Why losing a high performer on your team can be good
Part of being a ‘Superboss’ is recognizing high performers will leave your team
A member of my team announced she is leaving. Not just any member, but a high performing Solutions Engineer with huge potential in this field. It stung a lot a first — great SEs are hard to find — but after the initial I shock I thought about what this means for me and our team. It can be easy to see the loss of a key team member as a personal defeat. Why is she leaving? I could have been a better manager. What did I do wrong?
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want great people to leave my team. I do want, though, what is best for them, the company and me. Here’s why losing a great member of your team can be a good thing.
This is part of being a manager of a high performing team — embrace it
If you are going to be in the business of being a leader, people will eventually leave your team. If you are going to be in the business of being a leader of a high performing team, it’s even more likely that a high performer will leave (and it will initially sting when they do).
People leaving your team isn’t as bad as it may first sound. As Sydney Finkelstein writes in Superbosses, “Attrition is not nearly as damaging as you think. When key people leave, we have a choice: either watch them from the sidelines or participate in their upside.” Embrace their departure and help them with the next chapter in their careers.
A related concept is noted by Laszlo Bock in Work Rules: Insights from Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead, “The proof that you are hiring well is that nine out of ten new hires are better than you are.” If nine out of ten are better than you are, it’s not unreasonable that some of those nine might someday move on. That’s a part of hiring and leading a strong team.
This doesn’t mean everything is rainbows and unicorns and that you can just let people leave without having thought the possibility through in advance. As you open yourself up to the possibilities of churn, protect yourself by ensuring succession plans are in place, but don’t take a passive-aggressive stance and make them feel bad about leaving.
Relish that members of your team are off to bigger and better things — it can benefit you
“Nobody likes it when their best employees leave, superbosses don’t fear attrition. On the contrary, most regard the departure of their very best talent as a natural stage of growth and something to be accepted, if not warmly embraced,” comments Professor Finkelstein.
The Solutions Engineer who is leaving my team is going on to a leadership position in the Professional Services Group at EnerNOC; having a strong alum of our team in another group we closely work with will ultimately benefit us. Now, if an employee were to leave your team and the company, that can still be a positive. A big part of your legacy as a leader is not just the immediate team you lead, but the broader ecosystem of stars you are developing. This is another key concept in Superbosses. Professor Finkelstein writes, “When superbosses see their employees shine, they feel it reflects positively on them as leaders. If their employees gain a public reputation for brilliance, then it will be easier to recruit more employees like them.”
“This is the business we have chosen”
Godfather: Part II is a great movie for many reasons. A key one is the scene between Michael Corleone and Hyman Roth when Michael accuses Hyman of giving the go ahead to have Frank Pantangeli killed. Hyman responds by telling the story of how his friend Moe Greene was killed, but Hyman didn’t ask questions about who ordered the hit. “I let it go…and I said to myself, this is the business we have chosen.”
I’m not suggesting being a business leader is like being in the mafia, but I am suggesting every leader needs to come to grips with that fact that “this is the business we have chosen.” Great people will join your team; great will leave your team. Great things will happen and bad things will undoubtedly eventually turn up. Your valuable time will at some point feel wasted because an initiative you put a great deal of time into doesn’t pan out. This is the business we have chosen. You don’t want ‘bad’ things to happen? Don’t choose to go the route of becoming a leader.
This particular line resonates with me for a personal reason. I had my butt chewed once by the Commanding General of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing. He happened to be in a nearby aircraft one day and saw me perform an aggressive flight maneuver he didn’t like. The ensuing call over the radio was unmistakable, “Tiger 16, come see me as soon as you land.” Not the kind of thing you want to hear. After landing, my immediate Executive Officer, Squadron Commanding Officer and Group Commanding Officer all stood at the positon of attention while the General proceeded to let me have it. Not fun. The Group Commander (a Colonel) pulled me aside afterwards offered a pick-me-up. “You want to be a Marine pilot? Get used to flying hard, and get used to the moments when you get called on the carpet about it.” This is the business we have chosen.
“Make the development of next generation leaders a primary activity and expectation for managers, even with the knowledge that, yes, these leaders will likely go elsewhere at some point. You never do know how much departing employees may help you one day.” Well said, Professor Finkelstein.
Embrace the challenges that come with being a leader. Don’t be upset when someone eventually leaves your team. It can be a good thing.