One of My Best People Is Looking For A New Job: Ask Madeleine

Image of businesswoman climbing career ladder. Success and achie Dear Madeleine,

I manage a fairly large team of supervisors. The days are long and hectic but I have a good flow going with the group. 

Recently, though, it has become clear that one of my best people—the person I am grooming to take my job, as I am up for a promotion—is looking for another job.  I know this because her coworkers and one of her direct reports have overheard her talking on the phone, and she has been taking long breaks in the middle of the day with no explanation.

I guess I wouldn’t mind so much, but she is not discussing it with me. I always thought we had an open relationship—in fact, we have often talked about her career and how I can help her to develop.  I also wish she were being more discreet.  I feel kind of mad about the whole thing and don’t know how to proceed.  Thoughts?     —Kind of Mad

Dear Kind of Mad,

I don’t blame you for being mad. It sounds as though you’ve gone the extra mile for this employee and she’s now going behind your back—and it doesn’t feel good.  But this isn’t really about you. Your best bet is to continue being as open as you always have been.

Set up a meeting and tell your employee what you have heard and what you are thinking and feeling.  She must have her reasons for looking for another job, and it is up to you to create a safe environment so she can help you understand what they are.  The best way to do this is to ask an open ended question and then stay quiet long enough for her to answer it.  Examples of questions that might feel right:

“What is going on that makes you want to leave?”

“What is missing for you in your current job?”

“Is there something I should know that I have been missing?”

Stay quiet for as long as it takes – the less you talk, the more your employee will talk. Don’t argue or judge, simply seek to understand. You may find out she is really upset and frustrated with something in her current situation, or you may find that her job search has nothing to do with that.  Either way, the only way to find out is to ask—and, again, don’t judge.

It is an accepted wisdom that many employees leave jobs because no one asked them to stay. You can certainly do that if it makes sense.  If it doesn’t—and it is, in fact, time for her to go—you can certainly offer to provide an excellent reference.  And then you can ask her to be more discreet.

Consider this a good wakeup call. You can leverage it by reviewing who your best folks are and crafting a plan to retain them.  One good tool is the stay interview—a regular conversation you have with each of your high performers to assess their engagement and job satisfaction and what you might be able to do to make staying with the job continually attractive to them.  To be ultra-prepared, it might serve you to understand more about motivation. Susan Fowler has literally written the book on the topic, and here is an excellent white paper to get you started.

So don’t get mad, get smarter about retention!  Good luck.

About the author

Madeleine Blanchard

Madeleine Homan-Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response here next week!

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