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Everybody leaves

Annual rewards are being distributed this time of year at Microsoft, which also marks the time when many people switch teams. As I cover in A change would do you good, switching teams in late summer and early fall has advantages: You don’t risk impact to your past year’s rewards, and you give yourself time to learn about your new team and produce results for the following year’s rewards. However, I didn’t talk about the other side of people switching teams: the loss to the departed team.

People leave teams for a variety of reasons. Sometimes people want a healthy career change or have to consider a family obligation, and sometimes their exit is involuntary (read The toughest job–Poor performers). Regardless of the cause, or even how much the employee was valued, leaving a team creates a hole where that person used to be. As a manager and a team, what do you do to fill that hole?

Naturally, managers backfill vacated positions (see Permissible poaching, Hire’s remorse, and Out of the interview loop), but that takes time and doesn’t really fill the hole, since every individual’s contribution is unique. This dilemma introduces a bunch of questions for managers: How will I transfer the knowledge of the departing employee? What transition duration should I request before the person starts with his new team? Who should fill the open position? How do I talk about the loss to my team? Should I have a farewell party or not? You’ve got questions, I’ve got answers.

Hello goodbye

As I describe in Go with the flow, teams should be thought of as rivers, not lakes. People flow through teams over time, and that movement is far better than stagnation. You need fresh ideas and perspectives to keep your products and engineering vibrant. Thinking of your team as a river means expecting and embracing transitions. That means every function, schema, tool, configuration, and protocol must be understood by at least two team members (typically, an owner and a backup). Those two or more people are on each associated pull request, and they cover for one another when someone’s away. This redundancy builds team capability and resiliency, which is particularly helpful when someone leaves.

If you’ve treated your team like a river, knowledge transfer is relatively easy. A two-week transition time should be more than enough to fill any remaining knowledge gaps.

If you’ve treated your team like a lake, or if a bunch of folks leave at once, you’ll want to focus on documentation rather than cross-training. (Cross-training is quickly forgotten and adds even more stress to remaining team members.) Whether it’s a OneNote notebook, a wiki, or generated in-code markup, you’ll want your departing team members to document their areas to the satisfaction of their coworkers and leave their contact information—you’ll likely need it. Try to get as much transition time as possible; four weeks is the maximum Microsoft allows.

Someone’s taking my place

A manager’s inclination may be to find a replacement with similar experience and skills to the person leaving. While there are times it’s necessary to do this, usually it’s a mistake. When someone leaves, it creates growth opportunities for less experienced team members. Even when no single individual can cover every vacated responsibility (a common case), the responsibilities can be spread across the remaining team members who’d appreciate the challenge.

When other team members take on the vacated responsibilities, they often need help covering their prior work. However, it’s work that less experienced team members were doing, so you can now hire an entry-level candidate to diversify your team and add fresh perspective.

Eric Aside

Read more about diverse hires in Growth mindset and diversity.

Nothing compares 2U

When a teammate leaves, the remaining team members often feel concern and a sense of loss. What was a stable situation now seems tenuous. Why did the teammate leave? Should I leave too? Often managers must keep the reason a person left private, leading to speculation and further unease. Even when a person has a wonderful reason for leaving that they gladly share, coworkers still grieve the loss. As a manager, how do you make room for that grief, yet reassure your team?

A key idea for managers to keep in mind is that it’s not about the person who left—it’s about the people remaining. Many may miss the departing teammate, but their concerns are about their own position within the team.

When you talk to individuals, answer their questions with a focus on their own situation and career growth. When you talk to your team, highlight the positive contributions the departing individual made to the team, acknowledge the difficulties of losing a teammate, and then focus on the opportunity this presents to the team. Say that you look forward to the next review cycle and people discussion where you’ll proudly describe how the team came together, overcame adversity, gained new skills, expanded responsibilities, and continued to deliver great value for our customers. Your acknowledgment of loss coupled with a compelling vision of future success provides room for grief while motivating your team to embrace the challenge.

It’s my party

Managers debate whether it’s appropriate to host a farewell party for the departing individual. Some argue that you shouldn’t reward an employee for leaving. They’re thinking about it from the wrong perspective. The party is for the people remaining. If the departing individual was a leader, mentor, or long-time collaborator, her teammates need a chance to say goodbye, celebrate their relationship, and gain the closure necessary to move forward.

A great farewell party for a leader, mentor, or long-time collaborator has the following elements:

  • Time for everyone to say goodbye. I like to host a farewell lunch in a conference room, with the departing employee choosing the food. The flexibility of the space and seating provides a chance to socialize with many teammates.
  • A personalized farewell gift and/or card. My favorite gift is a poster featuring the departing individual, the projects she worked on, and/or images that uniquely identify her. The blank space on the poster is perfect for personal messages and signatures. The result is a valued personal keepsake that’s easy and inexpensive to produce.
  • Some kind words celebrating the individual leaving. I like to wait until people are almost done with their meals—it’s quiet and gives the person leaving a chance to finish eating before making some remarks. I then relate a story about the person that reflects her unique personality and contribution. I conclude by saying how much we appreciated the person’s years of service, how much we’ll miss her, and how there’s a line of people waiting for her desk (or some other humorous remark to break the tension).
  • A grateful departing speech. At this point, the person departing is usually touched and has a few words of thanks to share. A positive experience like this creates closure for the team, while maintaining a positive relationship with the person leaving—a relationship that will be valuable if you need to reconnect.

Eric Aside

For making posters, I choose an ordinary poster print, 24″ – 30″ wide, with matte finish and no lamination. A variety of printing services will produce these for under $50 in the US, and the matte finish and lack of lamination make the poster friendly to signatures and messages.

It’s only natural

Everybody leaves a team at some point. Rather than avoiding or dreading the moment, you can embrace it. Treat your team like a river, ensuring every area has a primary owner and a backup who provide each other feedback on pull requests and cover for one another when one’s away. When people leave, transfer their responsibilities to other team members as growth opportunities, and then have an entry-level hire cover the gaps that arise. Reassure your team members that this change can be a positive force to bring a team together, provide valuable skills and experience, and drive future success. Finally, for departing employees that have been team leaders, mentors, or long-time collaborators, host a great farewell party that gives everyone a chance to say goodbye and creates the closure needed to move forward.

Effective managers welcome constructive turnover on their teams. It adds a diversity of fresh ideas and perspectives that drive innovation, customer value, and business results. By giving your team members space to grieve the loss of a teammate along with the chance to expand their knowledge and scope, you show you care for all of them. You also demonstrate that teamwork and camaraderie create opportunity and success.

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