Why People Leave Mar. 23rd, 2017 Todd Ross Nienkerk
Illustration of a work space desk.

Why People Leave

March 23rd, 2017

The human process of work doesn’t get easier when you become a distributed team. Team members still come and go, and the work of letting a good person leave can be deeply humbling.

After many years of getting upset about people leaving, I came to understand three truths. These truths have allowed me to let go of my emotions and make better decisions about how far I’m willing to go to “keep” someone on the team — and how I choose to react when they finally leave.

Everybody leaves.

No matter what you do — no matter how much you pay someone, how many bad projects you pull them off of, how many professional successes they earn — everyone will leave. They will quit, get sick, or die. That sounds cold, but it’s true. Nobody stays at a job forever. You can’t control whether people leave, but you can control what you’ll do about it. Perhaps someone won’t leave this year. Or next year. But they will leave. What will you do about it then? How can you buy a few months or years and use that time to decrease your dependency on them? How can you prevent a single person becoming a linchpin for your organization in the future?

Your teammates don’t owe you anything.

Lots of Web Chefs have become well known in their fields, learned skills they never dreamed they would have, gained life experiences otherwise impossible — all thanks to their time at 4K. But they don’t owe me anything other than the time and effort they got paid for. Managers and leaders may be tempted to think, “We invested a lot in this person,” or “We took a chance on them.” This sounds like “they owes us,” but they don’t. That team member worked, and you paid them for their time. Maybe you took a risk by hiring them, but if you’re already thinking in “they owe us” terms, that “debt” has likely been paid in the form of revenue. They worked, and you paid them for that work. End of transaction. That’s employment.

No one person controls the destiny of an organization.

This goes for owners, leaders, and team members alike. In the eleven-year history of Four Kitchens, half our founders have left. It was scary for a while, but ultimately it worked out. Even owners don’t singularly keep organizations alive. The same is true of anyone else on your team. When a person leaves (when not if), someone will take their place. The rest of the team will come together and fill the gaps until you can hire. What matters more is how the organization reacts to someone leaving — not the fact that they left. You have the ability to control the message, empower your team, and (in the future) plan ahead for departures.

Every Challenge is an Opportunity

I want to be really clear that I’m doling out my own, candid opinions here. I’m not at all trying to lecture or teach. If you’re running a company, you already know these things. It’s helpful, though, to have someone remind you or point out the obvious while your vision is obscured by negative emotions. I have a whole network of people I call on when I’m feeling down about stuff. Sometimes I want to throw in the towel, too. But today’s not that day.

Whether a team member stays or not, this really is an opportunity for your team to become stronger. Broken bones mend twice as strong. Sounds trite, but it really is true for teams. We’ve had really, really important people leave, and sometimes it sucked for a good, long while. But we eventually got back up, and we’ve gotten stronger each time.

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