A few days ago I was having a conversation with a co-worker, and the topic of conversation was why seemingly smart, loyal, qualified and motivated employees suddenly leave small companies. My co-worker’s position was that employees leave bosses and not necessarily companies, and I tend to agree with her. But at the same time this leads to the secondary question of “What do bosses do to drive good employees away?” I spent some time later that night talking to some colleagues and reviewing each of the small company positons we had left in our careers (a total of eight between all of us) and a common theme emerged. In almost all cases, the primary reason we left was not because we were underpaid or overworked or mistreated. Although these things were certainly contributing factors in a few situations, they were all one small component of a larger problem: the positions we held no longer lined up with the career paths we had envisioned for ourselves.
So the simple answer is that we actually did leave our bosses, but we left because of something they DIDN’T do—make sure our futures with the company were well-defined and in line with the career paths we were driving toward. In several cases we felt ownership was ’sitting’ on us (keeping us in a lower position because our contributions in that spot were too valuable) and in a few others we were frustrated by our bosses’ lack of interest in developing our skills, including us in important company decisions, and promoting us when opportunities arose.
Things get busy at small companies, and owners and managers often get too caught up in hitting numbers and making money to ensure key employees are receiving the career-related attention they need and deserve. But the nice part is, there is an easy-to-execute, two-step solution to this problem:
Step 1: Identify the Employees You Can’t Live Without – the belief ‘no one is irreplaceable’ applies in most small company situations, but the fact is replacing some employees will cost you much more time and money than replacing others. Take a hard look at your organizational chart, with an eye toward identifying employees who have carved out unique and hard-to-replace job descriptions and skill sets. Are there employees who have grown into managing two or more critical functions? Has someone in your organization customized their position to the point where more than one person would be needed to cover it? These are the employees who need your attention.
Step 2: Ask These Employees What They Want – at small companies it is often difficult for owners and managers to proactively solicit input (many are too used to calling all of the shots) but it is imperative to have regular career-related conversations with these employees at times other than during their annual review. Are they happy? Is their advancement at your company realistic and attainable? Making an effort to understand what these employees need from the company is key to keeping them long-term.
Good people leave small companies because employers have lost interest in their growth within the organization. If you have an employee at your small company looking to climb the ladder, I encourage you to visit my Free Downloads Page and grab my latest Assessment Tool, The 17 Traits of a Promotable Employee.