About two months ago, two senior members of my team resigned. As founder and CEO of LS International, I felt devastated. The fact that I was overseas and was informed of their decisions via video conference increased my sense of helplessness. A flurry of thoughts hit me. I wondered if I had not done enough to engage them. I mused about what I perhaps could have done to have retained them. Had I been in Barcelona and able to meet them in person, would it have made a difference, I asked myself. They were the best recruiters I knew, and over the last two years or so, I had come to see them as members of my family, and not just colleagues at work.
It would not be an overstatement to say that my dominant emotion was angst, accompanied by a sense of deep despondency. I would be lying if I do not admit that I felt lost and doubted my ability to pick up and carry on. But the show must go on, and LS International has commitments to its clients and execution of its search mandates must continue.
After a few days, I began to look at the situation more dispassionately. As an entrepreneur and leader, I knew I should be able to handle such jolts better, and learn to move on. As a headhunter, I know that employees leave organizations for a multitude of reasons- I see hundreds of resignations each year. I am also conscious of the fact that there are situations when organizations cannot match the kind of opportunity an employee gets elsewhere. Having assisted candidates get fabulous opportunities in other organizations, I should know.
I knew that although this was a major instance of employee attrition at LS International, it probably would not be the last. It is time for me to learn from this experience so we can continue our journey with as much enthusiasm, energy and excellence as before- and, dare I say, even higher levels.
I thought it would be useful to distil what I have learnt from this incident for my own future reference. As I started thinking about my key learnings from this experience, I felt they might be of use to other entrepreneurs and business leaders as well, and so decided to publish the 8 main learnings I took from this:
- Your business is your passion, but it may not be so for everyone who joins you. Every business provides certain opportunities (work, rewards, growth etc.), but there may come a time when these diverge from an individual’s aspirations and needs. Employees may love their jobs, but over time, may wish to explore other kinds of roles or seek exposure to industries that appear more exciting or interesting. This is especially true for employees in the first five years of their careers. I am myself an example: I started working with executive search firms, but felt that I could contribute more if I had my own company. My former bosses did try to persuade me to reconsider, but I am where I am only because they understood my needs and motivations, and set me free.
- Why is it so hard to come to terms with such an event? It is not always that an employee leaves because something is wrong with the organization or his/her boss. We tell candidates to convey the following message in their resignation letters: “It’s not you, it’s me. I have found an opportunity that is better for me at this time, and something you cannot offer”. But for business leaders- and especially those like me who are at the helm of affairs of smaller companies- it is hard to accept this. In fact, it is very hard to remain logical and dispassionate, and easy to conflate valid external factors with personal failure. The bottom line: look for what you could have done better (keeping in mind the constraints of a small firm) and work to fix what you can, but stop blaming yourself.
- Empathy is important irrespective of one’s role or station in life. Events of the last 18 months have made all of us appreciate what family, friends, clients, employees, candidates and fellow humans in general are going through or may have gone through. For me personally, the past month has reinforced the need to further raise my level of empathy. You may never know what motivations have forced someone (e.g., colleagues) to take certain actions (e.g., resigning). Blaming others or yourself will only breed resentment and anger that damage relationships. Accept that you have to work extra hard to separate “personal” from “professional”. Periodically evaluate if the boundaries are blurring and if they are, redefine them clearly in your own mind, so that you won’t feel as disappointed by the next resignation.
- Do not think that everyone who joins you at the start of a roller-coaster entrepreneurial ride and shares the exhilarating thrills and deep disappointments will remain with you for as long as you wish they would. Sometimes, you have to accept that their aspirations will diverge. Just as important is to be watchful for flagging performance and take corrective measures in time.
- I am in the executive search industry, and work with several top consumer companies around the world. I must admit that while I focused extensively on keeping up with trends in this industry and its segments, I did not necessarily stay close to the job market for the kind of positions we hire for in LS International. This market is very different in terms of candidate profiles, compensation structures, job descriptions etc. What I have learnt is the need to keep an eye on this segment of the market as well, so that I have a pipeline of candidates ready to tap into when necessary.
- “Be Prepared” is the motto of the Boy Scouts. But it applies to every business leader and entrepreneur. And in these troubled times, as many businesses across industries and market geographies are struggling to get back to their growth paths, it applies to employees too. If you are mentally prepared and start planning for contingencies, an actual event would cause less stress and angst.
- I have saved the two most important learnings for the bottom of this list. The first is that we at LS International are doing something right. Neither of the two individuals who resigned had much experience in the headhunting industry before they joined us. I know that in the two years or so they were with us, I have trained them to become excellent executive search professionals. Therefore, when much larger organizations select our people, it is a vote of confidence in how we have shaped our people- their skills are clearly what the market values. This is something that happens quite commonly in the Big Four firms, where senior managers, after say, 10 years of experience with the firm (in Audit/Assurance or Consulting) join client organizations or other companies in senior roles within the Finance or other functions; many even grow to roles in the C-suite. But most people maintain a lifelong bond with the alma mater firm that taught them so much. So clearly, LS International is on the right track.
- The last lesson I have learnt from this entire episode is the importance of gratitude. It might sound strange, but I am grateful for the multiple contributions the two members have made to LS International during their stint. I am also grateful that neither chose to join a competing search agency. While one has moved into an in-house search role (part of the Recruitment team), the other has joined an organization that will give her broader exposure to the Human Resources function (beyond Executive Search, which is only one part of Talent Management, which in turn, is one facet of Human Resources Management). And who knows- LS International might well get tasked with search mandates from these organizations in the future!
Especially when key team members or proteges choose to resign, it is natural for you to feel a sense of pain bordering on personal loss. But remember that you are not always personally responsible for the decisions of others. You may never know their true or complete set of motivations- and more important, they may want to fulfill those motivations elsewhere. Do not ruin the relationship by castigating them or “guilting” them to feel that they have somehow betrayed you.
Before I sign off, I want to reiterate that LS International remains committed to its current clients as well as those who repose their trust in us in the days ahead. Just like in the stock market, a blip or two does not take away from the long-term secular growth trend.