A Star Employee Decides to Leave — Now What?

October 27, 2011

Senior managers, if you haven’t already received this email from either a top performer or key executive, you probably will at some point in your career:

 “Can we talk some time today?”

You think, It’s blunt, no substance — something is wrong right?  You respond “Sure, I will stop by your desk or you can stop by mine.” 

The response, “I’d rather speak in private.” 

Oh no!!  Something is surely wrong.

As you probably guessed, the meeting is to inform you that your employee has decided to leave you for another opportunity.  You are blindsided, angry, confused, and emotions are running high…


This is the time when you can make or break your culture and the respect of your entire team.

Here are some tips that I hope help you in such a tough scenario:

The first thing I would suggest in a meeting like this is to LISTEN to your employee.  Don’t react quickly to the emotions you are feeling that I listed above.  Take it in and listen. After they have finished explaining, you may even want to ask for some time alone to reflect on what just happened (but don’t leave them hanging to long).  Trust me, your first impulses will not be the best ones and you can never, ever be totally prepared for this.

After you quickly get your head together, go through your mental checklist:

  • Did I pay them well? Check.
  • Did I give them the opportunity to grow? Check.
  • Did I empower them? Check.
  • Did I recognize them for their performance? Check.

Now you are baffled…I did everything a great leader does and they are still leaving!!

Unfortunately this happens to everyone. You have lost this person — what now?

  1. Take the high road.  Thank them for all that they have done and how sorely they will be missed.  Find out if there is anything we could be doing differently to prevent this from happening again.  (SEE MENTAL CHECKLIST)
  2. Don’t beat up their decision.  This is where respect and culture come in.  Nine out of 10 times they are making a bad decision.  “The grass is always greener…”  I have seen many times where the person recognizes quickly in their new job that they made a bad choice.  Unfortunately, the exit from the former company does not support them in returning, so they don’t.
  3. Stay in touch.  You have no idea what this does for your credibility. This person who was so valuable to you just minutes ago should continue to be.  This could actually help your great leadership skills go viral in the marketplace.

These are just some ideas and experiences that I have had and I hope they can help you as well.  I know there are scenarios where this is impossible.  But if it is a clean departure with no legal issues or employment agreements being challenged, this has worked for me.

You have lost an integral part of your family?  Regroup and embrace the new day!!

SVP Marketing & Sales

<strong>Brian Zimmerman</strong> was a Partner at OpenView from 2006 until 2014. While at OpenView he worked with our portfolio executive teams to deliver the highest impact value-add consulting services, primarily focused on go-to-market strategies. Brian is currently the Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing at <a href="http://www.5nine.com/">5Nine Software</a>.