Never let a great staff member go (until they want to leave)

I’ve led and managed hundreds of staff over my career, and I’ve been privileged to work with some outstanding people, who also turned out to be outstanding human beings. Who knew!

That said, like most business owners, I’ve also had to endure some employee relationships that were, how can I say this kindly, less than optimal.

When you deal with employee situations that are trying, it really does help you appreciate those staff members that not only have the right mindset but who also show the right levels of company loyalty, customer service and a ‘can do’ attitude. It’s very gratifying.

For these people though, it’s equally as important that you don’t either take them for granted or (worse) over-burden or stress them out because of the ineptitude of others. Much better to raise the bar for the under-performers than to expect your ‘champions’ to always pick up the slack.

Mr Mayor

Managing staff in a growing business is one thing that’s undoubtedly going to test your mettle over time. The reason for this is that, although you’ll get better at it, no one ever really masters it. There are just too many moving parts to always be in control of everything. Better to accept that, while you’re endeavouring to always do the right thing (both for your business and your employees, although there are sometimes conflicts here too), stuff occasionally gets in the way that you just need to deal with.

I remember that when my staff levels were at their peak, I felt more like the Mayor of a small town than the CEO of a public company. It seemed like every day there was a ‘staff’ related issue to deal with that got in the way of trying to run the business. Sometimes that’s just the way it is. Speaking with other CEOs I found that it was exactly the same for them too.

However, even if the majority of your time is spent dealing with staff issues such as ‘sub optimal’ performance or other behavioural or attitudinal problems (more about this in a later blog), every once in a while you’ll altogether have a different problem to deal with; one of your ‘top’ people wants to leave.

I remember when I first started my own business. I took everything very seriously. I wanted everything to be done ‘properly’ and every situation to be managed in the ‘right way’, so customers would think we were a ‘real’ company and that we had integrity and presence.

So, you can imagine how I felt the first time one of my ‘prize’ employees decided that it was about time that they worked somewhere else. I was mortified. I took it so personally. I didn’t sleep properly for days and I was a complete pain in the arse to be around. I literally could not understand why anyone would want to leave.

I then went into full-on sales mode and spent every waking hour plotting to see if I could come up with some ‘offer they couldn’t refuse’ in order to try and get them to stay.

Guess what? It didn’t work. After all the time and energy spent trying to get them to remain in the business, they left anyway, shortly afterwards.

Learning, always learning

When I’d calmed down (it took a while), I realised what an idiot I’d been. I learnt a tremendous amount about the owner/employee dynamic from this episode, not to mention what I learned about myself. Here are the take-aways that have stayed with me ever since;

  • Always expect the unexpected. Staff may have a hundred reasons why life may change for them, any one of which may necessitate in them needing to move on. You probably won’t be aware of any of these reasons at any time.
  • Never allow your business to become too dependent upon one or a small group of people. You’re just setting yourself up for failure and disappointment further down the road, not to mention it’s inefficient.
  • To you, your business is everything, to your employees it’s just a job. They may be very good at what they do for you but, ultimately, after a while they may want a different challenge, or maybe even want to start their own shop. Understand and accept this.
  • Never expect any employee to be with you for more than 3 years. This is a good rule of thumb in my view. If you have this thought in the back of your mind, anything extra is a bonus, but subconsciously you’ll be prepared for them to potentially leave, and, you should plan for what will happen if they do. Well in advance.
  • Once an employee has made a decision to move on never try and tempt them to stay. This is a biggie. Not only is it futile to do this but you’ll also show your hand to other, less scrupulous employees, who now know what may be on offer if they push your buttons. Sad but true.

Ever since that first unfortunate event, whenever any employee has given me the ‘bad news’ my answer has always been the same; ‘Well, I understand that you have to do what’s right for you. Thanks for spending time with us, and I hope you have fun in your next role.’

It’s hard not to take it personally when a trusted and ‘good’ employee wants to leave, but this is a part of business life. Learn to understand that you can’t control it and then learn to plan for the eventuality that it will definitely happen someday.

This way, employees will understand that you care but respect the fact that you know that jobs and circumstances change over time. C’est la vie.


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