How One Company Lost An “A” Player and What You Can Do to Avoid It

When Courtney told her manager she was leaving, every senior leader she had worked with in the company pulled her into their office asking what it would take to change her mind. One even said she could “write her own ticket” and he would make it happen.

The only ticket Courtney wanted, though, was her ticket out.

Courtney wasn’t just one of the 66% of millennials who report expecting to leave their employer by 2020 or the 25% who expect to leave within a year, according to The 2016 Deloitte Millennial Survey: Winning over the next generation of leaders.

Courtney was the kind of person employers hunger for. She’s the kind of employee that smart employers invest tremendous sums of time, energy, and money recruiting. She’s a self-starter, she’s passionate about her work, she is a pleasure to work with, and she’s great at what she does.

And now she’s working someplace else.

Her story is a cautionary tale for all employers, but especially for those whose viability or competitive advantage is highly dependent on hard-to-fill, high value, knowledge worker positions where a superstar provides geometrically more value to their employer than an average performer (think software developer or salesperson).

The Backstory

Courtney started out working at her former employer in its marketing department. She soon became the “Go To” social media expert. However, management in this department showed no interest in her professional development or working with her to expand her impact. The human resources department did appreciate her talent and asked her to work for them.

Soon, Courtney became the HR department’s one-person marketing agency for all recruitment efforts.

She had found her sweet spot. She loved what she was doing, she was great at it, and they loved her.

As her work became more visible in the company, the department involved in employee engagement requested her to contribute to their initiatives. While she loved recruitment, engagement didn’t have the same energizing effect. Her passion started to diminish, slowly being offset by frustration.

Six months later, without her input, she was reassigned to the engagement department.

Courtney was stunned, “I said ‘What do you mean I’m being reassigned? I didn’t ask for this? I love recruitment!”

Then she started to worry about what this reassignment might really mean.

Maybe they were trying to get rid of me, she wondered.

She had recently returned from maternity leave and had negotiated for a measure of work-from-home flexibility,  for which she had to fight hard. Maybe this new assignment reflected management’s displeasurEmployee engagemente with her request?

She also wondered why no one bothered to ask her whether she wanted the new position, or whether she felt like it was the best way to use her talents. Clearly, her input or well-being was not a major concern.

While she liked her new boss, she saw her new role as the “project manager peon” where she was shuttled from project to project, with no clear career path, no way to really make a difference, and no chance to grow her personal brand, all things that millennials value highly.

The Result: An Active Jobseeker

With this new development, Courtney went from a passionately engaged, dream employee to someone looking for a new opportunity. She started looking for an employer who would show interest in, and respect for, her. She wanted to find an employer who would give her an opportunity to make the best use of her talents — a major factor in employee engagement — and where she would make a difference, another huge driver of employee engagement.

When she got a job offer, for a substantially higher salary, she announced her departure.

That’s when multiple leaders implored her to stay and she was invited to “write her own ticket.”

At that point, Courtney says her inside voice said “Whatever…”

She had lost interest in working for people who had shown no interest in her, no interest in what she wanted, no interest in utilizing her talents in ways that made the biggest impact, and no interest in helping her grow professionally.

Loss of Trust

There’s another wrinkle to this story that adds to the cautionary tale.

Given the fact that she was invited to “write her own ticket” and had multiple senior leaders imploring her to stay, one might suspect she would have thought, “I guess they DO care about me and value me,” and then requested a substantial salary increase, and a position with responsibilities that made best use of her talents.

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She didn’t. She just tuned them out.

Why?

She no longer trusted leadership.

She no longer trusted them because just prior to having her moved from the recruitment team to the engagement team without her input, leadership had assured that the organizational changes being implemented would not affect the recruitment team.

There were no explanations, no apologies for going back on their word.

When it comes to managing employees, EVERYTHING MATTERS. Every decision, every interaction, every example of poor communication has an impact on employee engagement, employee loyalty, and what employees believe about leadership and their employer.

Leadership’s betrayal and lack of communication about why they reversed their position had a huge impact on Courtney’s reaction to their pleas for her to stay.

That, combined with how hard she had to fight for some work-at-home flexibility during the end of her difficult pregnancy and after her baby’s birth, made her fear that if she did stay, once they knew they “had her,” they would renege on their agreement and now, with a baby to support, she would be stuck.

How This Could Have Been Avoided

Here are a few of the most important things management could have done to have avoided this unwanted and unnecessary loss of talent:

  • Engage employees — especially the mission-critical, hard-to-replace ones — in ongoing conversations about:
    • How happy they are about their jobs.
    • If they believe their talents are being maximized (think Strengths-Based Leadership and Gallup’s Q12).
    • Their professional development interests and how you can work together to make those happen.
    • Who they are as human beings, as individuals — their interests, their hobbies, their personal life (within limits, of course), and their hopes and dreams. This is uber-critical with millennials.
  • Communicate, and demonstrate through actions, that leadership at all levels wants — NEEDS — their candid feedback and input on:
    • How happy they are about their jobs.
    • What their manager is doing that helps bring out the best in them.
    • What their manager can be doing differently that would help bring out the best in them.
    • Obstacles that get in the way of them performing at their best.
    • What the organization as a whole can do to become even more of an employer of choice and a talent magnet.
    • Invest in communication skills training so managers understand how to make it psychologically safe for people with less power, their direct reports, to speak up and manage up.
  • Involve employees in decisions that affect their daily work — especially when that involves changing their work through a new job assignment.
  • Show an active interest in employee’s well-being and professional development.
    • Make this a regular part of your ongoing conversations.
    • Work with them to find opportunities to have the types of experiences that will enable them to grow their skill portfolio in ways they desire and in ways that help them provide more value. (Note the phrase “work with them.” This is the responsibility of both the manager and the employee).
    • Show genuine interest in who they are as a complete person. Our hobbies, interests, and personal lives are hugely important to each of us. When others show interest in us, and not only in what we produce, we are FAR more likely to care about them, what they think, and what they want.
  • If situations change and you need to renege on a promise or position, don’t ignore the fact that you just went back on your word.
    • Communicate authentically and openly your regret. Let employees see that you didn’t do this lightly.
    • Explain the Why. To paraphrase Nietzsche, “Employees can handle just about any WHAT, if they understand the WHY.”