Fred Wilson wrote a blog post about employee retention that includes these sentences: >There are highly loyal teams that can withstand almost anything and remain steadfastly behind their leader. And there are teams that are entirely mercenary and will walk out without thinking twice about it. One of the big responsibilities for any manager is to keep their team together, and obviously cultivating loyalty is part of that. I agree with his three tips for retention – leadership, mission, and location are all important – but I hate the “loyalist” versus “mercenary” framing of the discussion.
I don’t think that companies or managers should think of people who leave as being disloyal. People leave for a variety of reasons, and those reasons always make sense to them. In nearly every case, leaving a job is a really, really tough decision, even if some aspects of the job are pretty terrible. Most people have friends at work, projects that they care about, and a sense of responsibility to the people and mission that they were dedicated to until they decided to make a change.
Describing them as “mercenary” is disrespectful. Rarely do people start thinking about changing jobs because of salary or because they want a bigger chunk of equity. Usually something about their job just isn’t working for them. Maybe they want different kinds of projects, maybe they changed managers and don’t like the new person, or maybe they feel like their best work at the company is already behind them. Even if it is just money, maybe the fact that you’re paying them far less than they could earn elsewhere is your problem, not theirs.
Once I left a job because I wanted to move to a different geographic location. Once I left a job because I wanted to work at a startup and have more responsibility. Once I left a job because I didn’t trust that the company was going to be in business much longer (they’re still doing fine, many years later, as it turns out). Once I left a job because consulting wasn’t for me any more. All those moves made sense to me at the time. All of them were good, although in several cases not for the reasons I expected.
As managers, we work hard to build companies where people commit to the job and stick around for the long term. At the same time, we have to be prepared that people will move on, generally for good reasons. Building a team that is resilient is part of a manager’s job as well. The worst case is not a building a team that people leave to go on to other (hopefully bigger and better) things, but a company where people are happy to show up every day but aren’t committed to doing great work.
My favorite thing to tell people when they move on to a new job is, “Maybe you’ll hire me one day.” I prefer working with people with that kind of potential, with the knowledge that retaining them is going to require my best work as a manager.