Refraction is inevitable. Embrace it and prepare for it.
Today is Jack’s last day, and I’m excited that he’s moving into a position more aligned with what he wants. but. My team has “oh shit!” Moments two weeks ago when he put in his notice. Jack is an expert in several key areas of our product and is the most senior developer on my team. The hole he is leaving is huge. However, we are not as fearful as we would be if we were less active.
Some teams suffer great losses when their key players “get hit by a bus” or have “extended leave”, as Julie Zhuo puts it. building a manager, Teams experience this all the time, and this suffering is preventable. Here are some lessons I’ve learned, and some setbacks I’m still learning from.
We immediately put a new story on our board called “Jack’s Brain Dump” and listed the areas we needed to embrace others. Jack then conducted a one-hour brain dump session in each area, and at least two other people on the team would alternately participate in each with everyone invited. Those were great sessions. After an “ah ha” moment in one of these sessions, another developer commented, “Wow, this is the best meeting ever!” Thankfully, Jack was on hand to help build and expand the many Confluence pages in the process. This documentation helped the team to take part of their expertise and leave a long-standing record for others to reference in their absence.
While a good practice, creating a “brain dump” ticket is reactive. If your employee has already given their notice, this is the best you can do. But there are ways to be proactive, and much of that stems from team leadership.
Team leads should provide appropriate encouragement, an accessible communication platform, a team wiki, and foster a culture of psychological safety.
for a new job. But for thoughtful activists, you must provide the right encouragement and motivation – challenges and empowerment. You’ll have happy top performers who are more likely to stay. Bored, limited or controlled top performers will soon be gone. Listen to the whole thing if you haven’t heard it lately.
2. Team Communication
Teams need an accessible and proactive communication platform, such as Slack or Teams. In a place where millennials can communicate using GIFs, Gen X can communicate in full sentences, and Gen Z can roll their eyes. Getting access to everyone is the first step. While it may seem obvious, a team that recently inherited did not have the platform. Some used Teams, some used Email, and two used Slack. My first task was to standardize the communication platform so that everyone could talk to each other seamlessly.
Once everyone has access, make it useful by encouraging participation. To make it active, post important information there as a primary source and ask ice-breaking questions for everyone to participate. Host an AMA, “Friday GIF Day” or post other creative threads, all to encourage participation and lighten the mood. If on a development team, link the code repository and CI/CD pipeline to the platform. Make it useful
The team needs a constantly updated wiki. We will assume that you are already using Jira or any other workflow system to make the work transparent and manageable. A Team Wiki complements this tool, and if you’re using Jira, Confluence is a natural wiki alternative. There are many other options out there, some even free for small teams. While Jira tickets can be stuffed with intricate details and comments, anything that lasts longer should be captured on a wiki.
Make sure the wiki is well organized so that other people can get proper information. I like to give teams free rein to use the wiki however they see fit, but if you want to enforce a minimum constraint, use the following rules. If two people have the same conflict or question, they must post the resolution on the wiki. It is likely that a third person will hit it, and now their struggle has subsided. Similarly, from day one we need new team members to access and edit the wiki. Create an onboarding page and ask new members to update it as they walk through it. Our team had it all, and it worked out well. These practices are a simple and powerful way to foster a culture of end-to-end collaboration and empowerment.
4. Psychological Security
Everyone on the team should be able to safely ask, “I don’t understand. Can you please elaborate?” or “Have you thought of this approach instead?” Risk taking needs to be encouraged and praised, and some of those risks will result in failure. This is right. Research from Google has shown that the biggest indicator of a high-performing team is psychological safety. Check the ego at the door. To develop this trait, the leader must lead by example, showing his vulnerability while encouraging and praising risk-taking. My favorite way to do this is with Innovation Days. Modifying a phrase from weightlifting: don’t miss innovation day,
I failed to communicate a few years ago when an employee under me resigned. The job was never a good fit for him, but he was good at it and more or less used it as a stepping stone. He and I had a strong rapport, so it was no surprise to me when he accepted a position to start his management consulting career. It was an opportunity he could not miss and which our small company could never offer. When we started a transition plan, I worked with her right away to calm her nerves and guilt. But when I told my manager, who is a co-founder of the company, he was shocked that I didn’t try to compete or retain him. I have already failed to point out that it is pointless to retaliate in view of the situation. I also failed to actively state that the employee wouldn’t last long because it didn’t completely align with his or her ambitions. It was no surprise to me, but a surprise to those above me that it was a failure on my part. My natural tendency is to over-communicate with the people who report to me, while assuming that the people I report to can read my mind. lesson learned.
There are many other strategies for vaccinating against the worst effects of leaving your best employees. For example,
- 1-on-1, if done effectively, will reduce surprises. They establish a rapport and psychological security between the employee and the leadership. They give the lead a precise pulse on the employee. The leader can then help pivot the employee if needed, and they can collectively prepare for departure.
- Hackathons and paired programming teams work wonders in enhancing communication and collaboration. Give your team a problem to solve outside of their day-to-day work and frame it as an innovation day or hackathon. Inherent empowerment and autonomy drive retention and improve your product through innovation.
- Paired programming continually disseminates knowledge while pulling each other out of stuck situations. Make it a regular practice on your teams.
- Exit interview is another great way to avoid quitting the job in future. A manager friend of mine just told me that he has seven people off in the last few months. The common thread was that each took the opportunity elsewhere for more money. They decided to increase everyone’s salary by 20% as a market adjustment.
No matter how great your company and group, accept that quitting is inevitable and choose to be active now. You and your team will be much better off for it.