When Is It The Right Time For Someone To Leave?

For the first couple of years of running Aira, no one left. We were a small, but growing agency and it probably took around two, maybe even close to three years before someone decided to leave. I think I even stood up in front of the company at an annual update and said that we were targeting 100% staff retention for the following year.

I was wrong to set this target and it is also not necessarily a good thing for no one at all to leave your team or company.

Of course, keeping team churn to a minimum is important for a bunch of reasons, but it’s perfectly normal, and actually pretty healthy, to have a consistent level of churn in your team.

Let’s look at why and talk about the kind of mindset that you should try to embrace as a manager when it comes to churn.Then we’ll talk about scenarios where you should probably avoid fighting to keep someone from leaving.

The right mindset to manage team churn

I’ve not always had the right mindset when it comes to team members leaving. Whilst I’d argue that the approach I had was pretty natural (i.e. never wanting anyone to leave), if I reflect back on that period of my career, it wasn’t very healthy for me or the company.

Below are some of the principles that I wish I’d have embraced sooner as a manager. 

Don’t take it personally

In the earlier days of Aira, I took every single resignation personally. I immediately assumed that we’d done something wrong and that someone leaving to go to another role, particularly a role at a similar agency to us, was a negative reflection on Aira.

Given that my focus a lot back then (and even to this day as CEO) was on people and culture, I took it even more personally than the average founder. I’d worked hard to build a place to work that was better than anywhere else, yet someone was still deciding to leave – WTF had I done wrong?!

It seems obvious now, but I didn’t realise how unhealthy a mindset this was at the time. The truth was that in the vast majority of cases, Aira (nor me!) had done anything wrong that caused someone to leave.

Sometimes, people just leave and you could never have changed it. 

Of course, that isn’t necessarily the case 100% of the time and there is nearly always something to learn when someone does leave, but me taking each resignation personally wasn’t fair on me and it led to me dedicating more headspace and time to that resignation than was needed – distracting me from far more valuable things.

I get it, it’s hard. And a small part of you should take things personally because it shows that you actually care about what you’re doing. But you should channel this initial reaction into a positive rather than a negative action.

You won’t be for everyone, and that’s okay

Every workplace is different. Every person is different.

Sometimes, those two things will never reconcile, no matter how hard you try. And that’s okay.

It’s like any relationship, sometimes when you are in a relationship with someone, you are both perfectly lovely and pleasant people and nothing goes wrong as such, but you both know that you don’t click and that you should probably not be together. 

In the workplace, this is often due to incompatibility around company culture.

My wife Ellie once worked at a very large media agency where two concrete things happened that showed that she wasn’t aligned with their culture:

  1. She was told that if she wasn’t at her desk before 8am and if she left her desk before 7pm, “she wasn’t committed enough”
  2. She was reprimanded by her line manager for going and speaking to the CEO and helping him solve a problem he’d asked for help with. She was told that she wasn’t allowed to speak to the CEO without her line manager saying that she could do so.

For some people, this culture is perfectly fine and they would be okay with these kinds of hours and having to run everything via their immediate manager. And that’s okay too. If you’re genuinely happy with these ways of working and it’s an environment where you thrive, who am I to tell you that it’s wrong for you?

You should know what kind of culture your team and company are, then lean into it. Don’t be afraid of accepting that sometimes, this means that people won’t be a good fit for you and they may leave as a result. Cultures will also change over time and some people won’t change with it – if they leave because they pine for “the good old days”, then it may be the right time for them to move on.

This is a good thing. Particularly given that if they don’t leave and the incompatibility exists, then it’s going to lead to problems at some point anyway.

People do leave companies, not managers

Contrary to popular belief, the saying that “people leave managers, not companies” isn’t always true. I’ve worked with some amazing managers over the years and all of them have had members of their team resign. It was no reflection on them as a person or a manager.

Sure, people do leave their roles because of their manager – but it’s not a universal truth and the key point here is that you can be the best manager in the world, yet people will still leave. When they do, you should of course reflect on why and ask if you could have done better, but don’t leap to the conclusion that it was because of you.

I’ve found this to be particularly true in larger companies where as a manager, there are probably going to be a number of things that affect you and your team, but are beyond your control.

For example, I heard of one very large digital agency where someone’s immediate line manager wasn’t in control of promoting members of their team. Instead, they could put someone forward for a promotion and that person’s application would be considered by a group of senior people who don’t know the individual and the decision would be filtered back down via the manager. 

Whilst I admire the intention around avoiding multiple types of bias here, it’s an approach that takes a huge piece of autonomy away from a manager that will almost certainly lead to higher churn than is needed.

So if you are in a position like this, you should prepare yourself for situations where the reason for someone leaving may well be something that you could never have changed anyway due to the wider company policies and procedures.

When you shouldn’t fight to keep someone

When a high performer in your team tells you that they are leaving, your natural instinct will sometimes be to fight to keep them. Again, this is normal and there are times when you absolutely should fight to keep them.

However, there are also times when you should (perhaps with a bit of regret), accept their resignation and start planning for life without them.

Let’s look at some examples of the latter.

It’s a genuinely better opportunity for them to leave

When someone decides to leave, it’s usually when they have been made an offer to take on another role. There are going to be times when the role they’ve been offered is something that is genuinely better than what they have right now.

A classic example is when someone is offered a role that gives them far more responsibility, such as managing a team of people – something that may not be possible with you in their current role.

If this is something that is truly important to them, and you know that you can’t really compete with this in the short to medium term, then it’s right for them to leave. If someone is really important to them, and you can’t offer it, but someone else can, then they should go.

If you fight to keep them, but still can’t satisfy the thing that’s really important to them, you’re just delaying the inevitable. 

You can’t compete with the offer they’ve had

Leading on from the last point, the offer at another role may not just be more responsibility, but may also be a higher salary too. Or even the same or less responsibility than right now, but with a higher salary.

If the salary gap is one that you feel comfortable bridging because you can afford it and it fits with the salary structure of the wider team, then by all means you can counter the offer.

However, if the gap is too big and you’d end up stretching the company budget and the person’s new salary puts them disproportionately out of line with others who are in similar roles, then you should not counteroffer. 

Overpaying salaries when you can’t afford them is a road to financial struggles and one that puts the wider company at risk. Particularly because once one person’s salary is inflated, others will probably follow and all of a sudden, profit margins are too tight.

They’ve plateaued or hit a ceiling with you

This is often true with team members who have been with you a long time and advanced their careers at a decent rate. It’s also quite common in smaller teams and companies where there are only so many senior positions to go around.

If someone is at a point where their progression is being held back due to the size of the company or size of their team, then it may be the right time for them to move on. Keeping them where they are, especially if they are very ambitious, will only work for so long and again, you’re delaying the inevitable by trying to keep them for longer.

They actually need a different experience in order to advance their career

Finally, and again, leading on from the previous point, longer serving members of your team will sometimes just crave and need a different environment. They may be happy with where they are and doing a good job, they may even have progression ahead of them and some options open for future roles. But the same environment can sometimes hold people back and they need to be exposed to completely new ways of working that challenges them to think differently and to get out of their comfort zone.

Being too comfortable in a role can lead to small, but meaningful issues for them and for you. For example, they are likely to be overshadowed by other members of the team who accelerate their careers quicker and perhaps “catch up” with them or even leapfrog them in terms of promotions. 

Again, this doesn’t mean that the person is bad at their job, far from it, they are probably doing well. But after a while in the same job, a change is actually the thing that they need in order to take the next step and progress at a faster pace again.

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