Don't despair when a top gun says goodbye

Over the past few weeks the headlines have been dominated by the dramatic departures of Zayn Malik from One Direction and Jeremy Clarkson from the BBC.

Fans and colleagues of both the singer and presenter were left heartbroken by the news. Worryingly some 1D fans posted pictures of themselves self-harming online.

It goes to show that when a key figure leaves whether it’s a band or a business, it can have serious repercussions on that organisation’s stakeholders.

In a small business, particularly startups, every employee is an essential member of the team. Everyone has an instrumental role to play and often it can be hard to imagine how the business would keep functioning if one of these employees quits.  

Even in a medium sized business, the impact of losing key, senior employees can be devastating. You know the ones – those you rely on day in, day out to lead teams, develop and nurture critical client relationships, and meet your organisation’s goals. The ones who, when the going gets tough, stay on working late, just as dedicated as you.

A key employee is someone who is a lynchpin to your business, so the void left when they leave can be massive. Just as they are hard to find in the first place, they are even harder to replace.

But like it or not, turnover of these members of staff is an inevitable part of business. Since you can’t avoid it, the smartest thing to do is to prepare – both yourself and your organisation.

How you handle losing a key employee can make or break the situation and if handled correctly you can ease the transition and come out stronger on the other side.

The first piece of advice I have is to stay calm. While it may be easy to think that losing a key team member will result in the demise of your business, no one person’s departure is realistically going to lead to that.

A knee jerk reaction lashing out in response is also unadvisable. It will have been hard enough for the member of staff to hand in their notice so demanding information or putting said employee in an uncomfortable position is best avoided.

By staying calm you may be able to learn something that will help you craft a counteroffer, or find another means of retaining that person. At worst by conducting a structured exit interview where you can uncover the real reason a person is leaving, you may be able to prevent the loss of another.

It may be hard not to be resentful of a person abandoning ship, but try to retain a strong, positive relationship with them. You never know what the future may hold. They could end up hating their new job and want to come back. The grass is always greener.

It’s important to approach the change with the right mindset. Keep in mind the saying ‘when one door closes, another door opens’. Instead of focusing on what’s gone, think about what is now possible. Your next hire could improve your business by providing new skills, a fresh perspective or great business contacts.

And don’t forget the employees left behind. When a key employee leaves, it is bound to effect his/her team mates and co-workers. Demonstrating your concern for everyone who is affected will help you come together as a team and work together towards a solution.

While you’re always going to have senior members of staff, try and build a flexible team that can weather the turbulence of any staff turnover. Minimise the effects of knowledge loss, by making sure essential information or organisational processes are not owned by a single employee but rather shared across a team.

Encourage employees to come to you if they’re frustrated. By keeping the lines of communication open and keeping your finger on the pulse of your organisation, you should be able to address any small problems before they become big ones.

While no one is indispensable in business, losing people with essential skills or years of knowledge and experience can be extremely damaging. By handling the situation effectively and having a succession plan in place, you can minimise the damage.

James Taylor is founder and CEO of SuperStars (www.super-stars.org.uk) and the IOD’s Director of the Year. Follow him on twitter @jamestaylor_SS