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Leading Through Transition and Loss of Talent

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    Michael Ball

Navigating my team’s personal and professional choices has been a significant part of my leadership journey. Realizing that it’s tougher to see a skilled employee become disengaged than to lose them has shifted my focus. I’ve learned to prioritize their growth and aspirations over my preferences, which has been crucial for my development as a leader.

Initiate has been a successful, growing and thriving design agency for over 15 years. We’ve had a relatively low turnover, which we are incredibly proud of. As with any business, we have lost a few and learned valuable lessons along the way—which is all part of the process. But the fact that our longest-standing employee has been with us for over 13 years, with two other employees at 11 and 10 years respectively, tells me we’re doing something right.

The inevitable reality of imposter syndrome 

As stated, I’ve been quite fortunate in my leadership journey to not experience much loss of talent. However, in my earlier days, I struggled to draw a line between my professional and personal emotions. It was particularly challenging when people I admired and enjoyed working with decided to move on. I couldn’t help but take it to heart, questioning myself and my abilities. Thoughts like, ‘Could I have managed the company better?’ often crossed my mind. Their departures triggered doubts about our company’s attractiveness as an employer, our proficiency in design, and even my own effectiveness as a leader. These moments of self-reflection and doubt are tough, and they really make you introspect and question various aspects of your leadership and the company’s direction.

Their choices aren’t always about me

I’ve made significant progress in balancing my professional and personal perspectives. While I strive to foster a close-knit, family-like atmosphere within our team, I’ve come to understand that, much like in any family, there will be exits. Individuals leave for various reasons, and their decisions to explore opportunities with larger companies, different organizations, or to pursue new paths in life, are beyond my control. I’ve learned that these choices aren’t necessarily a reflection of my leadership (although, I’m strong enough to recognize my role in their loss when it has been the case). This realization didn’t come easily, but it has been crucial in helping me understand that not everything is about me or a direct result of my actions. Embracing this has been an important step in my professional development and in maintaining a healthy, balanced perspective as a leader.

When one door closes, another opens

I’ve encountered scenarios where cherished team members moved on, leading to unexpected opportunities. Initially, their departure left us in a bit of a slump, feeling the loss of someone we considered perfect for the role. However, this change opened doors for two new talents to join our team. The surprising part was discovering the unique brilliance these new members brought with them. It was a transformative experience, reminding me that while losing a valued team member can be challenging, it often paves the way for new, equally amazing individuals to become part of our journey. This perspective has helped me embrace change more positively and look forward to the fresh ideas and energy new team members bring.

Losing ‘that’ design spark

I have come to fully see when a designer is no longer fulfilled or passionate about their work. It’s apparent when their enthusiasm for design dwindles, whether it’s because they’re in an environment that doesn’t suit them or they aren’t pushing themselves to grow. They start to stagnate. In such situations, I believe it’s best for both parties to part ways amicably. This reminds me of the concept of ‘conscious uncoupling,’ as popularized by Gwyneth Paltrow. It’s important to acknowledge when individuals need to pursue their own paths for growth and change. Holding onto them, expecting different results while continuing the same routines, is neither beneficial for them nor the team. Embracing this philosophy has helped me to take steps to foster a healthy and progressive professional environment full of learning and growth opportunities.

Picking up the pieces of the lessons learned

As a leader, I’ve learned the importance of being attuned to the early warning signs of a team member’s discontent. It’s crucial to address these issues head-on, engaging in open conversations before they negatively impact the workplace atmosphere. The collective energy of a team is palpable, and when one person is out of sync, it’s felt by everyone, including our clients. This can lead to a domino effect, where not only team morale suffers, but client relationships can be jeopardized as well.

In these situations, prevention isn’t always possible. The key lies in supporting the individual in their transition and focusing on an amicable exit strategy is part of this approach. It’s a reminder that leadership isn’t just about me or my management style; it’s about the team’s journey and well-being.

I’ve come to understand that it’s not always a reflection on my business leadership when someone decides to leave. People have their own paths to follow, and as a leader, my role is to support them in these decisions. This might mean extra work or the loss of a valuable team member, but it’s part of being a responsible and supportive leader.

Over time, I’ve realized that fostering a culture where team members feel respected and supported, even in their departure, contributes positively to overall morale. It also often leads to lasting relationships that evolve from professional to personal and friendship-based. This understanding has been a significant aspect of my growth as a leader and has shaped the way I manage and support my team.