In any organisation, the right employees can sometimes mean the difference between success and failure. Which means for startups, where there are even fewer people to do what appears to be unlimited work; the impact of having the right people is more crucial.
This explains why there’s a widely acknowledged ‘talent war’. So makes sense that good employees (if you can find them), are worth their weight in gold. But what happens when they decide to leave?
When you lose a key member of your startup, sometimes this can feel like an existential crisis for your firm. This could be because the departed employee is a long serving member of your team (there from the ‘early days’ kind of person) who happens to ‘know everything’, or someone valued for their expertise and experience. As it usually turns out, when they decide to leave is when you’re least expecting it to happen!
But business like life, is always filled with surprises. Here are four things I’ve found useful while leading PrognoStore;
Ask the hard questions
This involves a bit of soul searching. It revolves around finding out if you missed the opportunity to keep your valued staff. Ask yourself hard questions like:
- Did you pay them a fair remuneration? Or did you take their long service or ignorance as an avenue to pay them below market rates. Note that equity should be on the table as part of remuneration.
- Could you have provided them more responsibility and autonomy? Top performers sometimes leave simply because their roles are no longer stimulating. They certainly don’t enjoy working with non-performers.
- Could you have promoted them or made them feel better? This is especially important when someone starts in your organisation in a junior role (e.g. intern), but plays a very key part in your victories. Yet, you’ve refused to promote or acknowledge his/her contribution.
It’s worth pointing out that this is not a call for you to question your journey or vision. Instead your focus is narrowed to the issue at hand; why did they leave?
Time to think about Processes and Procedures
With the loss of your valued employee, now is the perfect time to think about your processes and procedures. The truth is for loads of startups, sometimes there is undue reliance placed on one person because of ‘silo’ knowledge of how things actually work. In other words, there are not enough processes in place for other people to function effectively. There may also be processes but not clearly defined or demarcated.
Which brings me to this quote from Warren Buffet; ‘You should invest in a business that even a fool can run, because someday a fool will’. The lesson here is that you want to make your business foolproof. A great way you can do that is by having documented steps sketched out for key tasks. In other words, create procedures to back up your processes. By doing this, it makes it easy for others to perform at an acceptable level compared to your departed ‘superstar’.
Be the smartest in the room
At best of times, trying to implement processes and procedures is painful. Having to do them after the departure of key people could be asking for full blown mutiny. But your startup can’t always operate in fireman mode, perpetually running around putting out fires. Now is the time to instil some sanity.
Don’t bad mouth them
Your team is watching you. While it’s tempting to downplay the achievements of staff members who have left, remember your team is paying close attention to what you do/say at this delicate time. Nobody likes a hypocrite. There’s no need to rubbish all the excellent things they’ve done in the past (which you’ve publicly acknowledged). This damages your credibility within the company as everyone can see through the smoke. It also sets the wrong tone and corrupts your culture.
It’s just not needed. And more importantly, you don’t want to be viewed as a two-faced lying demon!
You need to accept that change is inevitable. People change careers, move jobs etc for various reasons. Matter of fact, people change their minds for all sorts of reasons. And there’s nothing you can do about it. While it’s advisable to keep in touch with your departed employees (you never know, they could be tempted to come back!). What’s not advisable is you saying stuff like ‘John would have shipped this quicker’ or ‘Ngozi will never release a feature with so many bugs’. That’s not helpful.
Be careful not to compare and belittle the efforts of your current team members. It’s discouraging and definitely not good for morale. But be forthright to discuss what’s changed and what this means for the future. Note that some people will genuinely question if others are not abandoning a ‘sinking ship’. So this is indeed a time to speak about the vision for your startup. Be the reassuring voice.
Finally, realise that you will be just fine. When you feel you’ve lost the best, then it clicks that the best is actually what you’ve all built together. Then everything will be just fine.