What Leaders Can Learn from the Most Efficient Exit Interview Ever

Posted 10.05.2021

A few weeks ago, I was in a conversation with a group of senior managers when one of them told a story that put what has come to be known as The Great Resignation in sharp relief. A colleague of his had recently received a text message out of the blue from a valued employee who had suddenly quit their job three months earlier. In the text, the former employee wrote that if any effort had been put into conveying why and how they and their work mattered, they would have stayed. It wasn’t pay; it wasn’t remote working; it wasn’t even about the workload. It was about whether or not they felt like they and their work were valued and mattered.

That text was probably the most efficient exit interview ever.

And it completely lines up with a ton of research that’s been coming out lately about why good people are quitting their jobs. For instance, a recently published study by McKinsey shows that the top three reasons why employees leave is they don’t feel valued by their organization, they don’t feel valued by their manager and they don’t feel a sense of belonging. Poor work-life balance was fourth on the list after those three.

I think there’s a hidden lesson and connection in that list. The sense of overwork and overwhelm that comes with poor work-life balance makes the three most important factors harder to deliver for managers and executives and harder to feel for the employees they’re charged with leading. The exhaustion and burnout have an impact on everyone – executives, managers and team members alike. It puts our sympathetic nervous system on a hair trigger and the fight or flight response kicks in. For executives and managers, the default response is often a version of fight – to hammer on deadlines, drive for results, to lose patience with what they view as friction and pushback. For team members, the default response is to flee – to ask, after 18 months of the stress of a pandemic and its impact on themselves, their families and society, “Is this really worth it? Maybe I should just bail out of here for something better and more fulfilling.”

So, if you’re a leader who needs to retain and attract great people (and is there any leader who doesn’t?), what can you do to make sure you do? Here are three quick ideas on where to start:

1. Take care of yourself – It’s a cliché because it’s true – you can’t take care of other people unless you take care of yourself. Get yourself out of fight or flight mode by taking some time to rest and digest. Counteract the gas pedal of your sympathetic nervous system by applying the brakes of your parasympathetic response. Tap the brakes by breathing deeply, moving your body, getting more sleep and connecting with people you care about and who care about you. The renewed perspective you gain will help you give your team members what they need.

2. More connection, less content – I’ve written a good bit over the last year about the need for leaders to make sure that they’re creating opportunities for connection and not just driving the content of the work. The McKinsey findings make the same point. If you’re a leader, connection starts with you. Make the time and make the effort to both tell and show people that they matter and why they do. I just completed a round of feedback interviews for an executive coaching client who has been very intentional during the pandemic period about safely visiting, calling and sending small tokens of appreciation to his team members around the world. I talked with a number of them during his feedback interviews. His team members would walk through walls for him. He’s world class at his content – one of the best ever. What really sets him apart as a leader, though, is his connection. That same approach will work for you too.

3. Say it out loud – One of the most valuable leadership lessons I learned when I was an executive is that what doesn’t get said, doesn’t get heard. It’s not enough for you to think your people are important, you’ve got to be intentional about telling them they are and why they are. One of my other clients does this by conducting regular conversations with her team members about three key questions:

  • Where are we going?
  • Why does it matter?
  • Where do you fit in?

By talking through those three questions, she’s checking the boxes on the McKinsey top three – feeling valued by the organization, feeling valued by my manager and feeling like I belong. Not surprisingly, her team is killing it this year. Again, it’s not just about the content; it’s about the connection. If you want to keep your best people during the era of The Great Resignation, you’ve gotta’ connect.

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