A great member of your team just came to you with an unexpected resignation. I’m sure you’re somewhere between being upset that you’re being deserted and worried about what you are going to do to handle that person’s contributions. Maybe you’re even more concerned that this will be the start of an avalanche—how many more people are thinking about leaving?
Take a deep breath. If you’re successful, this is a scenario you’ll experience many times in your career. It always hurts when a key contributor leaves, but there are ways to deal with it that can ease the pain.
Here are my recommendations for when you hear that you’re about to lose someone who means a lot to the organization:
Find out why they are leaving. Are they running away from something or running toward something? Do they have their heads on straight regarding the situation?
• I always use additional compensation as a last resort, as it’s usually not compensation that makes them want to leave.
• If you can fix it, is the person mature enough to recommit and be wholly engaged? You only want people on board who are fully engaged.
If you decide they are salvageable, still do a gut check and make sure you’re not getting gamed. Sometimes people use the threat of leaving as a way to angle for more money. Unfortunately, people sometimes do disingenuous things.
Be very careful not to build an entitlement culture where people think if they threaten to quit, they become eligible for a promotion. That makes costs go crazy and makes you powerless. Reserve the times you are willing to get gamed for 1% of the employee population—the true talent—not 30-50% of the people who are trying to get a better offer. Only go through heroics for the true stars. Everyone knows what’s happening and you have to be careful about how they see you responding. If not, soon everyone will be at your door with a counter offer and request for a raise and promotion. How can you tell what’s what? Probe where they are going, then tell them that it sounds like a great opportunity and that if it doesn’t work out, they are welcome to come back.
If they will definitely be leaving, can you negotiate a transition plan that is beneficial for both of you? Can you get their agreement to help out in a pinch even if they are in a new job?
Treat them with respect and dignity on the way out. Celebrate their contributions and let them know they are welcome back if things don’t work out where they are going.
But remember, you need to celebrate the people who stay and do good work as much as—or more than—the folks that leave. Several times I’ve heard people say they only received recognition when they left (the squeaky wheel gets all the oil syndrome), which leads to very bad cultural dynamics.
• Make sure the team knows that the departing person will be missed, but talk about the actions you and they can take to ensure that the company will still achieve its dreams.
• Recognize that this is a great opportunity for someone else to step up and get a promotion.
Finally, look back and assess whether this was a surprise. Did you see it coming? Make it a point to proactively know where all your key talents’ heads are and work hard to keep them motivated and in the game.
I know it’s a big loss and a big hassle to have to deal with a key hire departing, but, it’s totally normal and manageable. Get through the pain quickly and elegantly, and get yourself back to terra firma as fast as possible.