Are You Preparing Others to Function Without You?


I spent a significant amount of time recently with a physical therapist. Years of sitting at a desk improperly had taken their toll on my back. Many of the major muscles were knotted up and I was in a fair amount of pain which kept me from functioning as I should.

I asked for a quick session or two (because my insurance didn’t pay for this kind of physical therapy) to just fix things; the physical therapist smiled (in a “Mary Jo has no idea” sort of way) and got to work. Little did I know how long I would have to keep returning for more back therapy. I scheduled sessions week after week for several months to have her put me through the torture chamber as she pulled and pushed.

But pulling and pushing isn’t all she did. She also taught me how to work out at the gym without further injuring those tender healing muscles. She taught me how to sit at my desk to avoid the experiencing that kind of pain again. And she taught me how to exercise, stretch, pull and push my back on my own in order to keep it strong in the future.

It was slow progress, but one of the best investments of my time I’ve ever made.

In essence, she got me ready to function sustainably without her. She never wanted to see me again, so she taught me how to take care of things myself. She prepared me for the day when she wouldn’t be a part of my life. To be perfectly honest, I never wanted to see her again either (she was a very nice person, but I’m quite motivated to avoid pain and not spend that kind of money again).

That PT could have pushed and pulled on my back forever, never teaching me to take care of it myself. But she didn’t. She helped me to help myself.

Your job is to make sure that your team can function without you

As a manager, your job is to prepare others to function sustainably without you. You never know when you’ll want to move on, out, or up. It’s your responsibility to make sure that someone is ready to take your place, and it takes time and effort. Are you:

Developing others: Are you meeting with your staff on a regular basis to assure that they are focusing on their development and the development of those who report to them?

Mentoring others: Are you spending time with those who can use your wisdom? You have learned a lot as a leader. Are you mentoring those who have potential and need to learn what you’ve learned?

Stretching others: Developing and mentoring may not be enough for those high-flying high-potentials on your team. Are you stretching them to make sure that they have work and assignments that will challenge and engage them?

If you haven’t already, prepare others to take your place and to be sustainable when you aren’t there. It’ll be one of the best investments you’ll make.

I am a former executive in a Fortune 100 company. I have owned and operated an executive coaching firm since 2003 called Aspire Collaborative Services LLC. We partner with great leaders to help them become even greater at developing, improving, and sustaining relationships with the people who are essential to their success. This blog is for leaders and those who help them to be more intentional about relationships at work. My top personal values include respect for others, kindness, compassion, collaboration and gratitude. I work very hard at practicing my values daily and when I don’t succeed, I practice some more. I am married with two wonderful daughters and two spoiled pugs.

19 comments on “Are You Preparing Others to Function Without You?

  1. Hi Mary Jo,
    This post links in so well to one I wrote a little while back “Make yourself dispensable.”

    It goes against the grain to train others up for the day when you will leave. Too many people today are trying to hold on to their jobs, and it is that insecurity about themselves and circumstances around them that will, eventually, lead to them being dispensed with.

    One of the wonderful by-products of investing in others to take over from you is that you will be recognised and valued for who you are as a person, trainer, mentor, etc. It gives a sense of purpose to “work” and to know that you have left behind a great team, perfectly capable of continuing what you have started is immensley satisfying.
    Thanks for the post.

  2. Hi Kate, I’ve found that in organizations with a culture of learning and development, leaders are much more attuned to developing their replacement(s). And in many cases, organizations won’t promote you unless there is someone ready to take your place! Thanks for stopping by.

  3. I love this! This is the type of message I share with my leadership clients constantly: you’re job is to develop your team, your department, or your company to survive without you! Thank you!

  4. Hi Mary Jo,
    You point out interesting issues. Indeed, every manager should be a leader for his/her organization in terms of preparing, motivating, training, and engaging all personnel to develop similar or even better activities. The key point is not stopping in your activities but rather having a sustainable growth for this. In truth, in a firm, everyone is important but is not indispensable. Therefore, all of us are a ‘cog in a wheel.’ Regards.

  5. Julio, it’s unfortunate that some managers believe that they are indispensible and don’t spend the time and effort preparing others to take their place. It is (or should be) their job, and they should be assessed against that requirement. The good ones know how important this is.

  6. I love this. I regularly see a chiropractor who’s done his best to minimize the amount of time I spend in his office. Every time I go to his office he runs me through the ringer for how I sit, how I sleep…the amount of time I spend on the computer…:)

    My favorite job has always been training other people and watching as they go on to succeed on their own. It’s a philosophy all managers should have. That way your team can move on to other things or stay and help drive new team members. Either way, if you can get them functioning without your driving force, everyone wins.

  7. Agreed that a good manager should be looking for an exit strategy. Some may be planning to retire and should mentor a colleague to take one’s place. But even younger managers who wish to move up the ladder are well advised to plan for their own replacements.

  8. Mary Jo,

    Agree wholeheartedly with your posting but also recognize that so few managers/leaders do this.
    I believe everyone agrees intellectually but the challenge, as always, comes in the practical application of the theory. In order to do this, the manager has to truly believe they are there for the advancement of the folks on the team and not themselves.
    Perhaps the biggest issue is that we are used to be measured by “output” of some sort and when your goal is to make yourself expendable…it can be a bit unnerving as you are not really tied to any specific output.
    Certainly does not detract from the validity of your post as I agree with your thoughts but the real-life hurdles sometimes make it challenging to put into action.

  9. As someone that’s recovering from a back pain crisis quite similar to the one you describe, and at the same time, being someone in a position in which I need to develop others to work for themselves, your article is double insightful for me.

    Thanks for sharing 😀

  10. Mary Jo:

    I learned a valuable lesson at the ripe age of 19 when I was denied time off and vacations by my manager “just in case” something came up in my area of responsibility while I was gone.

    I’m now 50+ and it was from those moments that I vowed to make sure that any staff I had would be, not only prepared to fill in as needed, but were also prepared to move up. As a leader and manager of people, it is our responsibility to ensure that we coach, develop, and train our replacements. And we should be secure enough with ourselves to have the courage to recogonize that and take the necessary steps to achieve it . . . For their sakes and ours.

  11. Gerry, you bet! Thanks.

    Perry, agreed. It seems to me that there is a lack of system thinking if a manager thinks that their team or organization will provide the best “output” without being prepared to function autonomously and sustainably. I know its hard – but important. Read Jeffrey’s response for his viewpoint.

    Dario, best wishes on mending!

    Jeffrey, I hope Perry is reading your response :). Thanks, and keep up the good work.

  12. Spot on, Mary Jo! We’ve found that many managers get some sort of ego trip based on how much their people need them and therefore act as perpetual problem solvers, which unfortunately stifles growth and development opportunities. Which is exactly why managers must be measured not based on anything that they do, but instead on what their people can do without them.

  13. Andy, thanks. I like the idea of measuring managers based on what their people can do without them. But how would you do it? And wouldn’t that make the manager obsolete (in many cases, a good thing I suppose!)

  14. I agree. Each manager should be prepared to find a replacement for himself. It’s their responsibilities to train new employees, which is also good for themselves.

  15. Mary Jo, I think anyone who is managing others should always try and teach their team to be able to survive without them. Although, it is not always easy to do this. I think it comes down to taking responsibility for yourself. You need to teach others how they can be without your help and move on if and when you leave. It is good to remember this if you are ever leading others or managing them, but I think a lot of people forget. If you can remember to do this with your people then you leave the chance of them surviving when you are gone. Thanks for the post Mary!

  16. Meng, if you don’t develop a person to replace you, the chances are greater that you won’t get that promotion you’ve had your heart set on.

    Amber, another way to put this is to “work your way out of a job”. Although I wasn’t always successful, that’s always been my philosphy. Thanks for your comments!

  17. Mary Jo

    I agree that teaching people how to take on new tasks and responsibilities is important. It does not benefit you to have everything come to a screeching halt every time you are not around. Making it so that you people can function with or with out you there should be your goal.

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