Many businesses devote a lot of time and energy into hiring the right people but spend little or no time understanding why those good employees eventually leave. This is unfortunate, because such analysis can propel an organization to higher levels of performance and help it to better retain valuable employees in the future. The reasons good people leave an organization are often similar, and, in my experience on the front lines and in the front office, their departures can often be prevented. Many employees look forward to discussing why they're leaving because it's their last chance to let people know how the organization could possibly set things right. In the military I always conducted exit interviews with departing subordinates in order to understand what they thought could improve our organization. I also wanted anyone who left to do so on a high note because I wanted former organization members to keep a positive attitude toward me and my organization. After all, I might need to work with them in the future. This was the time to wish them "fair winds and following seas" and let them know their efforts were appreciated. Unfortunately many businesses do the exact opposite. When an employee expresses a wish to move on, many organizations brand that executive as a deserter and seemingly forget all the hard work, effort and honorable service he or she has devoted to the organization. When a firm reacts this way it causes other employees who are considering leaving to feel guilty, negatively affecting morale. This results in an organization of "clock punchers" who are there to simply collect a paycheck. I call these "lighthouse" companies. Employees hang out and hide, doing the minimum to get by. When the beam of light starts to sweep toward them they pick up their level of effort for a bit and then relax when the light sweeps away from them.
In my squadron we used the term "Emergency Visibility Projects" or "EVPs" to describe projects people took up when their superiors where watching them. In my experience in the financial world, it always seemed that the people who slacked off all year tended to knock out a bunch of EVPs right around bonus time, instead of working hard throughout the year. I know a couple of executives who wanted to leave because they simply didn't want to collect a paycheck and execute a strategy they didn't believe in. Their reasons for leaving weren't about money, which is remarkable. They had to do with honor and doing the right thing. This is to be commended, not punished. In the military, officers are expected to speak up when they disagree with a strategy. People's lives and our national security are at risk. In the business world, I have observed the opposite. Speaking up and being open and honest can have career-ending consequences. Yet when executives surrounds itself with "yes men" and "yes women," they will never see the flaws in their strategy and execution. Executives who stand on principal and leave an organization after an extended period often have developed valued friendships within the company and have created tight-knit work teams. To make it seem like all of this never occurred is damaging to the employee, the employee's family, the teams they led and the overall business. After an organization brands a successful executive a turncoat, other employees begin to wonder how they will be treated if they ever speak up about something with which they disagree or ponder leaving. An underground counterculture begins to form.
Poor communication is often the No. 1 reason why executives leave organizations. President Obama's relationship with General Stanley A. McChrystal, who is commanding the U.S. effort in Afghanistan, provides an example of a leader who is not communicating well enough with a subordinate. It has been widely reported that the president has had only one meeting, via video conference, with the general since selecting him as the right man for the job. McChrystal has told the president he needs more troops to execute his strategy and defeat the Taliban. Yet Obama has stalled. I suspect General McChrystal is getting more disillusioned by the day. President Obama is taking way too long to decide whether to commit extra troops to the fight. If the president makes a decision but General McChrystal disagrees with it and salutes and says, "Mr. President, I can't execute," the president should return the salute and respect the commander for sticking to his core values and beliefs. I know I will, along with many in the military. Many business leaders just can't fathom how someone could disagree with their thinking and conclusions. They think that people who ask questions are insubordinates or traitors. But sometimes the most loyal step one can take is to admit he or she isn't onboard and step aside. To add insult to injury, many companies attempt to enforce non-compete agreements with departing employees that make it difficult for those employees from continuing their career elsewhere.
Recently, a 27-year veteran of IBM ( IBM) left his job as vice president of corporate development to become senior vice president of strategy at Dell ( DELL). IBM didn't like this and contended that the two positions were too similar. A court concluded, however, that the executive could keep his post at Dell because his skill set would erode if he were "enjoined from working in the industry, as would his relationships with a large personal network of investment bankers, consulting groups, and chief information officers." Before that case, another high-level IBM executive left to go to Apple ( AAPL). IBM sued but ultimately relented and came to an agreement. Apparently, all the former IBM executive had to do was agree not to divulge IBM trade secrets. Such efforts on the part of corporations appear malicious and mean-spirited. In the U.S., people have a right to work and provide for their families. Firing line: Employees don't wear ankle bracelets that explode when they decide to leave a firm. Businesses should strive to understand why good employees leave. Then they should salute them and thank them for their hard work, just like our military does. For both employees and employers, it's always best to end on a high note and finish with finesse.