Heads up. The most talented people at your company are looking for a better job somewhere else.
And with all the job-hopping and Great Resigning going on over the past 12 months, it's fair to assume that it might even be you.
Case in point: "Paul" is a startup leader who came to me with a problem he was furious about, and once I calmed him down long enough to get him to explain (it took a minute), it became clear to me that it was a problem of his own making.
It was also evident that he wasn't ready to take responsibility for it. So I needed to dig my heels in and get a little confrontational, because his management style was threatening his company.
Quitting Employees Are Like Dominoes Waiting to Fall
Paul's best employees are leaving. Not in droves, but it's definitely more than a trickle of talent. According to Paul, these quitters are bailing for what they mistakenly believe to be greener pastures -- easier work, less oversight, and lower pay.
None of that is probably true.
Also, according to Paul, the steady stream of these misguided quitters is causing the morale of his remaining employees to plummet, which is setting them up like a line of dominoes waiting to fall over.
Paul doesn't know which employee is going to be that first trigger domino. And he doesn't know how to stop the chain reaction once it starts.
So he did the dumbest thing possible. He gathered all his employees into a (physical and virtual) room and, with the bravado of someone who has only ever led a hyper-competitive rec-league softball team, gave the "you're either with us or against us" speech.
Three employees quit the next week. Paul called that "progress." I call that the first three dominoes.
The Downward Leadership Spiral of Blaming Employees
Let me get a little bold here. Every problem employee at a company is leadership's fault -- either a mistake made bringing them in or mistakes made once they got there.
You can disagree, but you only have to look at something like Better.com to understand what happens when leadership doesn't take on that responsibility. I've only seen the stories play out in the press, but from what I can gather, the opposite kind of leadership strategy plays out like this.
It doesn't take a mathematician to figure out how that formula ends.
Now, imagine that you're one of the more talented and productive employees in a scenario like that. What's your next move? And how far into the background do you retreat before you make that move?
Boom. You become a domino.
The Silent Minority
I've been founding and leading startups for more than two decades, including transitioning several of them through acquisition into larger and more established companies. In every successful company I've ever been involved with, I can point to a group of employees who played the largest roles in achieving that success.
In one of my earlier company runs, we held on to every single person for three years and got to 50 employees before we lost our first one. Was every single person critical to our success? No. I'd put that number at about 60 percent.
However, that doesn't mean that everyone else was dead weight. Despite how some people see capitalism, corporations aren't machines with working parts and bad parts -- until company leadership starts treating resources like cogs. Then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
That transition -- from startup family to corporate machine -- creates a culture that relegates the best talent at the company from valued team member to quiet background cog. They become a silent minority.
Poor Leadership Starts With Poor Relationships
Where does poor middle management come from? Maybe you can blame movies and television shows, or maybe it comes from books written by guys now in their 80s who ran giant, soulless corporations in the 1980s.
At some point in the company growth cycle, usually at around 50 employees, leadership starts to believe that they have to scale relationships with employees just like they're scaling everything else about the company during this delicate and precipitous growth stage.
What results is a hastily scraped-together management layer that turns relationships into checklists and productivity into KPIs. I've seen a million trendy ways to try to combat this, from Beer Fridays to salary transparency to the tried-and-true suggestion box.
There is no substitute for leadership's relationships with the best and brightest people at a company. And if leadership has to outsource those relationships to a middle-management layer, they'd do well not to overlook the effort that handoff process requires. It's just as important as any measure to scale and grow the top and bottom line.
Now, is poor middle management the root cause of any good employee leaving any company for supposedly greener pastures? Of course not.
But Paul isn't the CEO. The CEO of Paul's company checked out of the employee relationship business and handed it off to Paul while he spends time with deep-pocketed investors, highly prized customers, and (keep this on the down-low) C-list celebrities.
Do I see a fix here? No. It'd probably be too little, too late. Plus, Paul flat out told me I had no idea what I was talking about. So the least I can do is give you this heads-up, and help you understand if you're a domino that's about to fall.