Early in my career, I was taught that any team member was replaceable and that as long as you had sufficient time to find a suitable replacement, you would be fine. I have operated on that basis since then, imparted that wisdom to the founders and teams that I work with, and have always advocated for that approach to management.
But I have learned that on any team there are always a few members who are extremely difficult to replace. While most team members are “fungible”, there are always a few “non-fungible people” and retaining these NFPs can be incredibly important to the long-term success of the business.
The first, and most important, NFP is the founder. The person who originally conceived of the opportunity, recruited the first few team members, scoped (and often built) the first product, brings immense value to the business, mostly around long-term vision, setting the culture and values, and knowing when something is “off.” Retaining the founder’s interest in and involvement with the business is critical. There are times when the founder is bringing more difficulty to the business than value and they should depart. But those situations are to be avoided if possible because of how important a founder is to the business.
NFPs are usually individual contributors, not managers. The management function is much easier to replace than a uniquely skilled individual. A common mistake that I and others have made is to promote an NFP into management when they are much happier not managing people. A classic role for an NFP is the CTO of the business. In this role, the person sets the overall technology direction of the business, makes the hardest technical decisions, builds technology themselves, but does not manage the engineering function. In many companies, the CTO has no direct reports.
You can find NFPs in any part of the company. They are not limited to technical functions. You can have an NFP in customer service, finance, legal, marketing, really anywhere. The key is to identify them and recognize them, reward them, compensate them, and retain them.
More and more companies are moving to compensation models where critical individual contributors can make as much, or more, than their manager or any manager. This has long been common in sales where commission models create such opportunities and where there are often NFPs, but I am seeing more and more companies recognize that simply compensating people on the basis of their management level is incorrect and leads to their best people moving into management, underperforming in that role, and departing.
NFPs are pretty rare. Most people are easily replaceable given sufficient time to do a proper search. But there are always a few people who are not replaceable. Identifying them and retaining them should be a key goal of the management of the business.