Half of 2021 has gone by so quickly and I hardly even noticed. It’s undoubtedly been a challenging year to say the least. In fact, from where I stand, it has felt even more difficult than 2020 — who would’ve thought? At this point, the pandemic has now stretched out for nearly a year and a half. Vaccine rollouts are happening, but I think it’s safe to assume it won’t be fully effective until at least this year ends.
To make matters more difficult, a lot of the people in my team have been leaving since the start of this year. Let me clearly say this is NOT a bad thing — I truly stand by the principle of allowing people to pursue growth wherever they can best find it and, for most of the people who left my team, this was the case. But I can’t deny that it stings a bit.
At this point, I have to eat my words about how retention is a terrible metric. When I wrote that, it was at a time when people were hardly leaving my team at all. Times like these though, it most definitely is a good metric, and one that has consumed my goals for the year.
Despite this less-than-ideal situation though, this has still been a learning experience I’m thankful for and I’m sure we’ll survive it — good companies always do. In fact, I’m looking forward to developing a new generation of leaders and working with new people who will fill in the gaps, all hopefully for the team to come out of all of this even stronger.
For the benefit of those who might be in the same spot and for my own reflection, here are some of the things I’ve so far learned about people leaving en masse.
1. Rethink your growth structure.
One of the biggest reasons people leave their job is to pursue professional growth and career advancement, and my personal situation has been no different. Some of those who left did so because they were unsure if there was still room for them to advance further. And I don’t blame them, because as a manager, I realize I had been focused a bit too much on assessing growth and too little on fostering it.
One of the positive ( note, mostly untested but definitely feels right) things to come out of this experience is that it has been a strong call for me to rethink how I’m actually encouraging software engineers and creating a path for them to advance professionally. It’s been the perfect chance to reflect on the factors that lead to (and hinder) a software engineer’s growth, and I’m eager to see how it eventually helps them. (More on this probably in a future article…)
If people are leaving your team, think about whether career advancement is ambiguous in your structure. Think about whether you’re having enough conversations with your team about what to expect next. Then correct whatever gaps and uncertainty you might discover after all of this.
2. Rethink your salary structure.
I’d say the one biggest factor that has led to this situation has been the surplus of jobs suddenly available in the software business this year. According to InfoWorld, tech jobs have bounced back, with 391,000 new positions opening in the US alone. Based on the same article, there’s obvious reason to expect a lot of companies now opening up to remote hires who live distantly from their primary vicinities.
This kind of situation, while a risk to retaining employees, is also a golden opportunity to find out how competitive your salary structure really is. Yes, this might seem reactionary, but when people leave, your assessment of your salary structure will become based on actual (albeit potentially anecdotal) evidence, and that’s the most convincing kind.
It could be time to rethink your competition as well. The pandemic has shifted our perceptions of work and altered the business landscape so dramatically, the competition might no longer be what it was in 2019. As a matter of fact, I can guarantee that it no longer is.
3. Rethink your hiring processes.
Losing people while failing to hire people makes your team feel like a sinking ship — there’s no going around that. And if your hiring is not going well, this feeling won’t go away anytime soon either. Remember that the companies your people are moving to are likely to be competing with you in hiring new people as well. Salary is one thing, but the agility of your hiring process plays a big part as well.
Here’s the caveat — hiring for potential is haaard. It’s basically attempting to make a calculated guess on very little data. But it’s something that you (and I) need to get better at, because taking a couple of months to get enough data to make a hire when the competition is making offers in only a couple of weeks is obviously not helpful.
4. Make it an easy transition.
I’ve been on both sides of the coin. In one experience, resignations were stigmatized. They weren’t talked about and unless you were particularly important, resigning meant alienation. In my current work, however, it’s quite the opposite. We talk about it no matter how painful or untimely. We try to treat resignees as “alumni” with no bridges burned.
This should be clear as day on your job description as a manager: make transitions easy for all parties involved. One question, for example, that you might have on your mind is: should I go on having 1:1s with someone who’s already on notice? I don’t know what the right answer is, but I personally do. People who leave will always have their mark on the company’s story — the code they wrote, the people they’ve helped, the documents they authored — and there’s no sense in ruining all of that.
On the opposite end, the teams and projects they’re leaving will definitely take the most direct blow. Work so it doesn’t hurt. Manage expectations of this “new reality” and do what you can to make sure teams don’t get overloaded. Maybe more importantly, do what you can so people don’t get emotionally overwhelmed. Make sure they know what’s going on and what’s happening next (as far as you’ve already thought it out) and encourage them to talk about it. And this brings me to the final tip on this list…
5. Accept it.
This is the hardest thing to do, and it’s to just accept the fact that it’s happening. No, don’t stop trying to address it. But accept it as a new reality — one where you have (at least for the meantime) a smaller but not necessarily less effective team. The longer you keep feeling bad about what’s happening, the more difficulty you’ll have finding the right solutions.
As a leader, this is even more crucial as your attitude towards the situation can easily rub off on everyone else. You can be vulnerable about the situation and, in fact, I encourage it — admit openly that it stings. But don’t wallow in self-pity, tempting as it may be. If you feel like you’re in a sinking ship, be the captain that steers it back on course. I want to say this again — good companies will survive people leaving.
In the end, just acknowledge the reality with your team and be honest about what’s to come — perhaps a movement of people, a period of rebuilding, time spent teaching and influencing new people towards the right path. It’s not going to be an easy conversation, I’m sure. In fact, even writing about this whole situation feels a bit uncomfortable to me. But it needs to be done. The sooner you get to talk about it, the sooner you can get back to work stabilizing your team.
Originally published at https://techmanagement.life on June 13, 2021. TechManagement.Life is all about helping others learn to better navigate their careers in the software business. Our vision is a more productive and healthier software industry through better, more compassionate leadership. If you enjoyed this content, don’t forget to subscribe to my mailing list for more!