When someone wants to leave: 5 steps to help them make the right decision

A manager’s job involves many aspects of helping team members through their entire lifecycle at an organization – hiring, onboarding, setting expectations, developing, performing, growing, promoting (perhaps), and even exiting.

It is tough news to hear when a team member wants to leave. Sometimes, it is expected and, sometimes, it is a complete surprise. We may think that we did something wrong or they didn’t see all the potential that could have been.

I have been in both situations where I was expecting the person to find another opportunity and when the person found another opportunity that was a complete shock. Whether you are prepared or not, it can be difficult. 1) You may be genuinely disappointed that the person is leaving 2) You may immediately turn to thinking about whether you can backfill this job 3) You may think will this spur others to start looking or wonder why someone was unhappy.

Most people are not comfortable having candid conversations about how unhappy they are and, especially, if they are getting ready to look outside or are entertaining another offer. There may be things you can do to help people make an informed decision about leaving an organization. The result might be the same but there are some things you can do to help your team member make a truly informed decision.

  1. Be transparent.
    I have worked for several organizations and a common practice among all of them is to “hide” talent planning information. Someone gets identified as a high-potential employee but they never know it. Someone may be flagged as a potential successor to a leader but they never hear a word about it. If someone is an outstanding employee, don’t let this be a secret. Tell them they are being considered as a successor and work with them on an action plan to close any gaps in knowledge, skills or experience to be ready to move into that new role. When you keep this information unshared, talented people may feel they have no path and may seek another opportunity without even knowing they were being groomed for something big at their current company.
  2. Provide feedback and help them grow.
    I have written about delivering and accepting feedback. This is a critical part of a manager-employee relationship. When it is missing, no one knows how they are doing, where they may need to grow or what they can do differently or keep doing to be viewed as a high-performing employee. To retain good employees, feedback and development are usually the reason why people say they leave. Top reasons people leave are lack of career path and their manager. These two elements go hand in hand. We may think that lack of career path is the organization’s fault. This is partially true but the manager plays a key role in helping people know where they stand and how they can grow.
  3. Proactively have career conversations.
    A close cousin to development conversations are actual career conversations. There are many tools and assessments to help people understand their strengths, values and interests to determine where they want to go. I firmly believe it is the employee’s responsibility to initiate and ask for these conversations. However, if this initiative isn’t taken, I believe the manager should ask the employee to start thinking about their career and ask thoughtful questions about where they want to go. I have read in many exit interviews that my manager never had a career conversation with me. While the employee should take the lead in driving their career, the manager should be ready to engage in those conversations and even open the door for a more timid employee to make it okay to talk about career options.
  4. Be a talent broker.
    Another important role a manager can play includes connecting employees to other opportunities if they feel like they have outgrown their role or want to try something new. Some managers feel their team is THEIR team. But, really, they are enterprise employees….working for and with the entire organization. As a manager, you should want to retain a good employee even if that means they move into a new group or department. Help your team connect to other employees and other groups to learn more about other possible paths. Sometimes, an employee may come forward and state that they love the company but feel they are ready for something new. This is your cue, as a manager, to help them figure this out. Losing someone to another company because the manager didn’t want to lose good talent from their team is what we call “a regrettable loss”.
  5. Keep lines of communication open.
    Above all, have frequent conversations about your team about their roles, attitudes, feelings toward the group, their places in it, what else they need to be engaged and support their career paths. When lines are shut down or an employee doesn’t seek to have a conversation could be a bad sign. Frequent contact should help a manager decipher feelings and indicate whether someone may be disengaged or looking.

Even when practicing all of the actions above, someone talented may still end up leaving the organization. If this happens, take this as a time to reflect. Reflect on what else could have been done to keep them. Reflect on whether the role is at the right level, with the right oversight and right level of authority. This is a chance to look at your team to make sure people and work is aligned correctly. There is a chance to see if you hired at the right level and worked to establish potential career paths for people.

It can be a crushing blow to lose someone but it can also yield a fresh perspective to improve the team and how you all work together.

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