A long-time employee has just left the firm. Your first concern is, "What will we do without him or her?" The second is, "How do we find a replacement?" You talk to a headhunter, describe what you think the departed employee did, and hire (at high cost) what seems to be the ideal replacement. Within a month, it's a disaster. The new employee is not the equal of the previous employee, regardless of how good he or she looked in a r¿m¿and soon is just as gone. What went wrong?

The fact is, you can never replace a long-term person, and ironically, that's usually a good thing. Here's why: Over the years, the employee has surreptitiously created a unique job, regardless of what best suited the firm. Everybody does it. For example, the technically oriented person adds technical responsibilities and off-loads nontechnical, and the social engineer goes after more people-oriented responsibilities, until each has dumped the work that was not appealing.

Because it evolved quietly over the years, no one noticed. Now the new person comes on and tries to fit into a job that suited the previous occupant and no one else! The new person has different interests and abilities, and wants the job to conform with those. To compound the problem, the new person doesn't have the personal relationships with the rest of the staff the predecessor had, so the new person fails.

That's the problem, and here's the solution. Never try to "replace" a long-term employee, especially one in an executive position. It can't be done at any level, and it's exponentially more difficult up the ladder. And that's good, because what that person was doing may not have been to the firm's best advantage, regardless of how valuable the person appeared at the time.

Replacing Old Joe or Jane won't work because Joe or Jane created the job, and only he or she can do it successfully. You may even be better off without a replacement, if there are better ways to serve the needs of the firm than whatever Joe or Jane was doing. You just have to determine what they are!

How do you do that? First, step back and rethink what the firm is trying to accomplish and how that breaks out into tasks. Step back further if the position in question is more senior. Make sure you only consider what needs to be done, not what is being done.

Then redistribute that workload--the real workload, not what people are doing now--across the staff. There will be shifts in who does what, because incumbents created all their jobs, too, regardless of their job descriptions. Next, determine what work won't get done without the departed employee. If the remaining folks can do the work that needs to be done, you may not need another Joe or Jane!

Finally, put the new arrangement in place. This might be the toughest part. Remember, the incumbents created their own jobs and some trading off might be needed to keep everyone happy. You want to get the necessary work done so the firm operates efficiently, energetically and profitably; you don't want to create a revolution.

So it's done, or so you think. Unfortunately, the same evolution is already underway. Various incumbents are already creating jobs for which only they are uniquely suited, which will cause the next shakeup when the next Old Joe or Jane departs!

What's your opinion? Whether you agree or disagree, Don Ewaldz will welcome your comments. You can contact him via the Bourton Group's Web site. Just point your browser to www.bourtongroup.com and click on "Contact Us".