Avoiding the Defection Anxiety Trap

If you have a talented direct report with a history of success who’s now struggling, chances are it’s the role.

High performers tend to be consistent. They’ve risen through their organizations demonstrating competence in successive roles. Sometimes it’s technical expertise. Even more often, it’s their tendency to work hard and demonstrate agility navigating unfamiliar terrains. The common disclaimer, “past performance may not be an indicator of future results” is truer of investment vehicles than people. Past performance actually serves as a pretty reliable predictor.

Inadvertently Setting the Trap

For many senior leaders, experience had demonstrated that highly motivated, highly able performers (let’s call them “stars”) are hard to come by. Worse yet, they’re harder to keep. The good news is stars are independent. The bad news is . . . well, they’re independent. I’ve observed numerous execs – itching to ward off a dreaded, imagined defection – preemptively try to “promote” a star. Two well-worn maneuvers: (a) creating a brand new role; or (b) cobbling new accountabilities to the star’s existing job. Each is intended to project an aura of ascendency and warrant more generous comp and perks. Good intentions. Bad ideas.

In one case, the Office of the CEO had a star business unit head it wanted to warehouse for a few years in readiness to replace an EVP that was due to retire. The in-between role they created for the star was meant to serve as a clearinghouse for information between levels. Instead, it merely added another review layer and wound up a bottleneck for decisions and action.

In another instance, a COO handed his star Chief Marketing Officer responsibilities in Decision Support. It was a discipline in which she lacked grounding and the painstaking learning curve interfered with her making a serious contribution while still performing her marketing day job.

In both of these cases, the role changes destabilized the organizations by confusing expectations, boundary management, and accountability for multiple stakeholders.

Both were seen for what they were: interim gigs to support career aspirations instead of helping workflow and results. Both stars underperformed and their reputations suffered.

 Avoiding the Trap

Before you inadvertently set this trap for your unwitting stars, test your “promotion” against each of the following criteria:

1. There are Clear Lines of Authority and decision rights for all work;

2. The role is Value Added to the existing structure; and

3. The job is easily Describable in a few sentences.

If your new-and-improved role can’t pass this test, let it go. Consider, instead, tapping into your star’s set of drivers. Typically, this includes some combination of interesting work, autonomy, and professional development. You, raise the topic.  Disclose your defection anxiety right to them. Jointly work out a plan. There’s no need to blow up anything to keep your talented direct reports onboard.


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