Sunday, March 16, 2008

Just a Thought: What do you do with your dearly departed?

If you've been following this blog for a while, you probably already know that there's nothing I love more than the thrill and privilege of interviewing ordinary people who love their work. There's something wonderful about sitting down one-on-one with strangers, biding a little bit of time so they can forget the recorder is going (the geeks, of course, are always fascinated by my digital recorder and the mic that looks like a robot...the uber-geeks can't resist saying to me, "you still using that?" Then I have to cop to the fact that it was only in the last year I moved from magnetic tape).

Anyway, before too long, the two of us find a way to tap into the rich vein of what really makes them passionate about their work and then an anthem to joy springs forth. And I get the most amazing, soaring sentiments of what it really feels like to be in just the right place on this earth. It almost always ends up in tears (see Feb 22 posting on this particular topic).

So yesterday I was transcribing one of these interviews for a client, and this particular person was telling the story of how she left the company of her passion and then returned a couple of years later -- a transformed person returns to a company that also transformed in the interim and now the match is sweet and perfect.

That got me to wondering: How can employers keep a rich resource that has traditionally been put in the talent dumpster: The employees who leave -- either voluntarily or involuntarily? Sure, we have the traditional exit interview; but you and I both know how useless those things are. (I had one of those once, a dispirited, disinterested event governed by soulless questions on a clipboard. I wanted to lean over to my interviewer and say, "let's face it, you wish you were me, don't you?")

Then, of course, there are the post-exit interviews, which I suppose are even better. Most people are reluctant to burn bridges -- at least not right away. So they may be more forthcoming three to six months later, a time frame where their passion for (or rage at) the former employer is still fresh enough to get some salient details, but they're far enough away from the old job that they can be a little more thoughtful in their advice and insights.

And then, of course, there are the "why do you stay" interviews, which I especially like because they capture what's working in your culture by people who are still invested in making their work work. This way companies can build on those positive strengths.

But there's something else, something more, that can be done -- especially with those people who have truly left and don't necessarily expect to come back. Keep in touch with them.

What happened with my interviewee (let's call her Ann) is that, thinking she had reached a stopping place with the company, she resigned to take a growth job at her city mayor's office. But one of the people inside the first company -- one of her coworkers, but not someone in her department -- kept in touch with her. Just lunch now and then. No biggee.

But one day, a few years later, this coworker was tasked with writing the job description of Ann's dream. So what did she do? She asked Ann would she please, as a friend, help write the job description? And, oh by the way, would Ann consider taking the job herself?

Ann didn't say yes right away (she had obligations with the mayor), but she did say yes. And now here she is sitting with me rhapsodizing about how she still loves this company, how she loves her work and how she adores her coworkers. She's baaaaaack!

There are so many reasons why people leave. But those reasons aren't permanent ones. People change and grow. Companies change and grow. Stay in touch with all your people, especially the dearly departed. Even the ones you might have had to fire or lay off.

(Or even the ones who might have fired you! David Neeleman, founder of JetBlue, was actually fired by Ann Rhoades, when they both worked at Southwest Airlines. But when the time came to get JetBlue into the air, who did he tap to be one of the cofounding executives and to head up the HR function? The very person who gave him the boot years earlier.)

Time was once that when people quit or were fired, they were so gone. Not anymore. We now have boomerangs, but the only way they'll come back to you is if you keep track of their flight pattern and catch them on the rebound.

Just a thought.

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