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Keeping top talent when your best leaders leave

4 min read


A few months ago, I interviewed a group of chief human resources officers from major U.S. companies about their top-of-mind people issues for 2012. I was impressed — but not surprised — that employee retention was the common theme throughout regions and throughout industries, although I continue to think that in this era of persistently growing unemployment rates, few are going to be jumping ship anytime soon.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the fact that these CHROs might be jumping ship themselves. I remember one CHRO who headed the people side of a major global company talking with me at great length about a dedicated team she put into place specifically to help keep precious talent on board in an era where the enticement could no longer be money. (No small trick when you’re in the money business, as she was.)

Just a few weeks later, I e-mailed her to double-check a fact. Hello, Mailer Daemon! That little automatic friend we’ve all come to love ever so much bounces my e-mail back to me, with a message disavowing any knowledge of her existence. Poof! Gone.

I was surprised by how surprised I was. She was so committed to getting people to stay. But she left within weeks. Had she already had a high-level round of interviews while discussed retention? Naturally, she has every right to pursue new career opportunities. And she sure wasn’t obligated to come clean with me. But fielding recruiter calls while putting together programs to entice others to commit to the company for the long term just feels a little, shall we say, inconsistent. And if I felt that way — me with absolutely no career skin in this game — I began to wonder how her direct reports, and maybe even the entire staff, reacted to her abrupt pursuit of greener pastures.

Unless we’re talking employment contracts or outright ownership of the enterprise, it would be unfair to expect any leader to stick around when career advancement or life decisions are at stake. Still, if you promote organization loyalty and then skedaddle, what makes you any different from leaders urging employees to buy company stock while unloading their own shares on the sly?

Maybe the solution is all in the planning and messaging:

  • Promote the company as a great career investment, but …
  • Emphasize individual career management and planning — and equip your people with the tools and encouragement to make their career decisions outside any regard for the company’s best interests.
  • Recognize that when a new direct report decides to come onboard, they’re hiring you to be their boss. Don’t leave them in the lurch as you pursue your own career agenda.
  • Figure out a way to equip your core team with the skills they need to carry on in your absence — especially if you really can’t confide in them that you are moving on.
  • Make yourself replaceable while teaching your people to regard their own skills and experiences as valuable and transferable.

We all know better than to imply to anyone who works for us that a job is secure. And most of us know better than to settle in and get complacent with the expectation of steady paychecks. But few of us stop to think that our bosses will voluntarily leave. It’s your job as a leader to make sure your departure doesn’t rip a seam out of the trust fabric you’ve so diligently woven during your tenure there.

That’s probably the most valuable succession plan you can commit to this year.