MANY YEARS ago I joined a university with a top-ranked business program. During my first meeting with the program director, I learned that, essentially, he was the program. There were no other faculty engaged in it.

So at the end of our meeting, I said two things to him. I offered to help him in any way he needed, but also asked that he get other people involved. When he asked why, I reminded him that, should something happen to him, the program would be toast and the students would be left hanging. He remarked that he didn’t plan on leaving.

“What happens if you get hit by a truck walking in our parking lot and end up in the hospital for six months?,” I asked. He got the message, and recruited two others to become part of the program. I slept better at night after that.



The same thing can happen with staff positions in businesses. There are units in organizations where people specialize. When this happens, and no cross training occurs, how can the person ever take a vacation? And what happens if they get hit by my proverbial truck?

A recent conversation highlighted this for me. A new supervisor asked one of her employees, who fits this specialist definition, if she ever totally unplugged even when she took a vacation. The supervisor had noticed the staff member always seemed available while away from the office.

The employee said no, and the supervisor, astutely, reminded the employee that it is not healthy for people to work all the time. There’s a reason we give paid time off to employees. We know it helps them recharge their batteries to totally unplug. Sadly, too many of us in our fast-paced society have not figured that out.

But that’s not my focus here. The target today is to remind those of us in supervisory positions that it is quite risky to have only one employee who knows how to do things in the organization.

When the proverbial truck hits—and it will in some form—the organization will be negatively impacted. How negative the impact certainly depends on the person’s role, but what if it’s your payroll person? Will people like not getting paid this week or month because you didn’t cross train?

So look around your organization. Where are you putting the organization at risk by having only one person who knows how to do certain tasks?

OK, now that you’ve made your list, what are you going to do to mitigate the risk?

I hear some of you saying, “But my one-stop employee doesn’t want to share the responsibility with anyone!” It’s not the employee’s call—it’s yours! You are the manager, and are responsible for the ongoing health of the organization. So push back. Remind them what could happen if they got hit by Lynne’s truck!

Thank goodness I asked that program director I referenced at the beginning to get other faculty engaged.

Two years after he got others involved, he was recruited to a top university.

And I was thankful I didn’t have to shut down a program because the one person who knew anything about it left.

You just never know what will happen, but you can certainly plan for what could occur.

Lynne Richardson is the dean of the College of Business at the University of Mary Washington.

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