When your best employees leave – be happy

Posted on January 10, 2014


I started this post several months ago but now – with the new year and some changes going on at Collective Content – it feels more relevant than ever.

Why would anyone be happy when their best people walk out the door?

Over about a decade as a manager I had that sinking feeling on a couple of dozen occasions – it wasn’t just someone good leaving but someone great, someone deemed irreplaceable, even.

They knew it too. Often I wasn’t even their direct manager but they were good enough to come and tell me too, face to face. Sure, they sometimes couldn’t make eye contact at that moment but they did the stand-up thing. I remember every time it happened. Boomerang staff

Bad is good?

But the more I thought of it, the more I learnt it wasn’t such a bad thing. As the years went by I even prepared the best people to leave. Here are my reasons why:

1. Let people grow, let people go. Great employees, assuming they’re not at the pinnacle of their career, will need to grow. That can’t always happen in the company where they work. Ideally it will, for many years, but often it won’t. The worst thing a manager can do is then try to hold someone back, perhaps even by convincing them they don’t warrant a great career elsewhere or no one else would be interested.

Solution: Talk openly about next moves. Show your best people you want them to succeed as people, not just as staff. In the majority of cases great people stayed longer because they felt the company had their interest at heart. And we did. The goodbye handshakes were always hard but felt right.

2. It’s the elephant in the room. You know that bit in formal HR reviews, perhaps the bit that feels most fake, when a company asks someone Where do you see yourself in five years’ time? Five years is a long time. Who thinks they will be at the same employer? But which employee talks about being somewhere else? This topic shouldn’t just be broached at an awkward once-a-year moment. It’s also arguably beats telling your manager: “Where will I be? Doing your job.”

Solution: Don’t just talk about medium- or long-term career goals in formal reviews.

3. The best people come back. Sometimes you genuinely can’t move someone along into a new role, whether more senior or not. Sometimes leaving the fold is the only option. But that doesn’t mean they won’t grow elsewhere. On a number of occasions, the best people are people you end up working with again. If your company is good enough to hold on to you, then those staff, three or five years down the line, will be great boomerang employees.

Solution: Always leave the door open for a returnee. Keep in touch as they make their way – seek to work with them again, even if you yourself move on.

To dissuade a key staffer from moving, maybe by not telling them how good they are… well, that just feels wrong. Get this right and you and the best people you work with will be winners over the long term, over whole careers.

*photo credit: BruceTurner via photopin cc

Follow Tony on Twitter – @tphallett

Posted in: Uncategorized, Work