Research: Good Leaders Keep Their Employees, Best Leaders Let Them Go

May 22, 2017

On the Wellable blog, we write a lot about increasing employee retention and reducing turnover, knowing the astronomical costs associated with replacing employees. But what if we tell you that the best leaders, instead of hoarding talent for themselves, embrace letting their superstar employees go?


This was the topic of a Wall Street Journal article called “Why the Best Leaders Want Their Superstar Employees to Leave.” The author spent years studying “the world’s greatest bosses across 18 industries, luminaries such as Ralph Lauren in fashion, Julian Robertson in hedge funds, Normal Brinker in casual restaurant, [etc.]” He found that “extraordinary leaders achieved outstanding results in large part because they abandoned conventional thinking about keeping the best employees.”

Great leaders understand that truly exceptional people have ambitious career trajectories and that trying to tie them down with one organization for years on end is not nearly as effective as harnessing their productivity when they still want to contribute and then letting them go when the time is right.

Another benefit to managing a continuous flow of talent, rather than the traditional ‘talent pool’ approach, is the natural assembly of an alumni network that has nothing but good things to say about the company. These ex-employees tend to be grateful for the valuable experience they’ve gotten and the support they received when it was time to leave. Specifically, many of these greatest bosses would go out of their way to either help employees start their own companies or provide splendid recommendations to assist in the next stage of their careers. Leaving with no hard feelings, these ex-employees become a source of future talent referrals and business opportunities that the company otherwise would have missed.

Sounds like a great strategy, right? What are the downsides to this approach?


The Downsides Of Talent Flow

The talent flow approach comes from the playbook of top corporate leaders, but not every company operates like a big corporation nor every employer has the endless resource of talent going in and out of their businesses. Especially if you are just starting out or if you’re still small, each employee has to wear multiple hats and fill multiple roles, which means replacing these employees translate to much higher training costs. Also, constantly having people come and go means more disruption to your company’s workflow. This is problematic, given the fast pace you need to remain competitive in this crowded market.


Ambition Or Trouble Fitting In?

While some superstar employees leave because of their career trajectories, many others simply want to find a more suitable workplace environment. In these cases, letting them go might not be the answer; focusing on creating a culture that is more talent-friendly would be the right thing to do.

importance of company culture and employee engagement


If your organization is big enough to manage talent flow efficiently, embracing this tactic will pay off in the long run. However, if you are not yet on this scale, developing a workplace culture that encourages people to stay for as long as they can is critical.  Even large employers need to focus on culture and employee experience in order to ensure talent flow is a product of career trajectory rather than dissatisfaction.


Related articles:

Courting Millennials: Lessons From Market Research
Office Perks And Company Culture Are Not The Same Thing
Stress Is Ruining Employee Experience
Report: Why Your Employees Are Leaving (And How to Retain Talent)
Workplace Unfairness Driving Employee Turnover in Tech Sector


Topics: Engagement

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