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Why it’s okay to lose your best employees (sometimes)

July 22, 2015, 11:30 AM UTC

MPW Insider is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: How do you lead a team during a time of transition? is written by Joni Klippert, vice president of products at VictorOps.

I have a slightly different perspective than most in terms of how to lead a company through change. My experience comes from leading a highgrowth tech startup, which is arguably one of the most competitive environments to keep a team focused and on payroll. Startups today can be a wild ride for human capital, and the talent required at each company milestone can vary dramatically. From my vantage point, I see all too well how this works among engineers. It typically goes something like this:

You build a team of engineers to help get your tech startup to market. You hire seasoned rock stars at the top of their field. These employees may or may not play well with others, but they deliver on the company’s vision. This is how the Facebooks (FB) of the world got started.

Now you have customers. And customers are demanding. They expect results and attention. You’ve transitioned from a pre-revenue minimum viable product (MVP) building engine to one that has a customer base, real revenue and expectations for both monthly recurring revenue (MRR) and customer growth. The focus is now on stability, usability and delivering features that support further development. This is the best type of change a company could ask for, but what are the next steps you need to take into consideration? You have to be flexible. You have to pivot well in times of change. You can’t panic. And you have to trust and empower your engineers.

Be willing to let the ‘good one’ go
Like it or not, everyone is replaceable. If you’re running a tech startup, some of your MVPs will operate like CEOs, meaning they will thrive most in times of ambiguity. However, in later stages of the company there is less room for individual ‘rock stars’ and a greater need for high-functioning, process-oriented teams. The best companies have a deep bench of engineers and other human capital to leverage at different stages of the company lifecycle. You need to trust that they will be just as capable.

It may be heartbreaking to watch a key player transition out of your company, but if they’re no longer happy, productive humans it’s time to say goodbye. Hug them (I’m kidding, they’re engineers) and help them find a new job. There’s always a chance your paths will cross again in the future.

Celebrate successes (big and small)
I’ve never met an engineer who valued anything more than humans actually using their product. Keep your engineers focused on delivering value to the end users. Celebrate company wins, share anecdotes from happy users and remind employees why their work matters.

Be transparent about objectives
I’m guilty of taking business logic for granted more times than I would like to admit. Maybe it’s more important to crank out a product feature to secure a foothold in the competitive marketplace than work on tech debt in a given sprint. Be sure to share why you’ve made a decision, its expected results, and how your employees will contribute to the new objective. Your team will be much more likely to support the initiative if they feel informed.

Throw them to the wolves
Okay, not really. But your engineers are not your children, and you should not over protect them. Engineers prefer to work towards complex engineering feats than perfect old ones. To counter that mentality, invite them to join customer calls so that they can hear the pain points that the end user is experiencing. It will also give them the opportunity to hear positive feedback directly from the source. Your customers will (likely) also love engaging with the people that build your product and contribute to its evolution.

Hire proactively in anticipation of growth
In a high growth company, employees are either going to grow with the company or decide it’s time for them to grow somewhere else. Be cognizant of the job requirements: cultural, technical or otherwise, in both the current and next phase of your business. Use that knowledge to plan accordingly. When your company is experiencing growth, knowing the requirements of the business and your human resources is germane to success. Know when to let go. Know how to cultivate your team. And most importantly, know how to plan for what’s next.

Read all answers to the MPW Insider question: How do you lead a team during a time of transition?

Why you should thank your employees more often by Sherlonda Goode-Jones, partner at PwC.

How to manage chaos during a company shakeup by Maren Kate Donovan, CEO of Zirtual.

4 surprising leadership lessons this CEO learned from her horse by Gay Gaddis, CEO and founder of T3.

How to make change in the workplace less daunting by Sarah Watson, chief strategy officer of BBH N.Y.

The one word employees dread hearing in the workplace by Karen Tegan Padir, president of application development at Progress Software.

3 easy ways to manage chaos in the workplace by Angela Dorn, chief legal officer at Single Stop.

Meet the woman who rescued Build-A-Bear Workshop by Sharon Price John, CEO of Build-A-Bear Workshop.

Managers, this is why you need to send more emails by Liz Wiseman, president of Wiseman Group.

The upsides of change at your company by Barbara Dyer, president and CEO of The Hitachi Foundation.

How every boss should tell employees that change is coming by Kathy Bloomgarden, CEO of Ruder Finn.

3 ways to embrace change at your company by Kathy Collins, CMO of H&R Block.

A good boss never leaves their employees in the dark by Sandi Peterson, group worldwide chairman of Johnson & Johnson.