Top People Leave Their Boss – Not Their Companies

I was asked recently about what I thought are the ingredients to retaining good talent; assuming that the work is the same and remuneration package is fair and on par with the market.

I’ll get to that in a bit. But first, I know that this is true:

People leave their managers and not their companies.

It’s a hard truth.  When great people leave, it’s due to their boss, and not their company.  The idea was first introduced to me in 1999 through the book “First Break All The Rules.”  Since then, I have had the good fortune to build and to lead top performing teams and companies, interviewing and hiring thousands along the way.  Throughout this time, I cannot think of one instance where this hypothesis was wrong.

Does this mean that when a top performer leaves that their leader is bad?  Not necessarily. That is a too simplistic view of one’s motivation (and demotivation).  If a leader is resilient and then learns, evolves, and adapts from the loss, it has the potential to be an essential developmental opportunity.

How do you prevent top people from leaving?

Here are the top ten rules that I follow.  If it helps and works for you, pay it forward.

10. Promises and Commitments – People remember every commitment and promise that was made to them, beginning with the first interview.  Break a commitment and you place your relationship and people at high risk.  People will leave you even years later over an un-kept promise in an interview (also in First Break All of The Rules).  Keep your promises or come clean if you cannot deliver. It’s keeping quiet about it that will make it become poisonous.

9. Ask the BIG question – Are you happy?  People will always tell you the truth, in one way or another, when asked this question.  Listen and watch very closely.  Note:  Do not ask this question unless you are prepared to hear the answer and are equally prepared to do something about it.

8. Optimism – A-players will not work for a leader who is unable to create an environment and culture of optimism. Optimism is at the core of all success and A-players will not tolerate pessimism in their leaders.  They will leave you. Yes leaders are humans too, but you need to always be on your A-game, that is why you are in this seat and not any one else.

7. Differentiation – Your best people, those who make the biggest difference, take the greatest risks, show the most courage, and deliver the largest RESULTS, must be rewarded in a differentiated way.  Top performers earn and therefore should receive the greatest rewards, which doesn’t necessarily mean bigger pay packet or nicer cars.

6. Think Differently About Talent – Look beyond the immediate portfolio of experiences and skills of your top talent.  They have far more potential than they or perhaps even you realize.  Move them into stretch jobs.   Top people stay with leaders when they know they will not get boxed in. But beware of Peter Principle!

5. Winning – When you are the leader at any level, your team must win consistently.  It is your accountability.  Top people typically do not leave winners; the ride is too exciting and interesting.  A strong relationship isn’t enough.  Your team must win as a habit.  Weak markets or whatever excuse for losing, will not be tolerated by the A-players on your team.

4. Purpose – There is purpose to be found in every job and in every endeavor.  It is your job as the leader to sell the purpose of your enterprise and the jobs/opportunities therein.  After basic needs are met (ability to pay bills and such), top people look for meaning and purpose in their work.

3. Time – Leaders make value judgments every day.  It’s a big part of their responsibility.  Invest your time where the greatest pay-off can be had—with the top people who have earned it and those aspiring toward excellence. Do not get pulled into a trap by focusing your time inordinately on average or under-performers.  Your top people will see it and they will leave you.

2. Joy – Be liberal with your celebrations and be a spreader of joy.  Joy is vital.  Create a culture of joy within your team or enterprise and your people will do the same for your customers.  A joyful company is essential for keeping top talent.

1. Learning – Learning and development is an enormous form of compensation.  You must challenge yourself to get better each day as a leader in order to become a better teacher.  Top people stay in learning environments.   Invest in a culture of learning and you will never regret it.

Note that the above holds as true for your top people as it does for your best partners and vendors.  Keeping your best people is up to you, as it always is.

If not now, when?

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