I have worked in a variety of companies that had different scales and cultures, from a handful of people in a startup to hundreds of people on a single floor in a large corporation. I think I’ve learned a few lessons about talent expulsion that are worth sharing.
By talents, I mean the people passionate about their work and who are good at it.
I worked with many of these talented people and saw some of them leave, and I think I know a sure path an organization can follow to expel talent, especially software companies. The list is not ordered by significance, because that’s very subjective and is different from one person to another.
⚠️ Disclaimer #1: These lessons are collected from a dozen years of work and interaction with friends working in other organizations too. These lessons don’t belong to a single company.
In my personal opinion, without much research and based only on first-hand experience, having one or a couple of the reasons listed below happening in a single organization is slightly risky, but surely if you have half of them or more, it’s alarming of a talent exodus awaiting your organization.
⚠️ Disclaimer #2: Avoiding all of the below reasons would not eliminate the probability of some talents leaving your organization. Sometimes talented people leave because they are looking for a different challenge, sometimes relocating, they got an offer with double their current salary or maybe they decided to start a new decade of their life doing something completely different. This is normal, and that’s not the scope of this post, here I focus on talented people who leave companies out of disappointment and dissatisfaction.
Without further ado, Let’s have a look at the reasons.
For talented people, micromanagement is one of the most hated behaviors. They easily feel a lack of trust in their competency and judgment. Believe me when I say that it’s very rare to find a manager who knows everything their subordinates know. Autonomy is highly regarded by talented people and it makes leaders focus on their real jobs. Whether you agree with the shape-up product development framework or not, I suppose this quote from it makes sense.
When teams are more autonomous, senior people can spend less time managing them. With less time spent on management, senior people can shape up better projects. When projects are better shaped, teams have clearer boundaries and so can work more autonomously.
#2 Bring your HIPPO
HIPPO here stands for Highest Paid Person’s Opinion. This is very simple to spot and very destructive as a culture. It’s extremely hard for talents to live in a HIPPO-driven culture. Again, those talents continuously study, learn new stuff, sharpen their saw and stand for something. Basically, they know their shit. Trashing all of this because a figure of authority demanded something is not a good sign, and repeating this frequently is eventually inviting talents to think of how they can benefit better from their own experience and passion.
#3 Have no vision or an unclear one
The unclarity of your vision would lead to scattering efforts and frequent jumps between opportunities without a thread that connects these opportunities together. This is risky. One common thing I noticed among the talented people I worked with, was their sincere appreciation of focus. Focus on clear goals, focus on specific problems, focus on a solid vision. Vision has been proven to be very powerful when it’s not just ink on paper. It’s not only the company vision but also the vision behind projects/products.
Sometimes a team spends a long time on a project, without any clear clues on when to call it done, or what the reasons behind this project are. They wake up one day on a management decision to cancel the project that was about to reach launch readiness “soon”. This unclarity leads to a Sisyphean culture where individual contributors are punished by others’ decisions to repeat mistakes again and again. Unlike the myth of Sisyphus, and away from Greek mythology, the impact falls upon the whole organization and its ability to achieve a meaningful outcome.
#4 Implement frequent radical process changes
That is just a lot of hassle. Imagine calling a new process every couple of quarters, sometimes lean, sometimes OKRs, other times XYZ. Those frequent changes confuse everyone. They create a feeling of a low signal-to-noise ratio, and people question how much real value they bring and collect from their working day. Try to find a good process and stick with it. Apply adjustments to refine it, but avoid frequent radical process changes because people would stop taking them seriously or would stop caring at all.
#5 Tolerate assholes
Talented people have a good level of self-respect. They can be very kind and approachable, but don’t take their positive attitude for granted. Beware of organizational assholism and don’t show tolerance towards such behaviors, if you desire to keep talents working for you.
Another important thing is that the software world is a small village, where people meet and talk. Talents attract talents, and assholes attract assholes. So, beware of assholism signs in your organization, because the overall culture which will prevail is a collection of the individuals’ beliefs, assumptions, perceptions, and actions towards their work and other colleagues.
#6 Don’t show appreciation
Many talented people that I know expect some kind of appreciation for the effort they put into something. Making them know that they are appreciated is a good way to retain them. Sometimes it’s in the form of financial appreciation, some other times it’s a symbolic appreciation. The important thing is not to bullshit them, you need to show that you sincerely care about them and their existence in your organization. Never ever be the person that acts like “I don’t care if everybody leaves” unless you really want to expel talent. Take extra care of this point when you’re in a competitive market with many opportunities for such talented people.
#7 Ignore technical debt to ship more functionality
This one is a bit specific to the technology-related environments. Technical debt is a beast that if you keep feeding would grow stronger and would eventually expel your talented people. Imagine that for a simple feature to be added, the engineer works in a minefield of interconnected complex code, and the cherry on top of this shit cake could be that the code itself is ancient with many deprecated methods/functions. Continuously sacrificing long-term maintainability for short-term gains would lead to speed in the beginning but massive slow down eventually.
#8 Facilitate burnout
Everybody loves deadlines, don’t we 😏? .. some of us love them a bit more than the average healthy level. These people end up inventing unrealistic deadlines upfront. Usually, they create a sense of urgency/emergency for their -and other- teams for no real need.
Distilling these emergencies to their basic elements shows that there’s usually a lack of understanding of the issue at hand, and usually a strong desire to defend the personal ego surrounding the invented/promised deadline while ignoring the impact on the people who respond to the fake emergency and do the actual work. They end up canceling a promised appointment with a friend or a movie night with a partner or working late nights frequently. The major push gets the output out in time but how many times has this output stayed on the shelf for a while until any further action? When these occasions pile up, these smart people disregard deadlines and urgency and stop caring.
#9 Inflate titles and let the show-offs rule
I’ve seen it and heard about it so many times. Inflating titles is dangerous, creates a feeling of promotion for some people while effectively they keep doing the same thing they did a year or two ago. This also creates a feeling of misappreciation for some other very talented people who are not what I call the meetings superstars. I’ve known many talented people who are very knowledgeable and capable but they were extremely introverted and shied away from showing off their capabilities or refrained from disagreeing openly. After a while of them observing that when it comes to promotion sometimes words speak louder than action, they feel disappointment and lose hope that good work is the key to better appreciation. Beware of this, and train those people to speak up and participate, and be very careful of the meetings superstars climbing up the organizational ladder leaving behind true talents that get the real shit done.
#10 Encourage Politics
Be it a small startup or a large-scale corporation, no company is politics-free. There’s a level of politics that each organization can endure, but beyond this level, people start suffering. Usually, politics is not common among software engineers, but it happens on higher levels of reporting, and when it gets nasty this impacts the engineers and other entities, making the organization less appealing in general. Politics between two managers can lead two teams to fight for authority over a specific topic or project, this decreases open collaboration, slows down the organization, and facilitates building a new generation of corporate-politics professionals.
After publishing this post, my friend Amr Essam drew my attention to another point related to politics, assholism, and inflating titles altogether; which is the concept of making friendship relationships outside of work build smaller circles inside work that have the advantages of better tasks, better benefits, exclusive access to critical information, and sometimes better compensations and promotions because they’re closer to the decision-maker. This builds small tribes inside teams, sometimes with expulsive behavior towards other team members. This point is critical, I know it’s hard for human beings to completely separate between these personal and professional relationships, but it’s extremely unfair if you’re a leader that gives better leverage to your friends instead of providing a fair opportunity for everyone to grow and contribute.
#11 Take no action
I realized from discussions with good talents who I used to work with that the cost of inaction is pretty high. Good people try to proactively change things, then after more struggle, some of them don’t take many actions but they still complain, then they complain less loudly and show signs of dissatisfaction and sometimes disappointment, but at some point of time the volume of their active contribution and objection about bullshit goes to zero, and they just focus on getting their shit done with the least losses possible. Usually, the loss eventually is for the organization because they are either gone, or they stay but the value retrieved from their ideas has dropped massively because they don’t want to have continuous headaches. Asking one of them “Why didn’t you raise this?” and getting a response of “After all of this, would it have helped?” is a clear sign there was a long pile of inaction that lead them to give up.
These are the reasons that I could document over the years, but what about you? What do you think are other reasons that contribute to talent exodus? Would love to learn more about this.