The Real Reason you are Losing Your Best Employees and What You can do about it

[An initial note: by “employees” for this article I specifically mean in non-manual labor jobs that require some degree of independent thought. This matters for a host of reasons (mostly related to motivation and compensation). Put differently, my advice would be different when applied to manual labor jobs and/or those simply requiring someone to follow instructions.]

Consultants and management “gurus” give (almost) endless advice in “pop” articles trying to explain why the “best” employees quit:

For every different possible definition of “best” employee or type of company, a consultant or article can justify any of these reasons. I have personally heard all of these from companies and managers who feel like they are losing their “best” people.

When these “great” performers leave, managers usually ask the wrong questions: What did we do “wrong” as an organization? Why can’t we make “great” people fit in our culture? What makes people want to leave?

The real reason is simple: great employees leave because they have a better opportunity elsewhere. You’re probably thinking, “Duh”, right now, or “why did I start reading this stupid article?” But stay with me…

Follow that emotion — no one is forcing you to read this article. You choose to stay to, hopefully, advance your knowledge of management or just out of interest. But you can leave whenever you want because you are not bound to read this article. A brief aside: it would be a particularly odd type of torture to make people read random management articles on the internet for hours on end.

There are plenty of other articles out there for you to read and your desire to finish this one is multi-faceted and often idiosyncratic: you want to finish what you start, you are interested in getting better, so you like reading stuff from little ole me or whoever else is out there.

That is exactly the approach of your best employees to work. They have options and can leave at any time. And they might stay for a whole host of reasons, some rational, some not.

But the best employees have other job opportunities and they may have them on an almost constant basis.

The best employees are not going to struggle to find new employment.

Despite what you often hear about it being a “tough” market, that is a only half-true. The job market is hard for employees if you have an easy-to-train or easy-to-find skill or you are not the best at what you do.

The job market is much harder for employers who need hard-to-train, harder-to-find skills or those who are the very best at what they do.

Take your company’s marketing team.

A few companies have incredible marketing teams with talented designers, consumer behaviorists, social media mavens, and the like. All of those jobs require people with some training. That training is often not cheap or easy to find. So most companies struggle to find enough good marketing professionals with the right skill sets to have the “perfect” department.

So why are we trying — as managers and organizations — to hold on to people who want to move on? And why are we assuming that we are “the problem”?

The truth is that we come to rely on the very best performers — or “stars” as some management consultants like to call them — to carry our organizations. In many organizations, 20% of the workers are doing 80% of the work — that is especially true when you compare management with “revenue producing” roles. And that split usually does not reflect how people are paid.

So when a top performer leaves, we can’t just go out and “get a new one” — as noted earlier, there really is a dearth of top talent, especially in hard-to-train and (by definition) hard-to-find skills.

Management consultants will give you a whole bunch of recommendations on how to fix this.

Pay your best more!

Surround them with other talented people!

Promote them!

Create a culture of winning!

All of those solutions create problems of their own.

Paying your “best” more is, largely, a fool’s errand. Surrounding them with other talented people is hard because of the aforementioned tough market. Promoting them often gets them out of the place where they are most skilled and asks them to manage the lesser-talented people they were likely carrying, akin to making your star quarterback the coach in the middle of his career. And someone needs to explain to me what a culture of “winning” is before I can tell you why it makes no sense.

If we are able to recruit the best talent, we should start with this assumption: we are lucky to have these people and they will leave one day. This assumption should be made on day one. Sounds grim but just like recognizing one’s own mortality, this is a really important first step in structuring real solutions.

Once you realize you WILL lose these talented people, try to figure out the answer to a key question:

How can our organization best use the skills and talent of this person while she is STILL here?

Should she be training others, directly or indirectly? Should we hire people to complement her skill set? How much budget should we re-allocate from other areas to get the most out of her skill set? How will we plan for this person’s eventual departure and what will we look like after she leaves?

Three things will happen if you start with the key question above.

1) You will get more out of your best employees.

2) Your best employees will stay longer and be more loyal (but will still leave).

3) Your best employees will make their teams better and more resilient (and thus better able to handle the loss of an individual member).

The first result should be obvious. The second one, not so much. Why will employees stay longer and be more loyal to an employer who they recognize might leave? Because, as a result of that recognition, the employee is (hopefully) doing her best work and, remarkably, people like doing their best work. It makes them more likely to stay, but they still might leave for their own idiosyncratic reasons.

As a manager, think of who your best people are right now and imagine them turning in their notice today.

Are you prepared for their departure? If the answer is “no”, you may not only lose an employee when she goes; you might also lose your job as well.

Professor. Lawyer. Researcher. Writer. I help people learn to run better, more sustainable businesses and be better humans. Opinions my own.

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