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…So this morning I had the chance to read a white paper from Payscale focusing on various aspects of turnover. It examines the causal factors behind why people leave (or are forced to leave) their organizations, why they choose to stay, and what those reasons can tell us about the way – for better or worse – a company is run. Finally, as any good white paper does this one goes on to outline what organizations can do to engage (and retain) their best employees while fostering an environment in which bad fits find their way out. There is a lot to love about this one, and I highly recommend checking it out here.

With that said, today I want to focus on a snippet I read in the piece that particularly caught my attention. It talks about Steve Jobs’ famed departure from Apple in 1985. It reads:

Apple would have its struggles in the next few years, however, and in 1996 would rehire Jobs as part of the company’s turnaround plan while acquiring (for a mere $400 million) NeXT Inc., the company Jobs started after leaving Apple. The rest, as they say, is history.

Here’s the point. While many wouldn’t hesitate to call Jobs an extraordinary talent, Apple could and did survive without him for 11 years. In the end, however, the company was happy to welcome him back, because while Jobs was replaceable, he wasn’t expendable.

…This made me think about an aspect of turnover that is often an afterthought to issues such as replacement costs and employee morale; namely, its corrosive effect on team and/or enterprise performance over the long-term.

Consider a scenario where an experienced manager leaves his or her organization. Prior to the manager’s exit, he designs S.O.P.s on major job duties, then spends a week or so training his external-hire replacement. This person is often someone that has much less practical experience (and certainly less knowledge of the culture) than the incumbent. In such a situation – which is far from ideal but better than the one departments often finds themselves in (unable to find a replacement before an incumbent’s resignation and with no knowledge management process in place whatsoever) – the new manager comes in and picks up where his or her replacement left off. There are some minor blips at the start, but things are eventually (seemingly) okay.

…But fast forward a few months/years, and an individual contributor or two leave the organization as well. Team performance gradually declines as replacements make mistakes that their predecessors didn’t. The wheels start to come off of what used to be a high-functioning team. And it becomes easy to blame the last person in the door.

In point of fact, however, the decline in team performance is part of a longer-term slide that began when the initial manager left the department. In groups where work is dispersed evenly across the team the loss of any individual member isn’t always immediately noticeable because the organization is able to move forward without any immediately noticeable consequences. And so at an individual level everyone seems expendable. But a few corners get cut in a former employee’s absence that didn’t get cut before. A few I’s and T’s aren’t dotted. It’s at the margins. But these issues only compound over time. Small problems become big.

…Anyone that reads this blog often knows that I am really big on knowledge management/transfer. So much so that at times I probably under-emphasize the importance of continuity players and mid-performers. But they are really important. While top performers may have an out-sized influence on an organization’s success relative to peers, that doesn’t mean that median performers are expendable. Absorbing significant turnover in the middle of your workforce is almost always going to carry with it performance challenges (unless that group is made up almost entirely of unskilled labor). Which means that it’s important to focus on engagement and retention at all levels.

…This isn’t exactly the post I meant to write today, but let me know if I have this one right in the comments section below.