We Are All Replaceable…But…

Mothers lie to their daughters!

Now they may also lie (Alright, it may not be a “lie-lie” but just a foolish statement said with the best of intentions) to their sons, I have just not heard or experienced it. And fathers may do it as well. For me it has always been daughters, young and old, and mothers, never fathers. They actually believed it when their mothers told them, “You are special. You are unique. You are irreplaceable.” And they are truly shocked when they discover that they are neither special, nor unique and are most definitely replaceable. We are all replaceable. But…

The most difficult searches I have ever had have all been for what I call “second spouses.” Typically I am contacted by someone who says they need an “executive assistant.” They provide an accurate job description, which clearly lists the qualifications. I find candidates who meet all the mandatory qualifications and most, if not all, of the preferred. I interview and submit them. Then the phone rings:

Bruce, good job! But there’s something missing. They’re not the right fit.

The client is not being difficult. They simply cannot articulate that intangible quality they need. They are hiring a confidant. They are hiring someone they will be with eight hours a day, if not more, and maybe even on weekends. Thus my classification that they are looking for a “second spouse.” They are hard to find.

But this article is not about my most difficult search, it’s about the second most difficult. Those are the ones where the employee being replaced, usually through no fault of their own, has been with the company “forever.”

Allow me to digress, which I usually do…

I just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book, The Bomber Mafia. (Short read. Excellent read!) On page 47 he writes,

“The psychologist David Wegner has this beautiful concept called transactive memory, which is the observation the we don’t just store information in our minds or specific places. We also store memories and understanding in the minds of people we love. You don’t need to remember your child’s emotional relationship to her teacher because you know your wife will; you don’t have to remember how to work the remote because you know your daughter will. That’s transactive memory.”

(If you are thinking of Googling “transactive memory” add “psychology” or you will drown in a sea of [at least for me] incomprehensible IT babble. My advice, in either case, it to accept Gladwell’s definition/description and get on with your life!)

Transactive memory is why trying to replace a veteran employee is so difficult. There’s no problem finding someone with the skill set. There’s no problem finding someone with all the qualifications, maybe even the preferred ones. But that employee, in one very important sense, is truly irreplaceable. Stored in their brain is history. Stored in their brain are all the things the boss did not want to store in his – the transactive memories. They know why you should never suggest doing A, and must always do B. They know why you never ask C about D and why you should always mention E to F, but never when G is around. They know why you must never use H as a vendor, and why I always has to be used.

I could continue until I exhaust both the English and Greek alphabets, but you get the idea.

The issue here, actually, is not the employee or the candidate, it’s the employer. They have to realize, and accept, especially if the employee who is being replaced is not available to answer their replacement’s questions, that the replacement will not, cannot, and cannot be expected to have their predecessor’s transactive memories. That person holds between their ears a vast depository of knowledge. What’s more, they probably don’t even realize that they know what they know.

I once was hired to be the assistant to the director of a small children’s mental health center. We shared an office. One day, a donation arrived. I filled out the bank form and prepared the receipt for the boss’s signature. She watched me. When I handed her the receipt, she asked me, “What about the book? You didn’t record the donation?”

I looked at her, puzzled, and asked, “What book?”

She was shocked. My replacement had never told me about the book, the book in which all donations were to be recorded. So I called her. She apologized, told me where it was, and I updated it. She did not intentionally not tell me. (I know; a double negative!) For her, it was so obvious, that she simply and honestly did not think of it.

That’s a simple and innocent example of what happens when memories are not shared. This was not a transactive memory. It was something she knew very well and had just forgotten to tell me. So just imagine how much information is stored in the brain of that veteran employee who, despite their best efforts, cannot possibly share it all.

Why is this so difficult? Because the employer has to accept the fact that no candidate will have the knowledge base to replace the veteran employee. Skills, yes; knowledge, no. It is simply impossible. And, sometimes, the new hire does not last long because the employer is frustrated that the new hire does not know what they, the employer, wants or needs them to know. So, in some ways, some people are irreplaceable (at least for the short term).