How to Avoid Your Best People Leaving

1 easy to implement tip that can have a massive impact on your culture and retention


Garrett Mintz , Thu 20 August 2020
As a business leader, you are expected to be many things, but being a mind reader is not in your job description. You are not expected to know what is going on with your people at all times of the day and what’s going on in their heads from day-to-day.

But you are expected to have at least some sense of what your people are going through and how they are generally feeling about it. When you are out of touch and out of sync with your team, you risk losing your best people and not having any clue as to why or how you could have fixed things.

You may think to yourself “I know what is going on with my team and don’t need any help with this.”

The data suggests that this is most likely not true.

My team and I at Ambition In Motion facilitate mentor programs for companies and organizations to help improve their team’s communication. One of the key findings we have discovered is that 68% of engaged employees believe that there are communication barriers between themselves and other employees or departments at work – this issue affects everyone, including senior leaders and managers, and there are even greater reports of communication barriers from disengaged employees.

The point is this: if you are a senior leader at a company or a business owner, look around at the people you work with. Which of them do you think are engaged versus disengaged? The answer may surprise you.

If you think everyone is engaged, the chances are that you are mistaken (unless it is a one-person business). If you know people are disengaged and do nothing about increasing engagement, why risk letting those disengaged feelings grow stronger?

The data from Gallup clearly shows that disengaged employees are half as productive compared to engaged employees. That’s doubling your losses on lost time. Shoot, even if you increase engagement by a small amount, that could lead to a 20% increase in productivity from those that are disengaged.

This article is not meant to point out how blind you are in terms of your people. But it is meant to open your eyes a little bit and showcase one low-cost high-reward action you can begin doing today that will help you avoid your best people leaving.

And by the way, I am not immune to these mistakes either. I had to learn these lessons the hard way.

To showcase this, I will share the story of the first full-time hire I made. The first full-time hire I made was a brilliant developer who was getting his PhD in complex systems. He was the president of the technology entrepreneurship club at his university, and he and I had a prior relationship before I hired him. He also came highly recommended by multiple professors and previous employers. In short, he was a fantastic addition to the team. 

He also told me that he was leaving his PhD program because he didn’t like his advisor and wanted to join a startup (like Ambition In Motion).

The hire seemed like a perfect fit and when we first started, we made some incredible progress on our technology.  

Things were going smoothly until about 6 months in. I was noticing that he was getting less work done, so I asked him about it. He acknowledged my request and said that he would improve and so I took his word at face value instead of digging deeper. 

What he didn’t tell me was that he didn’t actually end up leaving his PhD program. He had a change of heart and didn’t want to let me down by telling me. So he held it back thinking that he could manage both at the same time.  

Eventually, we had a discussion and he told me. Fortunately, he recommended a friend that was helping with the code and we brought him on to pick up my original developer’s lost production.

My issue was that I had no idea what was going on with my lead developer. I initially felt betrayed; it just hurt a bit knowing that he didn’t feel comfortable sharing this big decision with me. If you are a seasoned executive, you might think that it was naive of me to not require a formal letter indicating he had left his PhD program. That might have alleviated that issue, but it also would have completely warped the trust we were developing at the beginning of the relationship. And more likely than not, another issue would have come up down the line and a similar result would have occurred.

I eventually realized it was my fault. Not that I didn’t ask my original developer for a formal letter declaring he was fully on-board, but that I never asked about him and what was going on with his world. And because I didn’t ask about him, we had fewer opportunities for him to dig deeper with me. We can point fingers and try to allocate responsibility all we want, but we can only control our own actions here and I should have done more.

After facilitating thousands of mentoring relationships, I have learned that the key to building trust is vulnerability and I believe that this holds true in work relationships as well.

When I was onboarding this new developer, I decided to do something different. At the end of all of our weekly one-on-one meetings, I schedule 10 minutes for vulnerability where both of us share something that is making us feel vulnerable that week. 

The result: we have been working together for over 2.5 years and have an incredible relationship. As a startup, we have made huge pivots, performed massive rewrites on our code, adapted our business model, and overall have really gone through some stressful situations. But, in the end, I still feel extremely in-tune with what is going on with his world and I think he feels extremely in-tune with what is going on with mine. Oh, and on a quick final note, we’ve never met in-person. 

I schedule these vulnerability exercises with everyone on my team during our one on one meetings, and so far, I haven’t had anyone quit since I started doing them (knock on wood!). However, I have had many hard conversations with people on my team and helped brainstorm solutions for tough problems so my team can live the life they want to live while also getting the work they need to get done accomplished. 

Prior to scheduling these vulnerability exercises, I rarely had these kinds of hard conversations. And that led to everyone on my team pretty much just telling me what they thought I wanted to hear. That works right up until they quit and I was left questioning what went wrong.

I am not saying I know everything about managing people, but I can definitely say that scheduling time for vulnerability in one on one meetings has had a massive impact on retention and productivity of my team. 

You may think to yourself that this can’t scale. And for you, it can’t. But if you integrate this technique across your whole team during their own meetings, it absolutely can. You can facilitate horizontal mentoring relationships between your employees and they can practice this technique in their one on one meetings. However, for this to happen, you must set the tone at the top and be willing to be vulnerable yourself.

Overall, if you want to avoid your best people leaving, be vulnerable with them and encourage them to be vulnerable with you. If you don’t know what’s going on with your team, you are missing opportunities to build deep, meaningful, and productive relationships.


Building Mentor Connections Through Work Orientation

Kickstarting Mentorships For Fulfilling Careers