The best talent can go wherever they want. They have options.
They also have needs, because the best talent normally has lots of drive and at minimum a loose plan of what they want their career and life to be.
As a leader and/or manager, it’s our job to learn about a person’s needs and help create a path to facilitate work that not only aligns with the goals of the organization but also with each person’s growth and learning goals.
My people-focused KPI was “A-player voluntary turnover” with a goal of zero percent. That means we never wanted someone excellent to make the choice to leave the company. Ever.
Note that an all-in turnover % of zero was not the target. If the company is managing effectively and holding people accountable, there should always be some turnover. It’s usually involuntary, meaning you asked people to leave, and a low % or you are hiring carelessly.
Companies are not families bound by blood forever, they are teams. And on a team, the folks who are not willing to do the work to level up their skills to meet the needs of the role will have to have their position changed, at best, or be asked to leave the team, at worst.
The superstars, however, are yours to lose. They can play on whatever team they want because everyone needs them. Many times they can or want to play in changing roles as well. Remember, they play for much more than the paycheck.
They come to work for learning, leveling up, the joy of working with other great people and the satisfaction of solving challenges that are meaningful. The paycheck needs to be fair, but maxing the short term comp is almost never the primary driver. Those are the outputs.
The inputs are their time, energy, focus and the opportunity cost of focusing solely on your company or set of challenges.
Even when you as the manager spend the appropriate amount of time listening and learning about what they need and doing the hard work of aligning a person’s goals with the company’s goals over time, you will still, unfortunately, lose some of them.
This normally happens when the next step for the employee’s growth, learning or desired experience can’t be delivered by the company, role or the manager. Many times, if the company or department is not creating opportunity, growing or changing quickly, great talent will find themselves frustrated around the 2- or 3-year mark if their role can’t evolve any further. More often, great talent may find themselves reporting to a manager who can’t make them better, isn’t actively pathing them or may be sitting in the role that the talent may want (or deserve) next. A ton of research (google it) shows people leave managers much more often than they leave companies, and I’d agree from experience. It only takes a few months of ignoring someone’s needs for them to potentially get restless.
Either way, great talent will give notice and it’s usually months, not weeks. In hindsight, many times they’ve also let you see it coming by subtly dropping hints along the way. The superstars usually have a high EQ and self-awareness. They also care about doing their best in all aspects, including finishing strong, while leaving the role and the team better than they found it. That last bit will make you miss them, even more, when they are gone.
I have worked in environments where once someone says they need to continue their career climb somewhere else, even when handled appropriately, the leadership takes it personally and people feel ostracized in their final weeks, ending their run as a de facto enemy of the state or feeling like a traitor. That’s so wrong and selfish on the part of leadership and it makes me angry.
If a talented person spends 2 to 3 years of their career investing their time into making your company or team better, when they decide it’s time for them to transition, the leaders should say “thank you” and backup their gratitude with their actions – after trying to get them to stay (probably a few times), of course.
To reinforce my appreciation, I used to throw a pizza party during a person’s final weekly company-wide meeting and offer words of encouragement, a hug and a thank you to make sure that the team knew we valued and celebrated their contribution. It was a goofy, but personal, many times emotional and very much us. (We even had Chuck. E. Cheese come hand-deliver terrible pizzas one time.)
Not everyone who left got that pizza party, but it was usually clear to the broader team when a body of work had earned someone the pizzas. The folks who got the party were a showcase for what a great teammate looked like and reinforced how we not only appreciated their talent but also recognized the privilege of them sharing a meaningful slice of their career with us. (See what I did there?)
If reading this makes you think of certain people on your team, do everything you can to give them a path that meets their needs and the company needs while you still can. It’s your job to figure out what that actually looks like and everyone has different skill, ambitions and communication styles. That’s the only way to keep your best for any meaningful amount of time.
And, if and when it’s time for them to tackle challenges that you or your company can’t offer, make sure you thank them genuinely and act accordingly – whatever that means to you and your culture. They deserve it.
The privilege to work with them was yours. How you handle their exit is also a reflection of your values and leadership to the team that remains.
ps – The links are probably only amusing to me, but this post almost got so damn serious 😐