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(c) thaeger

Most of these “Leadership Proverbs” I’ve just picked up, absorbed and imbibed by some process of osmosis along the way and don’t know exactly whom they originated from. But when I know I’ll make reference, and when I don’t it’s not that I’m ungrateful or that I want to appear like a genius. It’s genuinely that I can’t remember. So if I’ve flogged something from you let me know and I’ll happily acknowledge it.

Don’t be Afraid of Off-ramps

You work so hard to build a great team. Lots of observing. Lots of recruiting. Lots of time and money invested in developing. Lots of unrepeatable experiences and learning moments. Lot’s of costly failures.

And then they leave the team.

And you have to start again. And you lose momentum. And you lose expertise. And sometimes they’ve become genuine friends, and you lose them. And so you do everything you can to keep people, at least the good ones. Because you care about them and enjoy them being around, but also because of all you’ve invested in them and also because of the costs that will inevitably be incurred as you train up a replacement.

There’s lots of ways to keep people on your team. Most of them have to do with the quality of your own leadership and the quality and culture of the team. And so most of them are hard to do. But there is an easy and obvious option: you block up all the off-ramps.

By off-ramps I mean natural moments that occur in the rhythm of an organisation where people might want to transition out of one of your teams. For me it’s the end of the school year, mid-December, to the beginning of the school year, late january. This is the natural time for someone to leave my team and join another.

A lot of leaders will make these transitions as difficult and awkward as possible so as to discourage a person from taking it. They’ll assume a person wishes to continue and talk to them as such without ever checking. They’ll try and hide the off-ramp so that people might even forget that it exists. They’ll use language that implies that leaving the team will be a personal betrayal, or a betrayal of the team and everything it stands for, and they’ll subtly blackmail good people into staying out of guilt. Or when someone from another team is looking for good people to join their team, or be promoted, the leader hides his people and says there’s no one who’s any good in their team so they don’t lose anyone.

And in the end it’s both cruel and counter-productive.

It’s cruel because it doesn’t treat the person with respect. It’s not treating them like their people but treating them like they’re things that are being used to create a desired outcome.

And it’s counter-productive because people can tell when they’re being used and not cared for. And they can tell when they’re being guilted and blackmailed into staying, and they won’t appreciate it and will, most likely, begin resenting it. And in any case, the people you want on your team are people who want themselves to be on your team. You don’t want people on your team who deep down desperately wish they were somewhere else.

So don’t be afraid of off-ramps. Give people regular and systematic opportunities to leave gracefully. And if you provide the off-ramps then they’ll occur at times that best suit you and the team. The way we do it is in our end of year self-evaluation one of our questions is “would you like to stay and continue in your current team, or would you like to change teams, or would you like to leave this ministry altogether and join another ministry, or would you like to start something completely new that no one’s thought of yet?”

Don’t be afraid of off-ramps. The healthier your team is and the clearer the off-ramps are the less people will use them. But you have to have them. For the sake of your people and the sake of your team.