I was working with a WWP client recently, and as we discussed a range of topics I heard a common refrain, one I’ll call the entrepreneur’s educational lament: “I train my employees, and once they learn all these skills they take them and go work for my competitors.”
I too have sung this song. I used to feel like I ran a university. Employees would enter a revolving door, getting trained in what I felt were “world-class” processes. And then they’d leave. Sigh; here we go again.
Let’s be honest. It can hurt when employees leave—a lot. They can carry years of experience out the door. They leave a hole that can be tough to fill and the new employees we hire (typically younger, less experienced and definitely less familiar with our unique processes and systems) come out on the wrong end of any comparison with the departing employees, don’t they? If you’re not careful, resentment can build; resentment against competitors, and against the employees that have left.
Well, in the middle of the discussion with the WWP client I realized that employees still leave my firm, creating holes that are tough to fill. There are plenty of reasons that they leave: management is hard and I’m not the perfect boss—far from it. And I don’t always make perfect hiring decisions. And I can wait too long to take corrective action (though I’m working on getting better about that). And the economy is doing better, making other opportunities for employees both more abundant and better compensated than they were in the past. As I said, there are lots of reasons that employees leave.
I was in the middle of the discussion when I realized that I don’t mind as much as I used to. I really hope I’m not tempting fate by saying this out loud, but as our firm enters the second decade of really living our specialized focus, I find that several things have happened:
- As our mission has become clearer, it’s easier for potential employees to decide whether they want to work for our firm. They either get what we do and want to be a part of it or they don’t; their choice is more clear cut.
- As our mission has become clearer, it’s easier to determine whether a potential employee will fit or not. They either get it or they don’t; our choice is more clear cut.
- We’re pickier about who we hire. To deliver world-class service to our clients, we can’t make do with anyone.
- We’ve put more time into developing systems for training our employees. Are we perfect? No, of course not, but we’re striving for improvement.
- I’ve shifted my role from taking care of clients directly to taking care of employees (who then take care of clients).
- I’m better at taking the long view, understanding that there will be ebbs and flows.
But it wasn’t until I was in the middle of this discussion that I realized the primary reason that I don’t mind as much as I used to: it’s a matter of choice—of focus. In focusing on who had left my firm and how much I had trained them and how much I resented the fact that they left, I was looking into the past, rehearsing my injuries. And by spending so much time focusing on the past, I was looking away from the future. So the future was rushing in from the horizon and smacking me in the back of the head, unannounced. Ouch.
The future tends to do this if you’re not looking out for it.
As the leader, it’s my job to ensure that this firm succeeds. We have to learn from the past, yes, but we can’t spend too much time looking back. We have to outrun the competition, we have to give away our unique, valuable thought leadership, we have to develop world-class processes and implement them over and over again, improving each time, striving for greatness. We have to train our employees, knowing that they’ll all leave, sooner or later.
When they do leave, there are fewer direct competitors they can go to, because of my very specialized focus. Certainly for my firm, there are no local competitors, specialized or not, that can hold a candle against us. Not everyone believes that, but I certainly do.
When I made the choice to specialize more than a decade ago, I realized it would help my firm in all sorts of ways. But I couldn’t foresee the positive secondary effects that it’s had, like the changes in my relationships with my employees.
So when employees leave, I wish them all the best. Does it hurt? Yes. But you know, it’s a privilege to work with such talented people. And I hope (and work to ensure) that they benefit from their time here. That’s my job: to have the courage to focus my firm so that it attracts outstanding clients and amazing employees. Then to train these employees: to help them see the purpose behind what we’re doing, to give them opportunities to gain confidence and autonomy, and to master new abilities and skills— like how to keep one eye on the future and the impending horizon, so they don’t get smacked in the back of the head.