As the boss, you can’t possibly keep track of all of the knowledge necessary to run your organization — your head would explode. (Even micromanagers have to trust people to some degree.)

But if you’re a highly effective senior executive, cruising along at the 30,000-foot, big-picture strategy level, you have to ask yourself, “When people quit, how do I ensure the knowledge they have will not be lost?” That’s a problem that even rocket scientists at NASA struggle with, so you’re not alone.

Let’s say you started a new initiative a few years ago and assigned a team of three to it. All of them quickly become knowledge experts for the initiative. They are collaborating frequently, creating and sharing knowledge with each other, hitting their milestones, and making the initiative work. It hums along so smoothly that you begin putting more of your attention elsewhere. After all, the team is handling it without you and they are all cross-trained. You have a knowledge backup plan, so life is good, right?

Maybe. But people are a deeply flawed knowledge backup plan. Here’s why:

The new initiative continues to succeed, so your attention wanes. Eventually, your team leader, Melissa, decides her career would be accelerated by jumping to a more high-profile role elsewhere in the organization. So she takes a promotion to a big job in another department.

Her knowledge isn’t entirely gone, but since the project is not part of her new responsibilities, any help she provides takes away from her performance at her new position. But, of course, you cheer her promotion! You’re definitely happy to see her succeed.

After all, you still have two strong people as knowledge backups, right?

But soon after Melissa left, your second in command, Roger, gives notice. He wasn’t actively looking for a new job, but a perfect opportunity came along right when he was wondering if his current role would be as fun without Melissa on the team. You are shocked when he leaves – you assumed he would step up to the leadership role. Your panic level starts to rise.

A few tough weeks go by. Mandy feels buried under an avalanche of work, knowing full well that the project is on the verge of catastrophe. So she quits, going to work with Roger at his new company.

In just a few weeks, you lost your entire team and most of your knowledge — and your formerly successful project is now suddenly doomed. You were completely certain that having three people on the team formed a resilient enough backup system for the project’s knowledge. But you failed to understand that when Melissa moved to another department, it destabilized the whole team. They all failed at once – so your system suffered what your IT department would call a “catastrophic data loss.”

The domino effect of turnover is more common than most executives realize. When a key person leaves, everyone who worked with, or reported to them, should be considered a “flight risk.” So if teams are prone to fail all at once, what should you do to protect yourself?

  1. Ideally, you will want to systematically capture and share people’s knowledge through your operating procedures and internal systems. Don’t have your organization rely entirely on what goes on inside the heads of your people. Capture it so others can benefit.
  2. At a bare minimum, you should plan for turnover. People will inevitably change jobs, so stop treating it like a surprise. Your mileage may vary, but industry turnover rates are fairly common knowledge. Assume your people will move up or out, and plan for it.
  3. Show your people you care. Be ready to start recruiting quickly at the first sign of turnover, before it snowballs into something larger. Understaffed teams that have lingering job vacancies are at maximum risk


To gain more perspective on performance management and employee turnover, visit “What Drives Employee Retention and Employee Turnover?”

This post originally appeared in the Business Journal