The text, “Chuck is having chest pains,” came at about 11:30 a.m. from someone in the production department.

I found Chuck downstairs, sitting in a chair, drained. I said: “You’re not looking so good.” He explained that it was “just indigestion.” I said: “We’re taking you to the hospital now.” By the time we got Chuck — who was in his mid-50s — to the emergency room, he was gone.

These things happen when you run a business. Not often, but they do. I liked Chuck — he had worked for our company a long time — and he did a great job. A day or two later, it hits you: He’s not here. What now? Does that tear a hole in the organization?

Taking Charge

It could. Here’s what happens: Everyone walks around in shock, each going through his or her own emotions. They don’t know what they’re supposed to do.

First thing, call a meeting. We announced funeral plans and gave people the opportunity to take time off. Next came the hard part: finding someone to take Chuck’s place as head of the production department. In the meantime, the general manager was running production. We called the department together; then we put a plan in place.

I used to wonder which was more important: the person’s talent or the systems and processes attached to the position? What I now know is that they’re equally important. You need someone specific — in this case technically proficient — who can order products, hire and manage crews, and inspect jobs. That person also needs to know what’s expected and when. Fortunately, every part of Chuck’s job was documented. If those systems and processes had not been written down, the job would have fallen to me until I could train someone to do it.

Set up for Success

In addition to a detailed job description, we had someone on staff who had managed a crew for years and knew production. He wanted the position. He had all the motivation in the world to succeed. But the job involved a fair amount of computer work, and he had no experience with our specialized software. So, recognizing that he could do the job but lacked expertise in one or two areas, we coached him through that. What a lot of companies do is hire someone, provide them with a list of responsibilities, and leave them be. That’s a mistake because sooner or later that new hire is going to hit an area about which he has no knowledge. When that happens — when he encounters some difficulty and his commitment waivers — someone needs to be there to show him how to do it. The result: the employee’s competence increases.

The problem for small-business owners is that we tend to either micromanage people or delegate everything. There’s no in between. And so when something like Chuck’s heart attack happens, we’re not ready for it.

—Scott Siegal owns Maggio Roofing, in Takoma Park, Md., and is president of Certified Contractors Network, a membership organization promoting best practices.