9 Things You MUST Do When a Key Employee Leaves

On a random Tuesday at 5:00pm in November, my Chief Sales Officer sat in my office, and told me he was resigning for a better opportunity. My initial response of shock had to be curbed with remembering, this is a SUCCESS. This person who I supported, coached, befriended and learned from for the last eight years was offered an unbelievable opportunity. If I was to truly believe in our core value of helping people become better than they believed possible, I could tell him nothing but “Congratulations, I’m happy for you.”

But, after that’s said, there are some things you HAVE to do:

1. Make it clear that their role is significant.

This should be an immediate reaction to a resignation for someone you want to save. Can we save you? Why are you really leaving? Ask specific questions to get honest feedback, and discover what active and immediate steps you can take to keep them. Show that you care, that you want them to stay. The CEO should be involved on the same day of the notice, if possible. Reinforce the true appearance that their loss is a great one. Unfortunately for me, the offer was too good, and we didn’t have a chance.

2. Don’t assume you must instantly replace him/her.

Our preference is always to promote from within, but it’s not always clear what the capabilities of potential candidates from within are (especially when they’ve been evaluated by the departing employee). Further, as the enterprise evolves, so does the job description of the departing employee. It’s imperative that you take time to evaluate the needs of the vacant role, compare them against the existing employees’ capabilities, and only then determine how the role should be defined, who should fill it, and when. It’s better to make the right decision than a fast decision.

3. Think it through, but do it quickly.

Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. When you get big news, you have to make big plans, and fast. Don’t get bogged down by emotion and stall from thinking about the next steps.

4. Get data and input from as many stakeholders as possible.

The first thing I did was pick up the phone and notify important stakeholders. If they didn’t answer, I left a voicemail and took follow-up calls later. Then I met face-to-face to talk though my succession plans. Gather input on your proposed plan.

5. Listen.

I had a plan, but I had to be flexible. I considered all of the input I received. I heard their concerns and responded. People wanted to know whether others were leaving too–even if I was leaving? How will you manage the transition? What about us? When I offered solutions, I was cognizant of my role as CEO. The more you include yourself in the plan, the more they believe you are in control.

6. Communicate the departure company-wide as soon as possible.

Don’t let rumors spread. It’s imperative that the person leaving be able to make the announcement. It’s also important to be candid with your employees. Be clear that the departure is unwanted, change is unavoidable, but we have a solution to make it through the turbulence.

7. Acknowledge people’s feelings.

Separations of good people can cause tears. Take the time to validate the uneasiness that people feel and to answer questions, and perhaps give a few sympathetic hugs.

8. Get the word out.

Start communicating the new plan to everyone involved, starting from the top down. Order is important. The conversations were frank, 15 minutes at the most. It was necessary to give each affected person the attention they needed to allay their fears and reinforce trust in the new plan.

9. Conduct an exit interview. Give the employee the chance to say what they dared not to while they were there, including ways that you can improve as their boss. Discuss things you can do more of, less of, or modify.

I accomplished all of these tasks just three days after the announcement, but it was a whirlwind that I’m still coming down from. And at of the end of the day, I’m still losing this key person. I think the only reason that I was able to accomplish this in such a short period of time was because of the way we drum our core values consistently, including Experiment Without the Fear of Failure. If our solution doesn’t work, we’ll try again. My employees have a lot of faith in me, which made this difficult situation much easier for everyone to bear. They know it’s not a perfect solution, it’s just the best of the bad options.

When people change, the organization must also change. Your role as a leader is to create an environment that embraces change. So even when a star leaves, the sun still shines.

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