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May 04

3 Steps to Pivot Through a Key Employee Departure

by Marissa Levin

A long-time client emailed me last week with news that one of her key employees abruptly gave notice due to a personal situation.

She was very disheartened. We invested a lot of time shaping the job description and refining the vetting process to attract the top talent. We succeeded and landed a rock-star…and now she’s gone.

Throughout my 17 years of leading Information Experts, we experienced dozens of departures. It comes with the territory. Some were easier and less disruptive than others, but all of them leave ripple effects on operations, productivity, and morale. The goal is to handle the departures in such a way that minimizes the impact on all three of these things.

When my client reached out to me, I knew we had to move quickly to address these three elements:

  1. Mindset
  2. Her role as a leader
  3. The transition/separation

1. Mindset

Here are some of the normal reactions when a key employee decides to leave:

Feelings of panic, nausea, and wanting to hide under a rock.

Anger, and the desire to call this person many creative names.

Desire to shut the business so you don’t have to deal with stressful situations ever again.

Self-doubt and deep hurt because of course this is totally personal, and you are an incompetent loser who has no business running a company.

As I‘ve said so many times, our strongest asset – or liability – is our mindset. To navigate any hurdle we must approach it with confidence & courage, and we must not take it personally. We’re always stronger than our challenges, and our challenges don’t define us. Plus, we need a calm mind to develop effective solutions.

The first mindset shift is moving to acceptance, and pivoting quickly. One of the most precarious behaviors of business ownership is not accepting that a situation has changed. Business owners don’t have the luxury of wallowing in self-pity. They have to always be moving forward.

Next, we worked on my client’s ability to move through this. Her business is 5 years old, so she hasn’t had a lot of experience with these types of changes. Employee turnover and separation is a common occurrence in any business, and business owners need to develop a thick skin to move through these situations.

Finally, most business decisions are not personal. Employees make the decisions that are in the best interest of their lives and goals.

2. The Role of a Leader

Leaders are always being watched. Leadership really shows up in challenging times. It’s very easy to navigate a ship in calm waters, but it takes a captain to navigate through a storm. My client had to show confidence and a plan of action to her employees. They were looking to her – and to her reaction – to determine how they should process this disruption.

She had to balance honesty & transparency (yes this was very upsetting and she was worried about the personal state of the employee) with an unemotional plan of action (we wish this didn’t occur but we need to keep moving). It is challenging to strike a balance between compassion/sympathy, and being unemotional about change.

Leadership is never really about the needs of the leader. Leadership is about the followers – your employees, customer, investors, and partners. It’s about the entity and the community that you are building. However, to put yourself in the shoes of your stakeholders, you must have a strong sense of self-awareness. You must know your own triggers and reactions, and then adjust them accordingly. As a leader, your reactions to situations are being watched and evaluated.

3. The Transition to the New Normal

The last element we worked on was the transition. It’s always good to keep doors open. We created options for this employee to transition out with a scaled-back schedule on a consulting basis, and jump-started the recruiting process. My client will also send this employee a hand-written note expressing personal concern.

We never know how our paths will cross with others down the road, so the more compassion we can bring to any situation, the better it is for everyone. Our words and actions in the heat of a difficult moment can have a lasting impact on our future engagements with someone. There is no place in leadership for malice. We may disagree with others, and others may wrong us, but we have the choice to decide our responses. It’s difficult to take the high road, and wrap up a painful transition graciously. As a general rule, however, this approach serves everyone better in the long run.

The Upside

Every change, no matter how difficult, is an opportunity to improve. “Better” is what awaits us on the other side of change.

I put a process in place for my client to refine the job description based on where they are now, and where they want to go. The role expanded, and the position title changed (which affects the candidate pool).

My client’s mindset shifted from fear to excitement about what the new employee will bring to the company.

They’ve already circulated the job description, and are currently vetting resumes. What a difference a week can make.

Mindset. Leadership. Transition. These are the three elements all leaders must address when pivoting through a difficult change.

Good luck, and keep moving forward!

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About the Author

Marissa Levin is the Founder/CEO of Successful Culture, the CoFounder/CEO of Leadership & Life, and the Founder/Chairman of Information Experts, a 20-year multimillion dollar e-learning and strategic communications firm. Marissa is also the regional small business expert on ABC’s Washington Business Report, is a syndicated columnist for SmartCEO Magazine, and is the author of the best-selling book, “Built to Scale: How Top Companies Create Breakthrough Growth Through Exceptional Advisory Boards.”

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