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Leadership Thought #438 – Good People WILL Leave Your Organization

April 26, 2018

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I am always annoyed by the uncaring business owner stereotype who only views people as assets to be managed and discarded as needed.  Every client I work with cares deeply about their employees.  They struggle with termination decisions and often hold on to underperforming employees far too long.  On quite a few occasions, I’ve witnessed leaders get too wrapped up in an employee’s personal problems and exercise questionable personnel management judgment as a result.  Moreover, whenever an average or better employee leaves for another opportunity, they take it too personally and feel a sense of betrayal.  I’ve spent many hours talking to CEOs who are pained by the loss of someone who has worked with them for a while and decided to leave.  In addition, during times of struggle, I’ve seen many CEOs forego their own pay for extended periods of time rather than lay employees off because they feel a personal responsibility towards them and their families.   Small business owners are quite different from corporate executives when it comes to valuing their people even though the media likes to lump everyone into one big category.

If you employ people, the reality is that employees will come and go.  It is extremely rare that someone will take the entire business journey with you (or that you should want them to).   A good company still experiences 10-15% turnover each year.  One of my old bosses once told me that “The only certainty he had was that he was there at the beginning and would be there until he sells the business or hands off the reigns to someone.  More than likely, about everyone else will come and go at some point.   All you can do is strive to maximize the mutual benefit of the employer-employee relationship while they are here. You want to create an environment where good people want to stay, but accept the fact they will eventually leave, often for reasons beyond your control.”  At the time I thought this was a bit cynical, but I see his wisdom more clearly many years later (Note: I left).

I heard recently that the current generation of young employees will change jobs 11-14 times in their lifetime and have 5-7 completely different careers.  The era of lifetime employment in one company is long gone.  In America, all employees are potentially free agents and that is a good thing.  We are supposed to be a nation that promulgates individual liberty and personal freedom.  Sure, less skilled employees have fewer options in a knowledge economy, but good talent at any level will always have options.  The goal of any business leader should be to become an employer of choice that attracts top-notch people and creates such a positive work environment that it makes it a difficult professional choice for them to leave.  However, they will still leave, just at a slower pace.  In my experience there are several reasons why good people leave that are beyond your control:

  • A fantastic opportunity that is several steps beyond what you can offer them;
  • They feel they’ve gone as far as they can go in your organization given the work realities above them (and they are right);
  • Major changes in their personal life which make the current situation untenable;
  • A genuine interest in exploring a completely different career path;
  • A burning desire to start their own business and become an entrepreneur themselves;
  • Taking advantage of an opportunity to join an existing family business;
  • You’ve outgrown their capabilities and they are smart enough to know it;
  • They no longer want to put forth the personal effort to embrace the changes necessary to keep the business competitive.  Keeping your edge long-term can be hard work and people tend to burn out;
  • A growing sense that they are no longer a fit with the changing cultural dynamics and an unwillingness to adapt to make this work;
  • You’ve had success with growing the organization and they prefer to work in a smaller business environment.


When good people leave for these reasons, try to accept it as the natural course of employing human beings.  Do your best not to burn any bridges and make them feel good about the time you spent together.  Some may even cycle back later or refer others to your organization.   In terms of non-performers or individuals who are stuck in their ways and/or resistant to change, make the choices for them!  Most of my clients wait far too long to fire someone who deserves it.  Not everyone deserves the best of what you have to offer.  All employees aren’t created equal, and you will hold on to your top performers much longer if you get rid of the problem employees sooner.