How Should a Leader Respond When a Top Performer Decides to Leave?

Advisory | Glenn L. Friedman | Apr 13, 2021

“Did you hear Michael is leaving? That’s a huge loss! You can’t replace someone like that. Somebody screwed up big time. What do we do now?”

This is a fairly common emotional reaction in the lunchroom when a top performer leaves an organization. The problem with this type of reaction is that none of it is true or particularly helpful to the situation.

When someone leaves, regardless of the individual, leaders don’t have the luxury of reacting emotionally, angrily, or sadly. Leaders must look out for the best interests of the organization.

Let’s break down this reaction and approach the individual’s departure from the perspective of a strong leader.

Is it a loss or a gain?
When a top performer leaves the organization, that person’s exit is often perceived as a loss. After all, talent is leaving and needs to be replaced.

If someone leaves because they feel their vision and goals are not aligned with the vision and goals of the organization, or they see a better future somewhere else, walking away is in everyone’s best interest. That’s not a loss for the organization or the person leaving.

How effective would that individual be if they stayed at a place where they don’t believe in what the organization is trying to accomplish? One could argue that their exit is actually a gain for the company because you have an opportunity to fill the position with someone who is a better fit.

This is also a popular time to bemoan the resources invested in a person. Those resources might be considered “wasted.”

If the person delivered results for the organization while they were there, resources were hardly wasted. That said, if you had continued investing in an individual who wasn’t fully on board with your vision and goals, the perceived “loss” would have been much greater.

Nobody is irreplaceable.
There is not a single person on the face of the earth who is indispensable to their organization.

Think of it in the most practical terms. If a person leaves, no leader would actually throw up their arms and say, “That person just can’t be replaced. It’s impossible.” Some organizations are more prepared than others, but you do what needs to be done.

That doesn’t mean you like to see people leave, and there could be a short-term challenge to navigate if someone leaves unexpectedly. However, figuring out a way to overcome that short-term challenge is far more beneficial to the organization that continuing down a path with a person who doesn’t want to be there.

Prager Metis is an accounting firm comprised of more than 600 people. Every person is valued, but no single person is so important that they would be considered irreplaceable, myself included.

Perception is rarely reality.
When a top performer decides to leave, especially if that person is a popular figure in the organization, other members of the team might start to point fingers. While searching for details, gossip and assumptions often rear their ugly heads.

The initial response to an individual leaving should not be negative to leadership or the organization. In most cases, leaders can’t provide a public explanation that includes every detail behind a person’s exit for various reasons, including the risk of litigation.

There might be a back story, but it’s rarely in the best interests of the organization to tell that story. A strong leader will have the team’s confidence that the company has the systems in place to move forward with minimal if any disruption.

Getting emotional is a waste of energy.
Nobody has a lifetime contract. Anyone who decides to exit is not the first and will not be the last, whether that person moves, gets sick, passes away, or simply chooses to take advantage of what they feel is a better opportunity.

This can actually be a very positive experience if both sides handle things the right way. Be respectful. Be honest. Thank each other. Understand the perspective of the person on the other side of the table. If your paths should ever cross again, or someone asks for your opinion of the other person, kind words are likely to be shared.

Just keep in mind that nothing burns a bridge faster than lies and lack of respect. While a person’s exit doesn’t have to be unpleasant, it can turn negative quickly if one or both sides fail to handle the situation professionally.

Final Thoughts
Jay Spitz and I started this firm many years ago as Spitz & Friedman. Not long after 9/11, Jay decided to leave. He wanted to take his life in a completely different direction and become a teacher. More than business partners, we were best friends. He was best man at my wedding.

From a personal perspective, I was sad to see him go, but I wanted him to be happy. From a business standpoint, I didn’t have time to be sad, angry, or anything else. I had to figure out what needed to be done in the best interests of the firm.

Jay’s exit didn’t derail us. We’ve grown tremendously since then.

Today, I look at these changes in terms of people. As CEO, I want to lead a team of people who are happy, engaged, and passionate about their work and Prager Metis. I would never begrudge someone who chooses to leave because they have a vision and goals for themselves that don’t align with those of the organization.

Again, that person’s exit in this scenario is in the best interests of all involved. Handle it professionally and we’ll part ways with mutual respect.

Ultimately, people will leave your organization, sometimes unexpectedly. Exit does not equal loss. No single person is irreplaceable. No individual’s decision to leave should reflect negatively on leadership or the organization.

The key is to remove emotion from the equation. If you focus your energy on what’s best for the organization, you’ll emerge in a stronger position, both as a leader and a company.

Nov 14, 2022
Fernando R. Lopez

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