CURT NICKISCH: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Curt Nickisch.
You’ve gotten those emails. The subject line might just be the name of a colleague, or it will say sad news or “Yes, it’s true.” And then it will go on to say that someone is leaving for another opportunity and that they will be sorely missed. The responses pour in saying things like, “Say it ain’t so.” Or “Please don’t go.” Or even, “Hopefully you won’t like it there and will come back soon.” Departure emails have been coming fast and furious lately. It’s not just in the US where it’s been the great resignation. Microsoft surveyed workers in 31 countries. 40% of them were considering leaving their jobs within a year.
But today’s guests argue that while managers and leaders are stressing about their leaky talent pool, they’re missing a critical place to put their time and energy into those workers left behind. And even those emails bemoaning the loss of a valued employee may actually be making things worse.
Joining me today are Debbie Cohen, a former executive at firms like Time Warner and Mozilla and Kate Roeske-Zummer, a leadership coach. Together, they founded the consultancy, Humanity Works and they wrote the HBR article, With So Many People Quitting, Don’t Overlook Those Who Stay. Debbie, hello.
DEBBIE COHEN: Hi, glad to be here.
CURT NICKISCH: And Kate, welcome.
KATE ROESKE-ZUMMER: I’m so glad to be here.
CURT NICKISCH: Can we just start by parachuting into that moment, right? In an organization where the email drops that someone valuable is heading out the door. This is an inflection point, right? For managers, what’s at work here? What’s going on with the psychology of the manager and also the organization?
KATE ROESKE-ZUMMER: Well, I think that you nailed it in terms of, “Please don’t go.” I think that is the normal sort of response. I think there’s also this tsunami effect that when it’s the fifth or the 10th or the 20th employee, that makes it so much worse. And I think that’s where you really have to kind of watch out for what you, as the leader or you that are left behind, how do you not let this completely deflate the entire team and those that are left behind?
DEBBIE COHEN: I think there’s this weird thing that happens in the workplace when somebody leaves it, it’s like there is an emotional breakup that happens and you feel like someone is leaving you when you get that message. It’s like, you’ve done something wrong that there’s a rejection of the company, the team, you, the manager.
And oftentimes before an employee garners enough energy to leave, they have to get mad and distance and make the other side wrong. And so I think that moment when that notice comes, to Kate’s point first, there’s this like, “Oh, geez, here’s another one.” Kind of effect that causes an internal reflection. And often the defense of that is to push it back out. We make that person wrong. There’s a whole internal tsunami as well.
CURT NICKISCH: Now this isn’t… I mean, people leaving is not new.
KATE ROESKE-ZUMMER: It’s not new. Organizations don’t hire people forever anymore. Those days are gone. It’s a stop along their path. And I think we have to sort of adjust our expectations of how long someone is actually going to be there. And I think there’s also the work that the employee needs to do of, what do I want to accomplish while I am here?
CURT NICKISCH: So if there’s a lot of attrition now, should a company take high attrition as a sign that they need to fix their culture, or is it just supply and demand economics, right? It’s just the fact that there’s a labor shortage in a lot of industries and a lot of locations. And maybe there’s nothing wrong. It’s just the market you’re in.
DEBBIE COHEN: Well, I think there’s a lot wrong. And I think it’s a confluence of so many things, right? We just went through, are still in, the tail and we hope of a global pandemic. We changed the way we work. We changed where we work. We changed how we work. We changed even if we had a job to do. And we gave people a lot of time to think. And I think folks realized boy, that company that showered me with lunches and socials and things like that, that kept me actually at work longer, actually kept me away from my children and my family and my communities. And that’s where they’ve been for the last 15, 18, 20 months. And so I think there is this reassessment that people are doing about what’s important to them. And I think companies are having to play catch up to how do we stand in relationship to that?
CURT NICKISCH: And you say that employers need to be thinking about their employees as customers in order to solve this. Can you talk about that?
KATE ROESKE-ZUMMER: Yeah. Terecruit them.
CURT NICKISCH: And what do you mean by that? Rerecruit, do you mean like-
KATE ROESKE-ZUMMER: Rerecruit the people that are working for you. Are they happy? Don’t take them for granted. They’re so busy focusing on the fires that they need to put out and the vacancies that they have, that’s where all of their attention is on actually getting more bodies into the empty seats, that’s where they’re spending their time and their energy. And of course, some time and energy needs to be spent on that. But they also need to be spending time on the people who are literally holding it together for that organization or that group. You can’t take them for granted, or they’re just going to leave as well because they’re going to feel overwhelmed and underappreciated.
CURT NICKISCH: And you’re going to spend more time hiring.
KATE ROESKE-ZUMMER: That’s right.
DEBBIE COHEN: One of the things that happens in organizations, it can happen in product. It can happen with customers is, once you’re secured, once I am a customer in a company, the amount of energy to retain me as that customer diminishes compared to the effort that it takes to bring in new customers, you look at it on your sales team, right? Sales team, even how they’re incentivized, a sales team is incentivized differently than a customer success team. And so same thing happens in my experience with employees, we put a lot of effort into forward facing in the marketplace, what our brand is, how we attract people into the workplace.
And then once we have them after soft of the love bubble first 90 days or so goes away, they fall into the rank and file. And how we think about staying in relationship with people after that early courting and sort of connecting diminishes until there’s an issue, until something comes up and we need to pay attention. And part of what we’re hearing, seeing, believing is if you get into a healthy relationship with people, it is more than just a once a year, “We see you have contributed and here’s some money for that.” People want to be seen for who they are and what they contribute and where they’re adding value. Those are all free things that managers and leaders can do to their people and it’s needed now more than ever.
CURT NICKISCH: Do you have some good examples of things people have done to re-recruit them, to make them feel valued, to invest in them so that you’re retaining those employees and not having to replace them down the road as well?
DEBBIE COHEN: One of the places I might look as a manager right now is what’s the cadence of my interaction with my folks. And get real conscious about that. So folks might be holding team meetings, folks might have one on ones. But in this urgency right now to get work done and everybody stretched, my gut would tell me that a lot of those conversations are about the doing of the work.
CURT NICKISCH: Yeah a lot of operational stuff.
DEBBIE COHEN: Lot of operational stuff. And so creating a consciousness, an intention, maybe even structure that says we’re going to spend these meetings talking about these things, and we’re going to talk – use these meetings to really talk about how you’re doing, what’s important to you. How do we want to use this time is actually an amplifier for your career, because we’re not going to be in this time forever. This is a moment in time and it will change. And so how do we use this moment to actually create maybe a different place for you to be in on the other side of this.
We’re going to add to the team, is this a moment for you to step into more leadership? Is this a moment for you to learn how to do that thing that you’ve always wanted to or that I see some potential in you, have you ever thought about that?
And lean into expansions not out of desperation but out of a conscious lens of I want to help this person grow and evolve to the fullest of their potential in this really hard, messy moment.
CURT NICKISCH: So in this situation where a lot of workers are filling those gaps and taking over and taking on responsibilities from value people who’ve left, whose job is it to help workers in that situation? Like how much of that is an HR function and how much of that is team leaders and managers?
KATE ROESKE-ZUMMER: I would actually say the team leader and managers.
CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. Just because they’re right there and most –
KATE ROESKE-ZUMMER: That’s right. Yeah. You think about it. It’s like if I’m in relationship with this person and they ask me to do something, but I feel like they care for me beyond my ability to do that task, I am more likely to absolutely show up and help the team. If I feel like the only thing that I have is I’m just hired to do that task and there’s no meaningful connection that is actually behind my ability to do that task. Okay. I might do it the first 10 times, but am I going to do it the 15th, 16th and 17th? I don’t know.
DEBBIE COHEN: Or how deep do you dig, right? We’re seeing in all of our trainings right now, people are exhausted, exhausted. Everybody’s working short. If the company hasn’t experienced high turnover, they’re in rapid growth and trying to attract. And so they’re trying to catch up or run into new market targets without sufficient people. And so everybody is doing multiple jobs right now and they’re exhausted.
KATE ROESKE-ZUMMER: I think that the other thing that’s going on is that there is all of this extra work that they have to do because there are not bodies in those chairs to do that work. And then there is the extra work that I don’t know, that people are really paying attention to, of bringing those other people on board. That’s like another job unto itself. And I don’t know that organizations are really valuing or really understanding the effort that that takes in addition to doing the job that they were probably hired to do. In addition to helping out with the other gaps that are missing. So to Deb’s point, we are seeing it everywhere.
DEBBIE COHEN: It also a barrier if you want to think about it potentially to pay attention to, with bringing people in. So if your team is absolutely exhausted, not feeling all that great or optimistic that things are going to change for the better. And their part of the interview and onboarding process…
CURT NICKISCH: And the people coming in see that or just pick up that misery, right?
DEBBIE COHEN: Yeah. Houston! I love that. Pick up the misery. A story about that, when I was at Razorfish, we had in one of our entry level work groups, there were 12 people and six left and the head of the department came to me just like, “Oh my gosh. What are we going to do?” And I’m like, “Well, what’s possible?” What we needed to do was re-energize those folks that were there, we needed to get them optimistic and believing that there was a way to get out of this and that they were part of that solution. And so, we actually came up with this idea. I calculated the cost of the turnover we would have, what one more person leaving would do to cost and pitched to our compensation group that we actually give these folks a bonus and we incentivize them to help us get people rerecruited and if we could fill the team in X amount of time and people stayed X amount of time, we’d pay out this bonus.
And so I went to that corporate comp group and they’re like, “Oh no, we don’t do that. No, Nope, Nope. We don’t do that.” And I said, “Why can’t we do that?” And they’re like, “Well, it would set a precedent.” And I said, “Well, what if it’s good precedent?” Maybe it’s a precedent we want to create. So finally I used that. Let’s just try it as a beta. Like let’s just call this a beta and see what happens. It was spectacular.
I mean, they came up with all kinds of ways to get excited and engage these people and onboard them. And we paid out every single one of those bonuses, which also meant they all stayed during that transition and onboarding time. And so, I’m just sort of offering that as encouragement to think differently right now. Stay away from those, “Here’s how we’ve always done it.” Because we’re not in times like we’ve always been in and they call for different kinds of, out of the box, bold thinking, people to be brave and to think about what’s possible in this moment to change the situation that we’re in.
CURT NICKISCH: That’s an interesting idea, right? To stop the landslide. And you actually give a lot of examples in your article of leaders who almost seemed to push the landslide further down the hill by behaving, just by their behavior when people leave. Can we talk about how you start acting in these situations, right? Where all of a sudden that tension and the stress is building up and people are like, “Oh no, we lost another person.” What should managers be thinking about as they feel that slipping?
KATE ROESKE-ZUMMER: We call that custody of the face.
CURT NICKISCH: Custody of the face.
KATE ROESKE-ZUMMER: Keep custody of your face when this happens, right? I get it. When someone leaves, that has just created another boatload of issues for you to deal with, and we talk about this all the time with the people that we’re leading. People are watching you, as a manager, as a leader in your organization, they are watching, what’s the environment that you are creating?
CURT NICKISCH: They’re reading the email you sent that this person’s leaving.
KATE ROESKE-ZUMMER: They’re reading the email. They’re watching your face. They’re watching the energy behind you, even on a zoom call, how are you behaving? We call that you’re having an impact all the time. And some of it is intended. And then we have the unintended impact as well. And that’s where you need to start paying attention to. Okay, I know this person has just left this particular job, which means the five of us now are left holding the bag and that’s going to create more work and people know that. They know that this means more work for them. So how do you create an outcome that people can rally behind? And that’s the place where you as a manager or a leader really need to, how do I turn this into a positive for them? A challenge, maybe. How do we all roll up our sleeves? What do I need to do differently to make this better for the team.
Not just get be in that reactive place of being frustrated, being mad, being disappointed, being sad, whatever the emotions are. We want you to have those emotions, but as a leader, then you need to lead people through that.
CURT NICKISCH: What’s something that you’ve seen someone do that you thought was really smart in that situation.
DEBBIE COHEN: Well, I can give you a flip side. I was in a company and a very well placed person gave notice and the CEO just did not have custody of the face and went from absolutely trusting and relying on this person, so hint there, to saying like, “Oh my gosh, we can’t trust this person. They’re leaving.” Right? That’s part of that, the relationship broke. The rejection began to happen. And so suddenly there was all this flurried activity that ignited members of the rest of the executive team against this person, now they were two week in the organization still. And I said, “No, we’re not going to do that.” Like, this is not okay. This person contributed over all of these years. That’s what we need to stand in right now is that we need to say, “Thank you for that contribution.”
We need to put that narrative out, both with them directly and for the rest of the organization in a way that is true and honest and real, this is not a vilification of this person. It’s time in their career journey for them to move on. They’ve given us all these years. We’re not going to do that.
So one of the answers I would have for your question is when that happens, almost ask yourself, what am I grateful for here? Like where is their gratitude? For what they’ve contributed? And it also might be that they’re moving on, right? We all know there are people who sit in seat too long, that we allow to sit in seat too long. Pause for a minute, instead of thinking, “Fine don’t let the door hit you on your way out.” To like, boy, what am I grateful for? That that person was here and contributed, just give voice to that and see what happens to the people around you.
KATE ROESKE-ZUMMER: So we have somebody who was in one of our training programs, who is a VP. And he was talking about just how overwhelmed he is with everything that he needs to do. He doesn’t have enough people on his team to be able to do it. And he was talking about how he got the team together and just admitted. I don’t know how to get all of this work done that we need to get done. And he was so nervous about doing that and admitting that sense of not knowing how he was going to be able to do it and the vulnerability that it took for him to admit that?
And then he would talk about how everybody stepped forward to him. Everybody moved forward with him and wanted to engage with him in a way that actually helped the team solve some of these issues. And he got more ideas than he thought he did. And he said, he just felt just a tremendous amount of relief. And I think that that is one of the new places that we are encouraging leaders is this place of daring not to know all of the time everything that needs to happen when it needs to happen. We can’t do that. But you potentially hire those people to help you figure some of those things out. So lean into them, find out what they think and what they know.
CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. And I suppose when somebody leaves, turn it into a selling point for your organization. You can come and work here for a few years and then move to a bigger market and turn it into a positive.
DEBBIE COHEN: It’s one of those places that Kate and I are going to keep beating the drum on. As we recruit people into the organizations, what would it be like if instead of just coming in and you’re just assuming they’re going to stay and they think they’re not, they already know they’re going to be there for some tour of duty. What if we brought people in, in tours of duty. Kate, how long do you want to be here? What would you like to contribute? What do you want to learn? And then I know. It’s going to change workforce planning, succession. Those folks are not staying in your organization. They’re there for a stop on their career journey. And so thinking about how to stay in healthy relationship with people while they’re there, once they move on and the opportunities for them to come back, which is part of what companies are going to start seeing is this boomerang effect of folks saying, “Well, the grass wasn’t so greener on the other side, maybe I do want to come back.” What would that be like if the relationship was healthy when it transitioned?
KATE ROESKE-ZUMMER: And those are not one and done conversations. You need to go in and continue to check out, are you getting what you need? Hey, I have this opportunity over here, does that interest you? Your job as a leader is to be thinking about your team and what do they need to grow and to change. And some of the best bosses I’ve ever had do exactly that.
CURT NICKISCH: There might be a parallel here to organizational structure and productivity, right? The pandemic has exposed a lot of supply chain problems because companies had gotten so lean just in time and losing a person or two on a team can really affect it when you’re running that lean. Do you think that organizations went too far in one direction and need to build in more buffer just in their workforces now? Or how would you think about that?
KATE ROESKE-ZUMMER: I mean, what got you here is not going to be what’s going to get you out of here. Okay. There’s very much this feeling that… We keep talking about the great resignation as a reset, right? This is broken and I’m not sure we can go back to the way that it was. And I think that it requires more creativity from the people that are still here that are working. And we want you to bust some of those processes. Some of those procedures, the way things are done. I think it’s a big calling forth to say, “Hey, listen, if we could just throw it all at out, and we could reinvent it, what would it look like? What would it look like?”
So it might be that in some organizations that they have gone too lean and that they need to do something different for that and other organizations that may not be the case at all, right? But I think that the opportunity that is in front of everybody is to rethink those things, rethink those. And actually think about what do our people need?
DEBBIE COHEN: We wrote an article during the pandemic that focused on discernment, right? That when we all wanted a lot of toilet paper, but we might just need a roll or two and really getting conscious about what do we need as opposed to what do we want? And there might actually be some simplification that we need right now, not complication. How do we simplify what we’re doing so we can make the most with what we have, what should we stop doing. That just because we say we’re supposed to do it might not be serving us right now and might not be serving us going forward. What could we quit and have no adverse impact to what we’re trying to accomplish? Are we all clear about what we’re trying to accomplish? And what’s important about that right now.
KATE ROESKE-ZUMMER: And I love that because part of what that means you need to do is you need to identify what is it that you’re trying to accomplish? Are you clear about that? And are you clear about why that matters? And if you start there, then you can start some of that discernment that Debbie is talking about.
DEBBIE COHEN: It’s also a great place then to engage people. If you are clear, then you can say, “What are your ideas on how to get there? What would matter to you? How do we make this work for everybody in this room? Let’s join together to find our way forward.”
CURT NICKISCH: Debbie and Kate, this has been a pleasure. Thanks so much for coming on the show to talk about this.
KATE ROESKE-ZUMMER: Thank you, Curt. Really appreciate it.
DEBBIE COHEN: Thanks for having us. Curt.
CURT NICKISCH: That’s Debbie Cohen and Kate Roeske-Zummer, co-founders of Humanity Works and authors of, “With So Many People Quitting, Don’t Overlook Those Who Stay.” You can find that article online at hbr.org.
And for another episode on developing your employees, check out “Why Connector Managers Build Better Talent”. That’s episode 709. This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Thanks for listening to the HRB IdeaCast, I’m Curt Nickisch.