Employees Quit Leaders, Not Companies

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These days, there’s lots of talk about the plight of a generation filled with hungry souls looking for purpose in life. Many find themselves feeling restless in their current roles, or searching endlessly for the ideal career path.

Although most of us must work to pay our way in the world, I think the mission is larger than just finding a great job. It’s also about finding strong role models.

Do You Give Employees A Reason To Stay?

When we’re kids, serendipity “assigns” the leaders in our lives. Our parents, our teachers, our coaches. We don’t pick these people, but they have a huge influence on how we develop and how we come to view ourselves. They can encourage and inspire us to stretch and grow; or they can stifle us, bully us and crush our spirits.

Those early experiences have a profound impact on us — but how do they carry over into careers?

Here’s a theory: Perhaps once we’re thrust into “the rest of our lives,” we’re on a mission to reconnect with the types of leaders we remember most fondly from our youth. It’s impossible to forget those who lit a fire in our hearts and under our butts — the ones who had confidence in us and challenged us to stretch and grow. We trust those types of leaders to guide us. They’re the ones in whom we want to invest both our loyalty and our time.

What should workplace decision makers learn from this? If you’re building a company, keeping the best people on your team is not just about salaries, perks and benefits. What you bring to the table as a leader matters just as much — if not more — to the overall happiness and commitment of your employees.

Looking Back: Survey Says…

Leigh Branham, author of 7 Hidden Reasons Employees Leave analyzed over 20,000 anonymous surveys asking employees why they left their last job. Although most managers believe pay is the primary reason people quit, Branham discovered that the number one reason actually is “loss of trust and confidence in senior leaders.”

The second reason? “Feeling undervalued in recognition, reward and pay.” Even though pay is included in that reason, it can be said that both loss of confidence and feeling that your work efforts are overlooked are actually leadership issues. “Undervalued” in this sense has little to do with money.

Some people might consider a new job at a different company because the pay is higher. However, the true seed of restlessness and dissatisfaction can be traced back to a disconnect between employee and employer.

Loyalty Breeds Loyalty

If employees quit leaders, not companies, then how can employers stem the tide? It starts with leaders who understand that to get loyalty from others, you must first give it. Leaders who take the initiative in demonstrating commitment to their teams are far more successful in gaining commitment in return.

Jo Romano, a work and life coach, suggests some simple ways for employers to demonstrate loyalty. These are our four favorites:

1) Clarify your values and goals, and encourage open dialogue with employees to be sure everyone is on the same page.

2) Trust your employees with important company information. An open door approach helps employees feel empowered and part of something bigger than just their immediate responsibilities.

3) Encourage growth opportunities by allowing employees to further their formal education or seek advice from other leaders, managers and supervisors. This shows them you’re secure in your role as leader and are invested in their professional growth.

4) Be sensitive to work/life conflicts to demonstrate that you see employees as people, and not just “workers.” Kindness and respect invariably strengthens any relationship.

The 21st Century Leader

The fundamentals of great leadership are timeless (passionate, confident, well-spoken). However, we like to suggest a few additions to the leadership playbook.

As Todd Wilms noted recently in Forbes commentary, today’s leaders should be willing to fail, be vulnerable, and set better boundaries. What? Failure, vulnerability and saying “no”? At first glance, that sounds like a recipe for disaster. But let’s break it down:

1) See Success Through Failure. These days, the saying is fail and fail fast. Quite simply, it’s imperative to try, to DO, even if you don’t achieve the desired goal. And that’s the whole point, to try, to test, to experiment, to innovate, to push the envelope and perhaps to fail. Then learn, tweak, iterate and polish. A journey from idea to execution, rife with failure, is better than than paralysis. Leaders who embrace failure by carving a path through it can empower employees and remove fear from the equation.

2) Find Strength In Vulnerability. Actually, it’s not just about vulnerability. The goal is to expose your humanity by being authentic, accepting, present and useful. Author and executive, James A. Autry, says these 5 principles set the stage for a leader/employee dynamic that is more open and functional. Be real and be a resource. Open yourself up to employees and lead by example.

3) Just Say “No.” It’s simple and logical, but many fail to remember that when you try to do everything, you end up doing nothing. Or you end up doing everything, with mediocre results. A great leader is an editor. It’s not about being a jerk or someone that everyone fears. The point is to keep people focused and leveraged. The trick is to say “no” with such finesse that it sounds more like a favor than a dismissal. Too many “yes’s” and you become a pleaser. But thoughtful, appropriate “no’s” make you an effective leader.

Great Leaders Attract AND Retain

Building and running a company requires juggling many moving parts and pieces — you can’t do it all yourself. But no matter what service you’re providing or what product you’re building, don’t forget that YOU are one of the essential reasons your employees joined the company in the first place. Keep this in mind so those moving parts won’t include dissatisfied employees, high turnover and loss of essential talent.

Of course, sometimes losing a key player or two may be unavoidable. But if a pattern arises and you’re losing more employees than you’d like, and you’re unsure about why, it’s time to examine your approach to leadership. Taking conscious, deliberate steps to nurture your leadership skills and employer/employee dynamic is never a waste of time. In fact, it might make all the difference to to your organization’s long-term health and prosperity.

What’s fundamental leadership quality matters most to your organization? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

(Editor’s Note: To discuss World of Work topics like this with others in the TalentCulture community, join our online #TChat events every Wednesday, from 6:30-8pm ET. Everyone is welcome. Learn more...)

Image Credit: WarnerBros

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David Hassell

David Hassell

David Hassell is a serial entrepreneur and founder & CEO of 15Five, a SaaS company focused on helping individuals and organizations reach their highest potential. Hailed by Fast Company as the “15 Most Important Minutes of Your Work Week” 15Five creates an internal communication process that enables the most important information to flow seamlessly throughout an organization, to surface issues before they become problems, to celebrate wins, discover great ideas and stay tuned in to the morale of the team.David formerly served as president of the San Francisco chapter of Entrepreneurs’ Organization and was named “The Most Connected Man You Don’t Know in Silicon Valley” by Forbes.)


  1. So much truth in this article, and I’m sure many leaders can resonate with the outcome of losing their people.

    From my perspective, the biggest challenge for a leader is to determine exactly what is transpiring in all of their employees – so they know what to talk about to prevent a dip in performance and/or someone walking out. Often times, they just don’t know how to approach or ask the right questions.

    The key word I like to focus on is “attachment”. If you have an attached workforce, you likely will have a high performing Organization.

    For those reasons, and many others, we’ve developed a Workforce Analytic tool that tells the leader exactly what is happening to their people – so they know what to do and when to do it. Essentially, to re-recruit them back into the company. Better yet, the leader can track their progress to make sure what you are doing, is effective.

    Great article.

    1. We couldn’t agree more regarding how crucial communication is –we know it’s a “make or break” thing in our personal relationships, but too seldom do we apply it to our work and professional relationships.

      Attachment –yes. But most importantly: commitment.

      Thanks for your comment!

  2. Great piece! The manager-employee relationship is so critical to employee satisfaction and, ultimately, to the company’s success.

    I love the point about leaders showing vulnerability and would add that employees also play a role in making that possible. The imbalance of power can sometimes create a feeling of “my boss is getting paid the big bucks so he/she shouldn’t make mistakes or have moments of ineffectiveness”.

    The more people get to know each other, through many open and respectful conversations, the more empathy is created, which helps both sides to remember that we’re all only human.
    Those conversations should start from the very beginning — the interview. Here are some useful questions to get that dialogue going: http://bit.ly/15ReG8O.

    1. Laura,

      Love your article on the interview process –so true that if we start if we start at the very first conversation, we can set ourselves up for success in working relationships and treat the interview as a two-way street vs focusing on just selling ourselves and our own qualifications to someone that in reality, we will potentially work very close with.

      Thanks for the comment!

  3. Communication is the key, unfortunately some bosses (not leaders)do not know how to spell it let alone perform it. It is incumbent on leaders to be able to communicate at all levels and to be engaged with their employees. Some great points in your article, appreciate the reinforcement of ideals. Just another peice of the puzzle is the ability to listen and accept weaknesses and strengths. Good leaders, like good coaches position their players to enhance their strengths and to add value to the team.

  4. Absolutely love what you’ve said here about commitment to one’s team. It’s absolutely true that employees leave leaders who don’t have confidence in them – feeling undervalued is the greatest threat to retention. The role of leaders is changing as organizations become flatter. No longer can they be the golf-playing, lunch-taking ivory tower types; like you said, they need to be present and express value in their employees. Thanks so much for sharing!

  5. A great book on this topic is In Extremis Leadership by Colonel Thomas Kolditz (West Point). I boiled down his work into this formula, which I have permanently up on my whiteboard: Competency + Loyalty + Authenticity = Trust. Then I add my own question: who do you trust? It takes all three areas to be a trusted leader.

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