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Lessons Learned

Why I Started Training Employees To Leave Their Jobs

If you want to retain your star employees, says Hootsuite CEO Ryan Holmes, help them try out new roles inside the company.

Why I Started Training Employees To Leave Their Jobs

[Photo: Flickr user]

A new analysis of LinkedIn data confirms what HR managers have long suspected: Millennials change jobs—a lot. Workers in the job force's youngest demographic switch employers an average of once every 2.5 years during their first decade out of college, twice the rate of their gen X predecessors. And these days, candidates aren’t just switching jobs, they’re often switching entire industries.

The verdict is still out on exactly why all this is happening, from a lingering post-recession hangover to youthful wanderlust or some other, more nuanced explanation that's harder to make. In the meantime, companies are struggling to manage the expense of high turnover—mine included. Though Hootsuite is well ranked by employees in our annual satisfaction survey, we still see a sizeable chunk of our staff turn over each year.

This has always bothered me. If people love the company, I've had to wonder, why are they leaving? The more employees I spoke with, the more I realized it wasn’t about compensation (or, at least, just about compensation). Nor was it problems with bosses or coworkers. People were leaving because they wanted to try something new, to be challenged with a different role and a new set of responsibilities.

The challenge for me was suddenly clear: how to offer that in here, so our top talent wouldn't go searching for it out there.

"You Can Do That Here, Too"

For starters, creating "stretch" opportunities doesn’t mean just helping them level up their existing skill sets. It means being able to explore and internalize different skills entirely.

I can relate. As a serial entrepreneur, I know the allure and excitement of moving from one venture to another. But that dynamic doesn’t always work within a company, where people are hired for discrete roles and expected to excel within clear boundaries. If one of our developers decides she's bored with coding and wants to pursue a love of blogging for a living instead, she probably needs to find a new place to work.

Or maybe not.

It's a pretty universal hiring truth that great employees are great employees. It’s not a particular skill set that sets them apart as much as their intrinsic attitude, focus, and dedication. All of these things can transfer readily from role to role, the question is how to actually make that happen.

Luckily, I had Google to turn to for inspiration. I learned from a member of my HR team that, for some time, Google has operated a unique rotation program. The idea is that Googlers get to step into another department in the company for a finite period of time, then return to their original role. They’re allowed to test drive another position for up to six months, and the company keeps their original position secure the whole time. The idea is to let employees cross-train for other jobs without leaving the company.

I wondered if we could develop our own version of this. The goal was straightforward, but the mechanics proved a bit tricky: Which employees would be eligible? What about the hole left when they leave their current roles? How do we make sure real learning is going on and it's not just a waste of everyone’s time?

We ultimately settled on some ground rules for a "stretch program" of our own. First, participants need to be performing at or above expectations already, based on performance reviews—success in one role is a powerful predictor of success elsewhere, after all—and to have been with the company for at least a year. Assignments to other divisions are capped at three months, giving participants up to a full quarter to test the waters.

To avoid disruption, "stretch" employees spend roughly one day a week on their adopted team during this 90-day period and the remaining time in their official role. Their existing manager needs to sign off on the move and be okay with the reduction in job duties. And importantly, participants are required to draft "learning plans" in advance and get approval from both their current and rotational manager.

At the conclusion of the trial, if the new role is truly working for everyone—and if the new manager has a need and the resources to bring on a new staffer—then that employee can make the jump full-time, once his or her old role has been backfilled. If things don’t work out, no harm done—they're free to return full-time to the original role or try on a new assignment.

The Payoffs

Here at Hootsuite, this program is still in pilot stage. We kicked it off earlier this summer with roughly a half-dozen participants, but we’re already seeing some positive results.

A leading salesperson originally focused on large, enterprise-level companies has stretched over to an assignment in our product management group. He's now working alongside our VP of operations to come up with ways of standardizing the life cycle for our products. He spends about 10 hours a week in this role and will wrap up his rotation at the end of September.

A social-media marketing specialist with experience using Facebook and Twitter as promotional tools has jumped over to our corporate development team. He’s taking that tactical, hands-on knowledge of social media and is now evaluating how to incorporate newly acquired products into our larger business strategy. He dedicates about 15 hours a week to this rotation, which concludes in September.

Whether these individuals end up transitioning full time to their new roles or deciding to return to their home teams, the program still represents a win-win in many respects. It gives employees a chance to try out a new calling without ever leaving the company (which is a whole lot easier than hunting for a new job, only to find out it wasn’t what you were looking for). Plus, they get a chance to build a professional network beyond their team and pick up new skills. In the best-case scenario, they actually find a brand-new career.

And for the company, it means we get to retain smart, passionate employees who want to grow and evolve. We can break down corporate silos and help our employees gain insight—and empathy—into other areas of the business, which they can help improve in the process. If you’ve never worked in sales, for instance, you might emerge with a newfound appreciation for the hustlers who keep revenue coming in the door—and maybe even come up with a fresh approach to the hustle.

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