Manager’s Special: replacing a beloved team member

Michael-jordan (wikipedia)
MJ courtesy of Wikipedia.

There’s someone on your team who embodies the spirit, heart and work ethic you value most at your company. This priceless person just walked into your office and told you (hopefully gently) that it’s time for him to leave the company. She needs to stretch different muscles or he got the opportunity to build robots or she’s pregnant with triplets.

And you simply cannot imagine the place without them.

Your mind races through the scenarios, walls crumbling along the way: how will the work get done? How will other employees react? Is this the start of a chain-reaction in which the whole thing falls apart?

Is there a way to retain this person? You should certainly try having that conversation. But if you’ve both been open and honest and it’s still looking like a change is needed, it’s time to step back and start processing what may be a difficult and challenging transition.

There are a few questions that are worth pondering during these moments of processing:

Is there anything to learn from this exit?

Beloved team members do not quit jobs on a whim. It’s incredibly risky to leave a position where one is supported and valued for something unknown. So if you’ve got an employee who is doing just that, it’s worth asking a few questions about lessons you can learn.

An exit interview is one of the easiest ways to gain this information, though a more informal coffee or lunch can work as well. Find out what aspect of the job was most challenging. Were there constant roadblocks? Is there an invisible ceiling? Are there members of the team who have polluted the work environment for the group? These are things that you can work hard to change in order to prevent others from leaving for the same reasons.

Were there warning shots fired?

Here’s the short answer: almost certainly. But those signs may have manifested in ways that never got elevated to the most helpful channels. People exhibit their unhappiness or frustration through outbursts, unreliable work and distraction. All of these signs can be overlooked or justified away if you’re not tuned into them.

Thinking through the warning shots can reveal critical lapses in communication. Make sure employees have someone to talk to… and make sure the listener is empowered to affect meaningful change to address ongoing frustrations and the like.

And finally, how could the gap left behind be an opportunity for someone else?

There’s a cheesy saying that the Chinese character for “crisis” is the same as the one that means “opportunity.” Once you accept that your beloved team member is leaving, it’s time to take a deep breath and start to see a way forward. Their role may make more sense broken into two. You may spot someone with potential in another department to fill their shoes… or you may decide that the role wasn’t working as-is and it needs to be entirely rethought.

Our career paths are paved with opportunities left vacant by our predecessors. So who else on the team is up for the challenge? How can this be a defining moment in her career? How can you support his growth in this area? You’ve got a huge opportunity to bestow on someone… so leverage it while it’s still warm.

Your company is not one person; your team is not one person. Though we certainly know people who seem like pillars of the place, you will encounter a beloved replacement at some point in your career as a manager. Avoiding bitterness and finding ways to move forward are management skills that will serve you well every single day. Embrace change and make a date a few months from now to grab lunch with your departing team member. After all, this industry is small; there’s a very good chance you’ll work with each other again.