How to turn key employee turnover into an accelerator

1024 681 David DeWolf

We were just over two months away from wrapping up our best year ever. Momentum was strong. Morale was high. And, the team I had worked so hard to fashion was humming in high-performance mode.

And then the shoe dropped.

In late October one of my senior executives was recruited away, enticed by the allure of a Silicon Valley Unicorn, an equity stake, and the promise of an IPO within the next couple of years.

We still crushed our targets, but, I was deflated.

Employee attrition, at all levels, can be disheartening and disruptive. Nobody wants to see a high performer leave. But too often, as leaders, we dwell on the departure and allow it to get in the way of continued performance.

Fortunately, as I was sharing my disappointment, a good friend of mine asked a poignant question and changed my frame of mind:

“What could be the biggest advantage or opportunity of his departure?”

Why is it that I’ve had to learn the “what does this make possible” lesson over and over? I should have known better. But, regardless, this was exactly the question I needed to hear. And, it’s the question you need to ask the next time you lose a key player.

The answer to this question allowed me to view the bump in the road as a launchpad to get to the next level. Viewing it in the light of opportunity allowed me to celebrate the executive’s opportunity, tweak our organizational strategy, and bring in a new leader with a fresh perspective. A mere 4 months later I am looking back and seeing how this one-time punch to the gut has turned into even greater momentum than we had in the first place.

Unfortunately, most folks don’t have such wise friends who are there in a crunch. Too many leaders don’t have the foresight (or good friends) needed to take advantage of “normal” turnover. Instead, they remain stuck in their regret and focus on finding a direct replacement.

Here are a few questions that I used to narrow down my thinking and help determine what this inopportune turnover made possible:

  • What has changed since this person was hired?
  • What would I change about this role if I could start over?
  • What was the biggest priority for this role when the individual was hired?
  • What is the biggest priority for this role now?
  • How has the maturity of the organization changed the type of leadership I need?
  • What organizational changes should I make in light of this transition?
  • What skill sets are needed to balance out and compliment the team?

By asking a few questions, reframing the situation, and being deliberate about replacing key talent, all leaders can learn to turn lemons into lemonade.