What to Do When You Lose a Key Employee

Do you know this story?

Jessica has been with your company for 14 years and she has been a rock star.  She is your “go to” person for all of your biggest clients.  She knows every corner of your business.  In fact, Jessica may know more about your business than you do.

This employee has been a key of your past, your present, and will be a major key to your future.

Even Jessica’s team is a well-designed support crew aimed at keeping Jessica efficient and effective.  They work together seamlessly with Jessica at the helm and her employees look to her as the unquestioned leader of the team. They trust her and she trusts them.

Why mess with a good thing?

You’ve thought about doing some employee development in the past, but things are just going so well.  You simply don’t want to rock the boat.

So you come into the office in a particularly good mood for your weekly meeting with Jessica.  It’s always a pleasure hearing how Jessica will handle upcoming challenges and her plans for serving your customers.  Life is pretty good.

And that is when Jessica tells you that she is taking another job.

You are stunned.  Jessica has been offered a similar position for more money in a location that is closer to her family.  She hates having to leave, but her mind is completely made up.  She is nice, so she is giving you 3 weeks. But who is going to replace this key person? Your mind starts racing:  “Do I even know enough to step into that role?  How do we even keep the company operating?”

Now you have a Leadership Vacuum.

You start to spend more time with Jessica’s team to learn about their individual strengths.  They are great people, but nobody seems to step up as a leader.  You’ve had a few strong leaders join the company over the years, but they always seemed to leave after a short tenure.  Jessica was so strong the extra leadership abilities seemed like a waste at the time.

In exit interviews, these strong leaders had complained about Jessica.  They said that she was too controlling and was a micromanager.  You listened, but you didn’t see any reason to change anything and lots of reasons not to change.  Jessica is awesome. And now she’s leaving.

Unfortunately, this type of scenario is pretty common. 

We see some trends when these things happen:

  1. The owner doesn’t see it coming.
  2. The owner regrets not doing more to create a leadership pipeline.
  3. The company is significantly and negatively impacted during the transition.
  4. The company CAN come out of the situation stronger IF they are strategic.

If you are currently going through this type of leadership vacuum, you are probably pretty busy right now.  My advice is to work hard, take care of your team, and take care of your customer. Work through it and things will get better.

If you are NOT in this situation today, you have a choice. 

You can wait until the Leadership Vacuum comes, or you can prepare for it now.  Preparing now not only helps you when a key leader decides to leave, it also helps you build a stronger organization.

Here are some steps you can take to build a Talent Pipeline for your company:

  1. Implement Talent Development Systems: Install processes into your organization that help your managers to actually manage and lead your employees.  These systems include the creation of Individual Development Plans (IDP’s) and quarterly Check-In’s with managers to coach employees on their development. Also train your managers on how to lead and motivate people.
  2. Upgrade your Hiring / Onboarding: You will never have a better chance to influence the success of your employee than when you hire and onboard someone.  This is a one-time chance to set expectations and the tone for their entire time with your company.  If you can cast a vision for a long relationship between you and a new employee, the vision is much more likely to come true.
  3. Give your People Opportunities to Lead: It is a mistake to think that because things operate well today, that they will operate well into the future.  You should always be developing your bench strength.  Give your people opportunities to lead projects that help your company.  See what they can do.  Coach them through the process and help them to develop.  Get them ready to take on bigger responsibilities by allowing them to practice and, yes, to make mistakes.
  4. Protect your Culture: The key role of management is to be the shepherds of your organizational culture.  Culture is a set of internal habits.  Make sure that you are practicing good habits that encourage leaders to emerge and be successful.  Deal with toxic employees immediately by helping them to get realigned with the company, or get them off the bus.

Don’t wait until your world is disrupted to develop leaders in your organization.

Businesses that do a great job in developing internal leaders are simply more profitable and earn much higher levels of engagement. And you may be surprised by the positive impact it will have!


Don Harkey

More about Don: Don Harkey is the Co-Founder and Chief Innovation Officer at People Centric Consulting Group. People Centric partners with clients to help them to create and implement high performance cultures through clear direction, effective systems, and engaged employees. Don learned the power of fostering a culture that creates high employee engagement when he was a senior-level corporate engineer overseeing millions of dollars in capital projects.


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