What Lessons Can You Learn from Losing Your Top Employee?

Posted on March 2, 2012.

A former co-worker recently resigned after 16 years of undying loyalty to the company that hired him right out of college. To say his departure caused shock waves would be an understatement. Matt was very well liked, extremely talented, a natural leader and loved the company. So what went wrong?

After eliminating Matt’s current position due to consolidation, the company offered him another job they felt sure he would love.  And after consistently stellar performance throughout his career, they gave him all of 24 hours to accept it.  He didn’t. His resignation received a ton of attention from some very senior people, all asking, “how could this happen?” Here’s how:

  • They were arrogant.  It was completely unfathomable to the people making the decision that someone would not accept what was offered. After all, it was a similar grade level with no relocation required.  Forget the fact that it was in an area that Matt had no interest in and did not play to his strengths.  Would he have been successful? Of Course. Was this the best use of his talent? Absolutely not.  The decision makers were unquestioning in their view of the opportunity.  Any decision you make without an objective view is dangerous.
  • They lacked effective communication.  Not one of Matt’s strategic partners was consulted before the decision was made.  Not one of the senior executives who had a much longer experience working with Matt was consulted before decisions were made.  This omission was bad enough, but when Matt was given the 24 hours to make his decision, he was explicitly told NOT to communicate with any of these executives. These were people he admired and whose counsel would have been invaluable before his resignation was finalized. If the silos had disappeared long eneough to make a more informed decision, the outcome may have been different.
  • They took their employees for granted.  It’s unfortunate, but the recent economic climate has caused too many leaders to assume that their top employees have nowhere to go.  Let’s be clear. Top talent ALWAYS has somewhere to go.  It’s the mediocre talent that you’re stuck with even in the best of job markets.  It should’ve been no surprise to anyone that Matt had an offer in hand from a top competitor. If they’re smart, these leaders will take notice of other top talent in the organization and stop taking them for granted.
  • They let perception trump reality.  As we recently spoke about in our "Linsanity" blog, too often people are pigeonholed into roles they long ago outgrew. Matt was hired out of college. During his 16 years with the company, he received his MBA from a top tier program, established strategic dialogue with CEOs and centers of influence, became a formal and informal leader within the organization and was a top performer. And yet, too many people had the perception that Matt was too young, too inexperienced, too nice, etc.  The people making decisions about his career never took the time to really get to know Matt.  They let their perceptions rule their decision-making.

For the company he left, Matt’s departure should be a wake up call.  Whether it is or not, only time will tell.  Hopefully, other organizations can learn from their mistakes.