I will be the first person to tell you that every company should try to keep their best talent. But I also am here to tell you that you may be underappreciating the value a departing employee can bring to you and your organization. In some cases, they might be of higher value to you than when they were an active employee.
Instead of looking at employee exits as a significant setback, employers can look at their departure as an opportunity and possibly even a good thing. If nobody ever exits an organization, few new opportunities are created for people to move and grow into unless the company is growing like crazy. Turnover is a healthy and vital thing in organizations because it creates new opportunities for your staff to be promoted and for you to bring in new talent from the outside. Plus, if the departure is a positive experience, your exiting star will be more inclined to help you, returning one day or referring other people to you. It’s crucial to embrace the many potential positive outcomes from a star leaving over your perception of loss.
People leaving your firm is not the end of the world. Perhaps the time someone works for you is just the start of a longer-term relationship. Maybe the person leaving can continue to provide value to you and your firm long after they depart, and they might perhaps even return one day.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. On May 19, 2011, I had the honor of standing in the bell tower of the New York Stock Exchange with my fellow LinkedIn executives to ring the opening bell and celebrate that we were going public. As we approached this date, our team knew that our success would increase the value of our employees and lead other companies to try and poach our talent. Going public is quite an achievement, one that many companies aspire to; hence these aspiring companies want people who know how to get that done. We also knew that if our stock climbed, it might make some of our staff see their circumstances differently due to an increase in their financial security. This might lead them to pursue a new path. We were okay with that, but we did not want to be surprised if we lost a key player. We had conversations with all of our top leaders and talent across the organization to ensure they understood their value to us and to assess their plans.
Well, a few weeks before we even made it to the famous balcony at the New York Stock Exchange, DJ Patil, who was our chief scientist and chief security officer, tendered his resignation. This was a shock. You see, Patil was an impact player in so many ways beyond just being super in his role. He was a great recruiter and a great spokesperson, he has great charisma, and we knew his loss would be felt across the company. Many people inside and outside of the firm admired Patil. He would be difficult to replace. We met extensively with him to understand his motivations, and when we did, we supported him and asked how we could help. While it hurt to say goodbye, what happened next surprised me.
Even though Patil left the company as an employee, he remained as committed as ever to LinkedIn’s success. He continued to refer many great candidates to us. He made himself immediately available any time the team or his former bosses needed him, and he offered his advice and strategic ideas willingly. He kept being a great recruiter for us! As Patil put it to me when we spoke about this many years later:
“The reason I continued to help is that when you build something of importance, you never permanently walk out the door. The mission is just too important. You’ve put so much energy into it that it becomes part of you. Part of that means making sure great talent can be connected to awesome opportunities within the organization and still providing input to the company/organization on how it can be better. Think about it this way: You’ve spent all these hours with your colleagues. In many cases, you spend more time with them than your own family. When it’s a healthy relationship, you take the long view and continue to help. And that value is returned tenfold in relationships, future opportunities, and net success.”
At the time, I was surprised how much of an impact Patil continued to make even after he left. We were fortunate he remained engaged, and it’s a testament to Patil’s character and the respect he had for the people and the leadership that contributed to him taking the long view of the relationship. My experience with Patil taught me that sometimes people who leave your organization can continue to provide substantial benefit.
Today, the talent pool, especially the technical talent pool, is pretty thin and likely to stay that way for some time. Companies simply can’t afford to write off talent if they decide to leave. Departing staff may return one day armed with even more experience and expertise. They can also serve as strategic advisers and referral engines for more exceptional talent to come your way, as was the case with DJ Patil.
Sometimes your departing employees return. Such “boomerang employees,” especially talented women and men who leave the workforce to be the stay-at-home parent or caregiver, offer companies several advantages, author Tamara Jenkins writes: “They are familiar with your operations and culture, know of your current employees and clients, and may require little or no training to start making contributions. Often they are cheaper to hire, particularly if former managers have maintained contact while the employee is away,” and they can ramp up quickly.
Returning employees “will become an increasingly valuable source of talent over the years ahead,” Jenkins writes. “In what’s perhaps the most frequently discussed example, some women choose to off-ramp for several years sometime in their career, and many are eager for opportunities to return. . . . Regardless of whether their departure is voluntary or involuntary, it’s never wise to say goodbye to a good employee.” This does not mean you refuse to let them go. Instead, you reframe their exit as an opportunity to receive a different kind of value from them.
They can transition from employee to supportive and engaged alumni. Perhaps the most famous boomerang employee of all time is Steve Jobs.
From Workquake: Embracing the Aftershocks of COVID-19 to Create a Better Model of Working. © August 2021 Steve Cadigan. All rights reserved.
Steve Cadigan is a talent strategist and company culture expert. He is renowned for leading LinkedIn’s talent push from 400 to 4,000 in three and a half years and was one of the architects behind the company’s well-known organizational culture. Workquake is his first book.