What every leader’s turnover mantra should be

I choose to own companies in high turnover industries.

I choose to own companies in high turnover industries. We operate a social services company, a restaurant and a series of retail stores, among others. Because of this, I am no stranger to the “Can we schedule a time to talk?” question or the surprise (WTF?) resignation emails. Over the last 7 years I have developed a thick skin to the inevitable turnover beast. I’ve focused on building systems and training programs to do what I can to avoid the inevitable and along the way I have had to reshape how I respond (externally and internally) when someone leaves.

I also have this unique experience of working with my husband, Mark, to start a new restaurant over the last two years and to watch how he, as a new CEO, responds to someone leaving. We were recently at Disneyland with our kids and we got a resignation letter from one of our team members. I saw it, thought about it for a minute, mentioned it to my husband and then went on with my quest to get a picture with as many Disney characters as possible. A few hours later I looked over at Mark and noticed he looked like a wounded puppy — I asked “What is wrong with you?”. He said “Oh, I’m just thinking about the resignation”. I cocked my head to the side and realized I had moved on just about as quickly as I saw the email, but my husband was still “in it”. It is one of the hardest things for new leaders — to realize that not everyone is wanting to walk the path with you. It sucks. I have the same thoughts everyone else has when someone on their team leaves:

What does it say about them? What does it say about me? What does it say about the team? What does it say about the company?

The difference is that I am able to move through the questions of why quickly to get to a place of solutions. My numbness isn’t that I don’t care, it is that I have developed a callous that is tough and strong, though it wasn’t always that way. A good callous takes time and repeat injuries to build it well, and mine is well established. That said, I too remember crying after people left. I remember dreading the resignation email and feeling panicked that maybe I was doing something wrong. I remember wanting to process with my husband and other team members for hours in an effort to gain validation I was making the right choices. I then remember that sadness turning into an anger and acting with a “screw everyone” mental attitude for awhile. I went from “What can I do to make everyone stay forever?” to “Who cares what I do — they will all leave anyway” kind of approach. I have lived in both unhealthy extremes and I finally settled on trying to put this thought into practice:

“Invest in people like they will stay forever. Build systems like they will leave tomorrow”

Wait for it……the mantra is still coming. This is just a thought — a painful thought, in fact. Time is money and at some point you just have to let the financial hardship of turnover go. It is not in your control and it shouldn’t punish the people that are staying. Every hire is a roll of the dice, no matter how well you recruit or onboard. I frantically build systems on the off-chance that my entire company will turn over tomorrow — Yet, I invest in them with the hope that they won’t. I bank my efforts on my trust that what we are building is cool enough that everyone should want to be a part of it and I act with that attitude every day. The only way I can sleep at night is to know that I have given people my 100%…AND that I can replace positions as needed.

The thing is, every employee that leaves is a lesson for a leader. It probably isn’t the same lesson the exiting employee wants it to be, though. I think a lot of times angry people leave thinking they are “sticking it” to their boss. Just as an angry employee thinks “I’ll show them….”, the leader also thinks “I should have never hired you…thanks for wasting my time. ”. Who is right? I dunno… probably a little of both.

That said, the point is that as a leader you cannot get caught up in the mental game of “why”. It can cripple your self-esteem to where you lose effectiveness. It is easy to start walking on eggshells with the deep-rooted fear of “I must not do anything to make them quit”…..Yet, by living in that place of fear you actually create a whirlwind of dysfunction because you are defaulting to the lowest common denominator instead of holding the expectation high. You may keep the bottom 10% if you cater to your fear, but you will without a doubt lose your top Unicorns. ALWAYS cater to your Unicorns.

What you have to remember is this leader mantra:

I am building something awesome. If you don’t want to be a part of my awesome then you should leave and go find your own awesome. I only want people on my team that want to build a shared vision of awesome with me.

Sometimes I envision myself saying it like this:

Sometimes it is more like this:

Sometimes it looks like this:

Regardless of the internal attitude, I say it to myself a lot...and also remind my other leaders to have the same mantra for their own teams. When you feel the fear start to creep in just go back to the vision — What is it that I want this business to be? Then simply act with full force in that direction. Keep your fingers crossed that the right people stay on the ship….but you should build some life rafts to send them right back to the shore, just in case.

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