What is a key employee, and who is worthy of such a title? Much has been written on key employees, and in my opinion, most of it flat misses the mark. I’ll go so far as to say what most people refer to as key employees are not assets but rather significant contingent liabilities.

I’m not disputing the need to retain talent and reduce turnover, but I am vehemently denying the conventional wisdom of how most businesses address the risk of managing key employees. If you allow your organization to be held hostage by those employees who feel like they are indispensable, you are only exacerbating the problem. I’ll give you a fresh perspective on the age-old dilemma of dealing with key employees in today’s post.

As a CEO or entrepreneur, your problem with key employees begins the very second you publicly identify someone as such. In fact, I would go so far as to say the phrase key employee is an outdated, elitist term that creates angst and animosity among the ranks. Good leaders view all employees as key, and great leaders cause all employees to view themselves as key.

The fact that you single out someone as a key employee, to begin with, means that at a minimum, you have a lack of transparency and continuity in your organization, and more probably that you lack the depth of talent and are weak in process and knowledge management.

How would you answer this question? Is your company talent poor and critical employee dependant, or talent-rich or key employee independent? From my perspective, a superstar is not necessarily the same thing as a vital employee…There is a monumental difference between natural tier-one talent and primadonna, who thinks of themselves as tier-one talent. Employees who represent true tier-one talent see themselves as part of the team seeking to make those around them more successful. Contrast this with those primadonnas interested solely in their own success without regard to those around them. Any company that bestows a primadonna with recognition as a key employee is a company about ready to experience a completely avoidable disaster.

Over the years I have learned that no one, and I mean no one, is indispensable. A well-managed company is not dependent upon the performance of any single individual. Those individuals who attempt to hoard knowledge, relationships, or resources to attain job security are not to be valued as key but are to be admonished as ineffective and deemed a liability. The corporate talent that cannot be shared, duplicated, distributed, or leveraged is not nearly as valuable as a talent that can.

If you want to eliminate dependency on key employees, don’t allow any individual to create the ultimate domain over anything that is considered key or mission-critical. Instead, create a culture that values transparency, knowledge management, mentoring, coaching, and process. Doing these things will add both depth and breadth to your organization and increase the overall level of talent across the enterprise.