Key employees, or key personnel, are individuals who possess unique skills, knowledge, or connections that make their prolonged absence or departure likely to cause significant business disruptions or losses. In a startup or small business, it is possible for all employees to be considered key. In a large organization, however, only a few dozen employees may be considered key. This does not necessarily include the executive team, as regular employees can also be key, and executives can often leave without causing disruptions to the business.
Key employee shouldn’t be confused with authority. For example, the Head of HR may have much authority but a firm may continue to execute without them if there are 10 directors in HR who will do just as well in their role. Also, key employee is not the same as a key role. A key role is a position that is important to your strategy, revenue or operations. In some cases, a key role can be filled by many people such that the employee in this role isn’t necessarily key. For example, a firm may not function without a Head of Sales Operations. However, the person in that role may be simply following a well defined process.
Key employees can be defined by unusual levels of performance in an important role. For example, a creative director who originated product ideas that produced blockbuster sales. Relationships can create key employees. For example, a recruiter with strong relationships at several key universities such that they have an edge over the competition. Obscure situational knowledge can create key employees. For example, a technical specialist who is the only one who knows how to maintain a legacy system that is critical to your operations.
In some cases a combination of talent and productivity makes someone a key employee. This is especially true in domains such as software development where talent vastly improves productivity and quality. In some cases, a star developer produces more functionality at higher quality than hundreds of regular developers such that their productivity is several magnitudes higher than average.
The following are common examples of key employees.
|Business Development Manager||Chief Architect|
|Chief Executive Officer (CEO)||Chief Financial Officer (CFO)|
|Chief Information Officer (CIO)||Chief Information Security Officer (CISO)|
|Chief Marketing Officer (CMO)||Chief Operating Officer (COO)|
|Chief Risk Officer (CRO)||Chief Technology Officer (CTO)|
|Customer Advocates (e.g. Head of Customer Success)||Customer Service Manager|
|Engineering Manager||General Counsel|
|Head of HR||Head of Recruiting|
|Head of Sales||Internal Auditor / Audit Manager|
|Managing Partner||Operations Manager|
|Product Designer||Product Manager|
|Software Architect||Software Developer|
|Strategy Manager||Technology Specialist|