6 Keys to Avoiding the Keyman Implosion

6 ways to avoid the keyman implosion

6 Ways to Avoid the Keyman Implosion

My long time accounting office imploded this month.  It was an awesome office and I had been using them for over four years.  They weren’t perfect, but they were pretty darn good at what they did.  They were very well known in our area and had thousands of clients and employed 20+ people.

So what happened?

One of the two partners (I’ll call him the Keyman) had a heart attack and ended up in the hospital for a few weeks.   Stuff like this happens all the time (not to sound callous) and companies don’t fail, so why was this different.

It was different because the Keyman really was the Keyman of the business.  He knew everything and kept everything locked in his head.  He was a brilliant man.  I could call him about financial issues from 3 years prior and he would remember all the details and answer my questions without doing any research.

I had to research just to ask my questions.

He knew tax and accounting laws inside and out and was literally the ultimate resource at their office.  He knew all the clients and dealt with each of them personally.

I don’t know the inner-workings of what happened within the company and anything I say would be speculation, but what I learned was the importance of the old adage, “don’t keep all your eggs in one basket”.  Or in this case, don’t keep all your knowledge in one person’s head.

Again, I don’t know all the details, but from the outside looking in, without their Keyman people started getting nervous.  I’m assuming a few clients jumped ship, which scared employees.  I know that collections dropped and they had to let a few employees go.  At this point I’m assuming more clients left and then the employee’s got scared and started job hunting.   I’m sure there was stuff going on behind the scenes that I’m unaware of, but what really matters is that in the space of 8 weeks my accounting office imploded.  And now I’m stuck looking for another firm.

More importantly though, I’m also analyzing what happened and trying to make sure my company doesn’t make the same mistakes.   Below are six key points of failure to avoid.

1.  Don’t have a Keyman

Make sure multiple people know your product, client base, suppliers and other key resources for your business.  My boss is very similar to the Keyman, he literally knows everything.  However, he isn’t a micro-manager.  He provides direction and then leaves us to find the best course of action.  This means that multiple people are involved in various parts of the business.

2.  Share Knowledge

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you’re invaluable by holding key pieces of information.  Yes in the short term it may provide job security, but ultimately it hurts the company and in the long run anything the hurts the company will hurt you.  I broke my leg about seven years ago and was unable to drive for 2 weeks.  I learned very quickly that I wanted multiple people able to do my job.  Trying to coordinate everything from home (this was before the home office) was a nightmare.

3.  Have financial reserves

I’m a huge Dave Ramsey fan and can’t stress enough how much peace I have in my personal life as a result of my 3-6 month emergency fund.  It takes a lot of time and dedication to save money, but when disaster strikes having a rainy day funds really can keep you afloat.

4.  Have goals that work towards your vision

Without the Keyman’s leadership everything came to a grinding halt.  I know that he had vision and goals, but there wasn’t enough buy-in from the team to keep everything together.  Articulate your vision and make sure that the goals you set to achieve this vision are shared throughout the whole organization.  The goals should be meaningful and achievable.

5.  Hire good employees and give them a reason to be loyal

It became very obvious to me which of the Keyman’s employees were loyal to him and which were loyal to their paycheck.  Again, this is from an outsiders prospective, but I believe that if the employees had waited even one extra week to jump ship the Keyman would have had time to pull everything together.

6.  Perception is everything

When the Keyman’s castle started to crumple his business partner should have taken up the reigns.  I don’t know what happened with the Keyman’s partner, but based on my observation he wasn’t there to lead.  This perception of inactivity scared the employees and the clients.  It is easy to arm chair QB, but there was no information control.  We were hearing rumors and receiving poor customer service and no answers.  If the partner had just stepped up and explained their plan of attack I believe most of the problems would have blown over.


There is never one reason for the failure of a business.  Death by a thousand cuts is often the true cause of failure.  The ultimate lesson for me is that this particular failure was preventable.  I firmly believe that even if they had done 3 of the 6 things listed above they would have survived.  In this case, it literally was the perfect storm.

On a positive note, my Keyman is out of the hospital and will be reforming his company on a smaller scale starting with the one employee who was completely loyal to him throughout this whole mess.  I don’t know what will happen to them, but really hope they are able to make it work.

I’m sure I’m missing plenty of additional failure points.  Please let me know what you would add to this list.


Picture originally taken by http://www.flickr.com/photos/jakeliefer/

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