Only an entrepreneur can know the feeling of getting that dreaded phone or email, the one from your prized team member who says “I’ve received an offer to work somewhere else, and I’m going to take it.”
In retrospect, you’ll say you somehow knew it was coming. You had a sinking pit in your stomach, a feeling of impending doom. When you’re running a small business, losing a key member of your team can feel like the end of it all.
It’s not just disruptive to your business, but can hit at your ego as well as you ask yourself, “What did I do wrong? Why doesn’t she like me?” It can cause you to question everything, including whether you should even be in business.
Having run a business for 15 years, I’ve been through this many times. It never gets easy to work through a key employee quitting, but there are tips for dealing with it and steps you can take to make it easier, not just on yourself but on the whole company. When a key person leaves, here are three things to understand and four actions items to implement.
It’s not the end of the world.
Over the years I’ve had dozens of critically important people leave my company, often at what seemed to be the worst time possible and in the worst way without any sort of replacement. But we’re still here, alive and kicking.
During the 24 hours after an employee gives his or her notice it can feel as though there is no hope, but trust yourself to figure it out. You will, and life will go on with less disruption than you think.
Everyone is replaceable.
I don’t like saying this, because it makes people sound like machine parts, but it’s true. Not that you’ll find someone who is exactly like the person you’re losing, but you’ll figure out how to get the job done. Chances are, you’ll even figure out a better way to get the job done.
You can turn this into a positive.
This is the most important thing to understand when a key employee quits. You now have the opportunity to make things better. Maybe you don’t need to replace him or her. Maybe other team members can come together and take on the tasks he or she was fulfilling and do them better. Maybe you can outsource. Maybe you can hire someone even more experienced and skilled.
Now here's what you need to do:
1. Wish the former team member well.
It’s not productive to be hurt or offended when someone quits. On the other hand, you have everything to gain by parting on good terms. That doesn’t mean you don’t fight to keep the person on board if you think there’s a chance, and you believe that’s the right move to make, but don’t use guilt, coercion or threats to get a team member to stay. Such methods only ensure the team member will leave, but in a messier way that leaves ill will.
When a team member tells me he or she is quitting, I say I’m sorry to lose him or her, I understand that he or she is only leaving because there is an incredible opportunity somewhere else, I support making the decision that’s right for him or her and so I wish him or her the best and hope we can remain in touch.
As a result of this approach, some of my team members have come back to work for me again later, and others have become my biggest advocates and sources of leads.
2. Be open and honest with your team.
Your team needs the straight story. Authenticity in the face of serious challenges is what builds trust. Don’t be afraid to show your vulnerability. If losing this team member is a big blow for you, tell them.
3. Ask your team for help.
Your team wants to help. They want to come together to overcome this challenge. You don’t have to take this on by yourself. It’s OK to say “I’m really sad to be losing Sally and I’m not sure how we’re going to get through the next few months without her. I’ll need your help to explore all the options and come up with a plan by the end of the week.”
Your team doesn’t immediately need to see a plan, but they do need to know there will be a plan, and quick.
4. Build consensus around a plan, and implement it.
Many entrepreneurs fall into the trap of thinking they need to express boundless enthusiasm and confidence at all times, and always have a plan. If you come up with a plan by yourself and simply tell everyone else what it is, you’ll have less committed buy in.
Instead, gather ideas from your team and let them create the plan with you. Focus on turning a negative into a positive. Ask for their input on how this vacancy provides an opportunity to do things better. As your team feels ownership, they’ll be more involved in overcoming the challenges posed by the loss of the team member.
Every entrepreneur will lose key team members at some point during his or her career. People leave for all sorts of reasons, many, if not most, of which will have nothing to do with you or your company, and everything to do with the life circumstances of the team member.
The less successful entrepreneur gets paralyzed and depressed. The successful entrepreneur quickly moves on from the negative emotion of the moment and sees the challenge as an opportunity.