In my small business, Centratel, each of our half-dozen key management people has had several years of on-the-job experience. Training managers to operate a telephone answering service is a long, drawn-out affair because it is necessary to understand a myriad of technical details and random facts. The introduction of documentation speeds up this training process, but the new manager must understand the subtleties, and that takes time.
So, in the past, when one of our managers left, it was a large step backwards. Getting a new person up to speed could take months, if not years. Who suffered? Our staff, our clients, and the bottom line. In short, losing a manager was among the worst set-backs that could happen to Centratel.
How did we solve this problem? We developed and then documented a simple principle. This principle, important enough for us to mention in our Strategic Objective, states, “We have backup personnel for all management and staff positions.”
We developed this principle through our vision of the business: The primary system is Centratel and we see each manager’s role as a sub-system.
Note: The role is the system, not the person. The company’s stated policy of having two people who can perform a role stems from a vantage point outside and-slightly-elevated from the primary system. We look down on an individual role and mandate “for this subsystem, we shall have a duplicate.”
The everyday effect of this policy? Each manager mentors their understudy to ensure he or she can perform all of the manager’s tasks should the manager, heaven forbid, “get run over by a truck.” The added benefit of this policy is that if a manager is temporarily out of the office, or is occasionally overwhelmed with tasks, the understudy can assist without hesitation.
It sounds like a simple solution, and it is.
In the past two years, we lost two managers (who left on good terms, for personal reasons). When it happened, there was not a ripple in our customer service quality or our internal workings because each of the people who left had been mentors to individuals who were able to slip effortlessly into their former superior’s larger shoes.
Is this a new approach? Of course not, but the truth of the real world is few small business owners/managers give enough attention to potential problems, even ones so obvious as the unexpected loss of key people. These leaders wait until problems move from potential to kinetic, and then they panic. Not instituting a system for training replacement managers and staff is a classic leadership “error of omission.”
Sam Carpenter is author of the book Work The System: The Simple Mechanics of Working Less and Making More.