundamental level it is impossible for anyone to be replaceable.
Portfolios, on the other hand, can be replaced on a whim. It is entirely possible to re-assign a job or task to any number of people. While the results of the successor are not necessarily predictable or guaranteed, there is no question that the portfolio (or position) is replaceable. Why does this matter?
PREDECESSOR HONORED, SUCCESSOR WINS
When a predecessor is regarded as an irreplaceable person, a couple of really wonderful consequences emerge (note that performance is irrelevant when regarding the person; they may have been a rock star or an under performer and the following still applies).
- He or she (predecessor) is valued for the unique qualities that allowed them to contribute to an organization. Maybe they possessed meticulous organizational skills, or they boosted morale simply with the tone of their voice. Perhaps they could problem-solve their way out of a dead-end scenario, or grew teams of leaders by demonstrating steadfast integrity in every business dealing. My point is that when a predecessor transitions out of an organization (for better or worse) it is responsible, healthy, and honest for the organization to honor and regard the person as irreplaceable.
- The successor is also a person. It is quite taxing enough that they are inheriting a portfolio. They shouldn’t be held to an expectation to replace the preceding person. That is not fair to the successor nor the organization, because it will only lead to unnecessary frustration on both sides. The successor will bring a fresh uniqueness to the organization which will be different (again, not necessarily better or worse). The organization and successor will be set up to win if the successor is regarded as a replacement of the portfolio, and not a replacement of the preceding person.
This is a discipline in thinking about people as complex and unique contributors, that may benefit an organization in ways that aren’t immediately evident. People have intrinsic value. Acknowledging and honoring good performance is vital, don’t get me wrong, but even if someone didn’t “hit the mark” it is prudent that we regard them as having value for being unique.
So far I have chosen to focus on the irreplaceability of people in business situations in order to make my point, but this notion that people are irreplaceable extends into many social scenarios as well. Perhaps a best friend moved far away, and you are faced with the task of finding new friends without expecting a clone of your original friend. Maybe a step-parent feels threatened to raise children in the exact same way as the birth parent in order gain acceptance. What if a professor or mentor is no longer able to develop your potential and you are faced with the reality that you need a new person to take over that role? There are many other scenarios like this that would benefit from a simple reminder: the successor is not required, nor supposed, to be a replacement to the predecessor on a personal level. They may inherit the portfolio, the job, or the responsibilities, and that’s OK. As long as they aren’t trying to replace a person who is irreplaceable they are empowered to bring something very special to the table… themselves.