Why do great employees leave? Why must great companies still recruit?

Over the last decade, I have had the pleasure of working for several companies. The company that I measure most to is Landmark Communications. The Corporate Staff at Landmark empowered employees to develop themselves as much or as little as they would like. The company did so without fear of the investment that they would make in employees that may be lost. The leaders of the company thought it was more of a risk NOT to develop their employees than to develop them and have them leave.

The results within the Production Department were incredible over the 7 years that I worked there. While some of the company was struggling, our department cut costs, increased wages, improved productivity, and reduced waste every year that I worked there. I worked for another large media company that did not believe in or reward professional development. The company is in shambles right now, with employees leaving left and right. I also worked for some young companies with great growth and potential.

An observation that I’ve made over the years is the very difficult challenge of keeping great employees content and bringing in new talent when needed. Gaps evolve over time in the skillsets of great employees, the skills the company requires, and the skills of the average employee.

The diagram below is my way of depicting this. Great employees often develop at the pace of the company and then they begin to outpace the company. This brings on a gap (A) in the needs of the employee and what the company can provide. Often, this leads an employee to a decision, “Should I stay or should I go?”. It leaves the company with a gap to fill, and a great loss. Remember, these are the superstars of the company.

But there’s another gap (B) as well, the needs of the company versus what the average employee can supply. Companies with successful growth often out pace the skill sets of their employees. The employees who were essential in starting a great company are often not the employees needed to sustain that growth or diversify it. As a result, there’s a gap in talent. Combined with the exodus of great employees, this can cause a massive deficit in talent.

This is why companies must take the risk to continue developing employees who will be open to it, as well as recruit better employees. They must fill the gaps. Average employees can not do this. The company must look elsewhere for talent at all levels. This, in turn, brings with it resentment. Average employees resent the recruitment of better employees.

It’s only a theory, but I believe the longer people work with one another, the average manager tends to concentrate more on their employees’ weaknesses than their strengths. Even the great employee finds him/herself under the microscope for the skills that, they are told, require improvement. The worst mistake a company can do is to recruit talent when they, unknowingly have great talent right under their nose. Focusing on a great employees’ weaknesses will definitely assist in the personal decision they have to make to stay or go.

So, the responsibility of a great leader is incredibly difficult, but manageable. You must concentrate on employee strengths, not weaknesses, to truly measure the potential in an employee. You must ensure that you reward and promote great employees. You must ensure that you recruit great talent in the organization to fill the gaps. You must take the risk in developing great employees – even though you might lose them. The alternative is that you ensure they will go.

It’s an incredible organization and incredible leader that can carefully balance these gaps and manage them effectively. I’ve never seen it done perfectly, but I have seen it done well. I am confident that it’s a trait of great organizations with great leaders.

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