Why Great People Leave Companies (And What To Do About It)

Chris Ronzio

June 01, 2021

Losing a great employee feels personal. But the reality is even your most reliable team members will someday find one reason or another to leave. 

But an employee exit doesn’t have to turn your business upside down. The trick is to make sure the goodbye benefits you as much as it benefits them. That way, you can prevent other great people from following them out the door. 

What I mean by great people

“Great” is a subjective term. But when I talk about great people, I mean your high performers. Or the exceptional employees who go above and beyond in everything they do. 

There are the people who’ve risen in the ranks (probably super quickly) and made massive contributions. And as a result, they’ve made your life as a small business leader noticeably easier.

So, real quick: mentally scan through everyone that works at your company. Chances are good that you love everyone on your team – if not, why keep them around? 

But, no matter how much you love everyone personally, there are some people that you’d be sad to see go. And others that you’d be devastated if they left. And the latter is your high performers (AKA your great people). 

Ironically, these individuals may have performed so well that you haven’t had to give them much attention. Because chances are good that your attention goes to the struggling areas or your business – not the ones that are thriving. 

And sometimes, that lack of attention (or what I like to call “courting“) can lead your great people to seek acknowledgment elsewhere. 

“Why should I care if people leave?”

But really, you should care when people leave!

For starters, voluntary leave is expensive. Someone quitting can cost your company up to twice the employee’s annual salary. And that’s a conservative estimate! That’s because employee exits don’t happen inside a vacuum. So, when one person leaves, it tends to happen in waves. 

Meaning, when great people decide to look elsewhere, it causes others to wonder why that person left. And shortly after, their friends may follow suit and find other opportunities too, causing a domino effect.

Plus, an employee exit can disrupt your key customer relationships. This is especially true if you haven’t built out repeatable systems yet. 

Because when clients can only depend on that one person for a good experience, they may jump ship when that person leaves . Whereas, if your systems are repeatable, anyone can step into their position and deliver the same incredible experience.

But most importantly, your tribal knowledge can walk right out the door with them if they didn’t document it first. And if the person leaving is the only one who knows how to do what they do, interim employees and their replacement won’t easily take their place. 

Especially because your exceptional employees usually take on much more responsibility during their tenure. And often, that means they’ve morphed into hybrid roles. This can make finding their replacement extremely hard – and nearly impossible to hire perfectly for.

Top 3 reasons why great people leave

Just like your other team members, you’ll be left wondering why when a great employee leaves. 

And often, it has nothing to do with what your company could or could not provide. It was just time for that employee to move on. But sometimes, there’s something your company could’ve done better.

It's good to reflect on the things you may need to improve on when someone leaves.

Here’s what I mean:

1. No more challenge 

Great employees perform well because they’re usually growth-oriented. Meaning, they love a good challenge. And once they complete whatever big goal they set out to achieve, they’re ready to tackle a new one. 

But when this person gets that promotion, finishes the project, or launches a new product, they want to instantly see how they can further develop or diversify their resume. If they don’t, chances are good they’ll grow bored. And eventually, they’ll start looking elsewhere for their next exciting challenge. 

2. The culture evolved 

A lot of the people we interviewed at Trainual said they left their last job because the culture changed. Maybe their former company merged with a bigger company, or they grew really quickly. But either way, it changed to the point that it just “felt different” there.

Meaning, your company might’ve once been a fast-moving, innovative startup. But now that you’ve grown, your operations move slower. And there’s more red tape to go through, or your teams now work in silos. 

Either way, employees probably feel like it’s harder to be nimble and make progress. And that can make them feel handcuffed to the daily grind – as opposed to contributing in a meaningful way. And ultimately, they may decide to look elsewhere for “something better.”

3. Opportunities for growth

For long-term employees, it can feel easier to accept an outside offer rather than negotiating internally. Because once they’ve developed personal relationships with the team and managers, it can be hard to fight for raises or promotions. So, when they get offered those things externally, it feels too enticing to pass up. 

And before you say that your team won’t go looking for other opportunities (that might be true), here’s the reality: high performers are always in demand. I know that many of my employees get LinkedIn messages weekly soliciting them for other jobs. Meaning, your top talent always has the temptation to leave – and it’s up to them when they decide to take it. 

How to proactively keep people from leaving

Luckily, there are preventative measures you can take to keep your great people from leaving. And while these strategies are not guaranteed, a proactive approach is much more effective than simply reacting. 

Recognize great people

Chances are good that your great people won’t brag about all the incredible things they do. Because they’re too busy working on the next big initiative – and simply don’t have time. But that doesn’t mean they don’t want recognition for all the hard work they put in (they do). 

A little recognition goes a long way!

So, here at Trainual, we use a systemic performance review cycle to constantly evaluate performance and compensation. Meaning, we already pay above-market rates. But we also have multiple opportunities where everyone gets considered for a raise per year (every Q1 and Q3). This way, they don’t have to fight for recognition and reward. They get it automatically. (But, of course, if someone deserves a raise at any other point in the year, they get it! No need to wait until the next review cycle.)

But we also take the time between these raises to showcase our top performers. Meaning, we have a Slack channel dedicated exclusively to praise. That way, everyone on our team can shout out their coworkers for all their hard work. We even ask the team to drop their praise in the channel every Monday to ensure the channel’s momentum doesn’t die out. 

Keep great people engaged

Keeping people engaged comes down to always having another goal to reach. So, at the start of each quarter, we run 90-day challenges to make sure everyone has fresh goals: personal and professional. 

For example, our content manager might aim to increase organic traffic by 10% this quarter. Or, our product developer might focus on tackling a set number of bugs in addition to their regular sprints. But they both might set personal goals to tackle their debt, read more books, or train to run a marathon (and actually run one).

When goals are set, we pair people up to add a layer of accountability. Such as, our content manager might get paired with their direct manager for their professional goal and the sales rep who has a similar personal goal. That way, the challenge isn’t just talk – and everyone feels supported. 

Ask for your team’s feedback on culture

You can’t solve a problem you don’t know you have. So, use engagement surveys (via an engagement tool like Culture Amp) to keep a constant pulse on what’s going on with your company culture. 

Get all the deets on your company culture from your team!

These surveys give you insights into what’s working, what motivates your team to do their best, and where your company falls short. Then, use the feedback to improve your company culture – and ultimately, boost engagement. 

Just make sure you clearly communicate to everyone on your team what the general feedback was and what you plan to do about it. Plus, once you have your early results (even if it’s month’s later), be sure to share them with your team. That way, everyone understands why their feedback matters. Otherwise, chances are good your team will disengage with your engagement surveys – and you’ll be back to guessing what needs to be fixed. 

Invite everyone to the table

At most companies, quarterly and annual planning sessions are reserved for the leadership team. But this creates a disconnect between the goals and the people making those goals happen. 

So, invite everyone to participate in the lead-up. Meaning, collect any concerns and new ideas at the team level. Then, take this feedback into consideration at your planning session. 

For example, if several employees mentioned feeling burnt out, it might be worth exploring a company-wide mental health day. Plus, figuring out how to reinforce that everyone should only work 40-hours a week and use their time off to fully disconnect.

When you’ve got your plan for the next quarter, host a company-wide meeting to go over all the outcomes. And make sure you’re transparent about company goals, metrics, and strategy. By doing so, you constantly re-enroll and realign everyone to the mission and vision. And as a result, you can keep great people committed to your company’s goals. 

When they decide to go, what can you do?

Once an employee puts in their resignation, there’s no point trying to stop them. Their mind is made up. And it’s not worth making them feel uncomfortable about the decision. But you can keep them as a friend and company advocate for life.

But to do this, you can’t dwell on the dent they’ll leave on your business. Instead, let them know how the offboarding process works at your company and what they can expect in their last few days. Then, use the rest of their tenure to celebrate everything they’ve achieved.  

I even ask explicitly how I (or the company as a whole) can support the person moving forward. And I’ll even start to implement whatever they say before their last day. That way, they know I’m serious. 

And in return, I ask that before they leave, they: 

  • Document their role and responsibilities. That way, I can capture what they know and train their replacement to be just as great. 
  • Do an exit interview. In it, I ask what this person loved about their time here, what they hated, and how you can better your company (for the remaining team). 

Part of running a business is seeing great people come and eventually seeing them go. And while you hate to see them leave, you can use their experience to recognize your company’s weak points, reaffirm what works, and retain the great employees who remain.

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