All Articles Leadership Careers How to lose top talent: Promote ‘em

How to lose top talent: Promote ‘em

4 min read


Being friends with us writer types can be amusing most times. We almost always have at least one story to tell that’s worth a drink, if not a dinner. Here’s the problem: One of these days, the story will be about you. Dollars to doughnuts, make friends with a writer and you’ll eventually be blog fodder.

So let me tell you about a friend of mine. He got promoted. Instead of celebrating, he started looking for a new job. Since he knows that I hang out with HR types, he began with my LinkedIn contacts page. Smart boy. But why the heck did the promotion prompt him to want to schmooze my contacts?

He never liked his job much anyway. And the promotion felt like the sliding slam of yet another deadbolt on the door to a more fulfilling future. Instead of pondering a sweetened paycheck, he started pondering an escape plan.

As your hiring budget might have been slashed in recent years, it’s all the more important to retain your best talent — your stars. How chilling it is to think that the very things you do to incent your best to stay could be the things that will end up chasing them away. Maybe your star wants something else out of life and career. So before you lay the good news on your cherished star, you would do well to consider these questions:

What does the star really want? What reward would be the most meaningful? Maybe not a promotion. Maybe more flexibility. More time off. More training. Or paid tuition. Maybe a transfer to a different business line within your organization. Maybe just more money, please.

Is the star ready for all the things that the promotion entails? The classic example of this disconnect is the individual contributor who jumps to manager. Maybe the star really loves doing the work and is not so crazy about watching over other people doing those beloved tasks. A promotion is usually more than just more money. It represents additional responsibility, different responsibility, often a new circle of peers, and the moving away from the work that has made that star shine. Is that really what both of you want?

Is there another star who would appreciate that promotion more? Let’s say you have multiple stars. But only one promotion opportunity. Another one of those stars (say, star A-, as opposed to the star A+ you’re thinking about right now) might have really appreciated that promotion. So while promoted star A+ is e-mailing me about my LinkedIn contacts list, star A- has also started looking for a new job. So you stand to lose two (or more) when all this time you thought you were doing something really great for someone who deserved the nod and career boost.

Maybe the best way to keep a star is to set up an exit strategy. I once took a full-time job with the understanding that I’d be out exactly a year later (my choice and terms, by the way). It was understood that the company would also be my first client in my new self-employed life, and I’d have the flexibility to establish the foundations of my little enterprise during those 12 months. That worked out very nicely. And the fact that I was counting the months didn’t take away from the quality of my work for the company.

Not everyone wants the same thing to keep them excited, attached and helping your company hit its objectives. But we all want one foundational experience with the people we work for and with — to be seen and known as individuals with our own needs and motivations. Find out what those drives are one person at a time, and you’ll keep your stars in your constellation for as long as it makes sense to both of you.