Retaining Top Talent: 1 Big Lesson From Losing a Top Employee

Does your organization struggle with retaining top talent? Here’s a story that underscores the urgency of the matter…

I’m talking one-on-one with someone who just quit their executive-level job. You may be wondering, “Where or what company did they go to, Alyson?”

Well before I spill the tea (ha!), let me tell you the story…

The company John worked for was being acquired by ABC (fake name). ABC understood the value John brought to the company—his skills were unmatched—and wanted his commitment and loyalty in the future as two organizations became one.

Before John finished his two weeks’ notice, I was able to gather even more details about the entire situation.

Long story short…

John said, “Alyson, they offered to compensate me HANDSOMELY in multiple ways if I stayed with the company and kept doing my current job. They appreciated my work, my technical skills, and the intangible leadership value I brought to the table. They kept adding incentives to the offer to get me to stay, especially after I turned in my resignation. You could say they wanted the right person (me) on the bus and in the right seat (my position) as they navigated the acquisition and transformed the organization.

The challenge was that they were asking me to do the same work for the next 5 years. For some, that was a promise of security, but for me, that was a death sentence.

John went on to tell me he deeply appreciated the gesture, but the thought of doing the same thing throughout the foreseeable future would be much more painful than anything dollars and cents could outweigh. “So, Alyson, I quit.”, John said.

Engaging and Retaining Top Talent: The Lesson from John’s Departure

In an era where job security and hefty compensation packages are highly prized, the story of “John” is a potent reminder of what truly motivates our workforce. For some, a long-term promise of stability and financial reward is the zenith of career success.

Yet, for others like John, such an assurance feels like an immutable shack, hindering personal growth and stifling the vibrancy of professional ambition. The takeaway is clear – retaining top talent goes beyond monetary incentives; it requires a deeper understanding of individual definitions of success.

The Conundrum of Comfort vs. Challenge

As leaders, it’s tempting to believe that a generous salary and a comprehensive benefits package are the ultimate tools for retention. John’s case, however, paints a different picture. The company he worked for, “ABC”, recognized John’s invaluable contributions and made a robust effort to keep him aboard amidst an organizational transition.

Despite their best efforts, they missed the mark. John sought evolution, not just remuneration. This punctuates the critical difference between comfort and challenge. To keep our best talent, we must foster an environment that promises not just safety but also the opportunity for continuous personal and professional development.

Understanding Individual Ambitions

The lesson from John’s departure is simple yet profound: to engage and retain top talent, leaders must discern and align with their team members’ aspirations. Regularly opening the dialogue to understand what success looks like for each person is vital.

Be it over the next year, or the next decade, the definition of fulfillment varies immensely across individuals. Some seek stability, while others crave the thrill of new challenges and the joy of learning.

By encouraging honest conversations about their current roles and desired career trajectories, we build a culture that’s not just about work but about growth and aspiration.

Creating a Culture of Transparency and Alignment

Fostering a culture where employees feel comfortable sharing their true career goals can be transformative. It allows leaders to align organizational needs with the personal ambitions of their team members. When a clear understanding of an employee’s aspirations is established, leaders can tailor opportunities and challenges that resonate on a personal level, thus amplifying loyalty and engagement.

If and when you uncover an employee’s true goals, it may be that the organization is not the long-term best fit for them. Don’t let that worry you! Instead, especially when considering the greatest team members, create a mutually agreed upon plan to help them continue to progress towards their goals while also bringing the absolute highest value to your organization while they’re still on the team. You have to ask yourself:

Would I rather earn the best performance from team members while they’re here, or am I okay with mediocre performance and them leaving anyway? I don’t know about you, but I’d intentionally choose the first option always.

Being Proactive in Retention Strategies

The story of John also highlights the importance of proactive thinking in talent retention and leadership. It’s not enough to react when a valued team member resigns; leaders need to be several steps ahead.

This means creating individualized professional development plans, offering varied career paths within the organization that the team member gets to heavily create themselves, and understanding the evolving definitions of the “American Dream” for their workforce.

By doing so, companies can avoid the costly process of finding and onboarding new talent, all while fostering a nurturing environment for their existing employees.

For more helpful leadership ideas, check out our other blog posts!

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Leading the New American Workforce

Great leaders understand that the key to an organization’s long-term success isn’t just the strength of its strategy or the robustness of its operations. It is, in fact, the ability to drive results with and through a team.

Being able to retain and cultivate top talent in a manner that aligns with their personal vision of success is not an option anymore, it’s a fundamental requirement for sustainable organizational success.

John may have left ABC, but he left behind an invaluable lesson – investing in understanding your team deeply is the cornerstone of exceptional leadership and, ultimately, organizational excellence.

It is imperative that we ask, listen, and strategically act based on what drives our employees, not just what we assume they value. Only then can we transition from good leadership to greatness, propelling our organizations forward with a committed and thriving workforce.

And in case you’re still wondering “Where did he go?” John is in the process of starting his own company now to ensure he never feels stifled in his personal and professional growth. John’s story is not unheard of these days. However, hope is not lost.

There are things leaders can do to increase top talent retention — we would be honored to show you how. Let’s connect.

Alyson Van Hooser

Alyson Van Hooser, Pres & CEO, Van Hooser Leadership. With the grit that only comes from tough experiences, Alyson has learned a thing or two about personal and professional success. From her management experience with Walmart, as an elected city council member, bank manager — all before the age of 30 — Alyson has wisdom well beyond her years! Her podcast, Stake: The Leadership Podcast, offers a fresh perspective on leadership and helps multiple generations successfully work together! Connect with Alyson on LinkedIn.


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