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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Davies

Treat Them Like They're Leaving

On Saturday morning I took my daughter swimming at Portobello pool, right on the promenade in the coastal suburb of Edinburgh. It's a beautiful old Victorian pool and the same one what my wife learned to swim in when she was our daughter's age, so it's nice to visit there when we are on that side of town visiting the in laws.

After the swim, my wife was helping my daughter get changed and I headed outside to get us a cuppa and queued up at the very popular Little Green Van which does some particularly tasty sausage rolls if you happen to be in the area!

In the queue ahead of me were a family with two parents, about the same age as my own, who were clearly regulars at the van and were chatting to the owners about the mother's impending retirement. The tale she was telling, was as old as time!

The mother was four weeks away from retirement, the final two of which were going to be taken as holiday, meaning she only had ten days of work left in her career. Naturally, this decision to retire hadn't snuck up on her or the organisation (I have no idea what she did or who she worked for, but I've seen this play out many times before in different businesses) and both her and the people she worked with and for had known for months, perhaps even years that she was going to be moving on.

I won't attempt recall her exact words, but the Cliff notes version was that she was winding down for retirement and as the weeks passed, she could feel a direct correlation between the amount of time she had left to work and the amount of energy and passion that she was investing in this work. At that point, the forthcoming retiree stopped taking on any new projects or tasks, since she wouldn't be around to see them through and the ones she was currently working on were either almost finished or she'd not be the one to drive them to their conclusion, so her level of investment was naturally diminished.

All of that was perfectly natural and as a leader, when someone - even the most diligent and committed worker - has checked out of their work, it's very hard to build that motivation back up again. But what was unforgivable (and painfully common) was that the organisation she was leaving had done absolutely nothing to prepare for her imminent departure until she was two weeks from walking out the door for a final time! She spoke of a scrabble over the last few days to find out what she was doing and what she knew and transfer that knowledge onto those whose careers in the company would continue beyond her retirement!

As I say, I've seen this before and I've even seen the worse case where the organisation doesn't realise they haven't transferred that institutional memory and business knowledge into the remaining staff until the retiree has gone! I recall a time when I worked in branch banking and there was a significant headcount reduction taking place, which was resulting in a lot of our longest tenured staff taking early retirement. That was great for them, but in multiple branches, those who left has been responsible for lots of the small, unglamorous but crucial tasks that are required to keep a branch functioning and when they left, they took crucial knowledge with them, making it very hard for the business to function!

So what to do? Well naturally there's a process to conduct when someone is approaching retirement, to fully audit and understand the ways in which they contribute to the business and to ensure that there are people well placed to pick up these tasks once they've gone (whether that's through training others up, or recruiting to replace the retiree) but why leave it until they're half way out the door? Identifying single points of failure is so important all the time, because circumstances change in an instant. If someone falls ill, leaves for a different job, gets poached by a competitor, has a change in family circumstances, moves home, even passes away, it can leave a big hole in your business and give you no time to prepare for that transition.

Before you get to that point, think about how good your team is at coaching and developing one another and how much time you allow them to spend doing this. By increasing the coaching capability of all of your people, not just the managers, you can create an environment where everyone helps each other to grow and develop and where you take the existing capability of individuals and transform it into capability right across the team. It's great having one person who is a superstar at outbound calling, but what about taking that capability and having them share it with others? Spread the load, increase the capability and you might even discover a few diamonds with skills and talent you didn't realise you had!

What's more, developing your people as coaches can be hugely rewarding for them. It might not be true for everyone, but most people I've encountered get a real buzz from sharing their knowledge and wisdom and helping those around them to grow. Seeing someone achieve something or complete a task and knowing that you've been a part of that journey is an amazing feeling and one which can be a motivator too. So by treating people like they're leaving and enhancing their ability to upskill those around them, you might just increase the likelihood of keeping them!

Have you experienced any of these situations before? I'd love to hear all about them so let me know what you think!

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