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A key player in our team has moved jobs and now we’re left with responsibilities we’re not sure how to navigate.

Hi Maria, 

I look after three teams as an engineering manager. When our product lead – let’s call them Alex – left our organization, their responsibilities fell to me and my design peers. The trouble lies in the fact that Alex’s expertise was extensive and we’re not experienced enough to deal with all these new duties. I don't want to burden anyone from the team by creating more work and stress for them, but that seems inevitable at this stage. What can I do?


Hi Saša,

Having the “rock” of the team move on is never fun, even more so when it’s a surprise. It’s completely understandable to feel overwhelmed, but don’t lose hope! There are actions you can take to turn things around reasonably soon.

We’ll look at how to accomplish two goals: how to keep moving forward now, and then how to prepare for similar situations in the future.

Bouncing back

The immediate goal is to figure out next steps. There are two ingredients to this: clarity and support.

Clarity is about everyone understanding what is important, what needs doing when, and who’s doing it. Take a step back and consider who might have the context to help. If the context is within your team, hold a session to collectively review ongoing work, its status, goals, and plan the next steps for the upcoming weeks.  

However, if Alex’s domain of knowledge extends to other parts of the business, you’ll likely need a wider network to help. Invite input from stakeholders Alex worked with and company leaders to help prioritize what’s now on your team’s plate. I would definitely recommend including Alex’s manager in this discussion. I expect they have rich insight into how Alex was approaching the role and would be able to recommend alternatives and options, such as someone with a similar skill set or teams in related domains who can temporarily help share the workload.

I noticed your worry about overburdening others; realistically, everyone in the team will have to show some flexibility with their responsibilities in the short term to keep everything moving forward. This can still be done sustainably; it doesn’t have to be stressful or mean working crazy overtime. Have an open conversation with the team about what responsibilities need picking up and what can wait, and collaborate on short-term ownership of tasks. Make it very clear that help is always available. Encourage people to speak up when they’re stuck and pull others in for collaboration and input.

Setting up for next time

Once things feel steadier, discuss how the team can avoid any similar future situations. People moving on from jobs is a part of life, and while we count on each other at work, it’s wise to have a backup plan. Having someone irreplaceable is more a bug in the team structure than it is a compliment; it means they’re bearing too much weight, and the team lacks resilience as a result. The goal of this conversation is to build that resilience for the future.

Here are some helpful questions and practices to keep front of mind for team resilience:

  • How do team members, but especially domain experts, spread context? Ideally, this is an active, ongoing process that happens naturally. They should take time to share what they’re doing and how, collaborating with and teaching others to deliver it.
  • How are the bigger things communicated and internalized by the team? Goals for the quarter or year, the strategy for achieving them, and the metrics for tracking progress should be easily accessible to everyone, even if they’re not directly involved. Once these elements are made clear across the board, your team won’t be rocked by a departure as all the necessary information and context will be documented. This will help individuals keep the ball rolling or even create new approaches. 
  • Build some slack in the system. If everyone is already maxed out, it’s even harder to pick up extra load or cope well with a surprise like this one. By regularly monitoring workloads, it is possible to achieve an 80% utilization rate of everyone's metaphorical plates, leaving some space for tackling unforeseen challenges. This is particularly important in environments where change is frequent. 
  • T-shaped and agile skill sets; while focus and expertise are important, invest time as a team to build enough understanding of neighboring disciplines. That could look like engineers feeling comfortable with design basics, or product managers participating in the design process, even occasionally pairing with engineers. The objective is not to ensure that every team member is fully replaceable. Instead, it is to foster a broad understanding of different areas of work and cultivate empathy towards different perspectives so that each member is competent in various skill sets. 

Not all of this is necessarily your personal responsibility to implement; here too, don’t hesitate to escalate to the appropriate person and ask for support from your team, manager, and peers.

Final thoughts

Surprises at work are unavoidable. It’s important to be able to navigate them tactically, but also use them as opportunities to emerge stronger in the longer term, both as individuals and as teams. This way, your team can move forward with confidence knowing that they’re in much better stead for the next spanner in the works. 


Do you have a work challenge that you’d like some additional perspective on? Submit it here, and it might feature in a future column. All submissions are edited for anonymity.