Nothing will make a manager’s heart sink faster than hearing their star performer say, “I need to talk to you sometime today.”
Because in a lot of cases, that little sentence means you’re about to hear that the person you depend on most is about to leave your team.
So what do you do when a top performer from your team gives you their 2 weeks notice?
It can be an incredibly difficult and overwhelming time; you start to wonder what you did wrong to make them want to leave, and at the same time you begin to worry how their work items will get done once they’re gone.
It’s a lot to process. Which is why today I want to share a quick guide to handling the news and the aftermath when your star performer quits.
First things first: you don’t want to convince them to stay
Before we go into the tactical stuff, I just want to address a really common first reaction to hearing your star performer say they are leaving: trying to convince them to stay.
Your first instinct upon hearing a top performer is getting ready to leave is likely to be, “Well, what can I do to make you stay?”
But unfortunately, this instinct will almost never go the way you hope it will.
By the time a person is telling you they are giving you their two weeks notice, they have already made a decision. They are already gone. They have decided to leave; so while this information is new to you and still feels negotiable, to them it is something they’ve already thought through and decided they wanted.
So if you do convince them to stay, the bad karma that brought them to the decision that they wanted to leave will always still be there. They will have already thought about all the reasons why it is good to leave your team, and they can’t un-think or un-feel those things. And that will temper their experience and their interaction with you for the rest of their time with you.
They’ll get discouraged and disengaged faster than other people, and they still might leave anyways after a little while, even if you do convince them to stay by offering them more money or other perks. It’s a short term fix that rarely lasts or works out well for either party.
It’s just not a good way to have someone stay on your team.
You don’t want people on your team who you had to convince to be there. You want people who are voluntarily there and excited to be there; you want to be their number one choice.
Two other really important reasons why you shouldn’t try to get people to stay:
- It sets a bad precedent. If the other members of your team see that someone was able to get a raise or more benefits by threatening to quit, then they will see that going out and getting another job offer is an effective way to get what they want. Don’t set that precedent; that’s not the kind of culture you want.
- What you have to offer might never compete with what they want to leave for. Say your star performer is leaving because she is co-founding a company with her two closest friends. If you convince her to stay, she will always know she missed out on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and you can’t offer the intangible benefits that made that opportunity so appealing (friendship, ownership, etc). Don’t throw money at a problem that money can’t solve; if someone wants to leave, let them go get those things they want and don’t insist that they accept whatever you can offer.
Step 1: How to have the conversation
When your team member tells you they are giving your their notice, try to be calm.
If you can’t (losing a team member is emotional and the news might be overwhelming), then ask them to please keep it confidential and come back to finish the conversation in an hour. If you need to cry or just feel panic, don’t do it in front of them. This is a hard moment for them too, and they need you to keep it together.
The conversation doesn’t have to be a long one. The person has made up their mind, and you don’t want to put them on the spot with a lot of uncomfortable (though natural) questions, like “was it something I did?”.
If you get the sense they are open to talking, you can ask:
- Can I ask why you’re leaving?
- Can I ask where you’re going?
- Is there something we could have done better? We really value you and will be sad to lose you. (Remember, you want everyone to leave your team on good terms, so make sure people know how much they mean to you and the team, even if you’re upset.)
- Is there anything we could do to make this a better environment?
- Do you think we’re in danger of losing any other people? Why?
However, be prepared for the fact that they may just want to give you the news and then get out. Don’t force them to stay and talk; this was probably a really hard decision for them and making them feel uncomfortable won’t help you end things on a good note.
Step 2: Get your thoughts and plans in order before telling anyone
Ask the person to please keep the news confidential for now. You want to be the one managing the transition and the team, so it should be your announcement to everyone and it should only happen once you are ready to announce it.
You want to first tell your manager, then tell your peers, and finally then you tell the team.
Before you talk to your manager, collect your thoughts. You don’t want to burst in their door like, “Holy cow, we are screwed.” Remember, you still have to be professional and it is your job to make sure your team is functional.
Write out your contingency plan before meeting with your boss. Take notes on:
- What projects are currently assigned to the person leaving?
- What are their responsibilities? What depends on them?
- How will you cover each other these areas?
Talk to your manager about the person’s departure, anything you learned in their conversation with you (ie. something the company could have done to keep them), and what your plans are for making sure work continues to get done.
Step 3: Telling the team
Draft a communication plan for the team, either on your own or with your boss if their input is helpful. It is usually best to let people know the news in waves. The first people to hear are usually:
- people who work closest with the person leaving
- the most senior members of the team
- people who will be picking up the person’s slack
Then, schedule a big team meeting so that you can share the news with the larger group.
At this time, you want to already have plans started for a going-away lunch for this person. If you don’t schedule it, their peers will, but you want to be the person making their transition out of the company as positive as possible.
Remember, even though they are leaving, the world is small. You never know when you’ll see them again, and you also want the other members of your team to see that leaving the company isn’t something they’ll be punished for. If people want to move on, you want to help them move on.
The better terms people leave on, the more likely they are to refer good people to your team, to speak well of you in your community, and to be open to working with you again in the future.
Step 4: Transition them out and take stock: what did you learn?
Before the person leaves, let them know they should send out a farewell email with their future contact information so they can stay in touch with the team.
This will help them close the loop and end their time with your company on their own good terms. Be sure to say goodbye to them on their last day, and let them know how much you valued your time working with them. Be positive.
Then ask yourself: what can I learn from this?
If a person is leaving your team, no matter what the reason, clearly there is something you weren’t providing them with that they needed to get elsewhere. How can you make sure you don’t lose another great person?
Depending on how candid the person was in their conversations with you, the answer might be really obvious or it might be harder to see. Either way, spend some time thinking through your last few months working with this person. Did you see this coming? Were there moments you could have done a better job, as a manager or with giving them something they needed?
Don’t skip this step, or you’ll risk losing another star performer.
But at the end of the day, don’t beat yourself up. Even if you made mistakes, it isn’t useful to just list all the many ways you failed; what really counts is what you’re going to do to make sure it never happens again.
You still have a team, and it is your job now to be the best manager possible to the folks who are still there. Take what you learned from this person and use it to step up your game for the star performers who still remain.