Relationships on the rocks – Rescuing Key People Who Jump Ship

Let ’em go

It was an ordinary afternoon—until my CFO and HR chief interrupted a meeting in my office. “We have to talk ASAP,” one said solemnly. My heart sank. I motioned them in and instinctively asked the dreaded two words: “Who’s leaving?” Our IT head had resigned after a non-competitor lassoed him with a big offer. I convened an emergency session with our core executive team to consider our options. We brainstormed a while but decided to sleep on it. It was a long night. A disruption in any of the multiple mission-critical initiatives IT was spearheading could prove costly. I practiced some deep breathing, focused on all the things that were going right, and began mapping out an action plan.

Try to keep ’em

I was never resigned to losing a valuable employee. As long as she hadn’t turned in her ID badge, I figured I had a shot at keeping her. First, I shifted my mindset from how will this person’s absence make things more difficult for me? To what’s best for this person? I’d sit down with her and say, “I have mixed emotions, Jane. On one hand, I hate to see you go. On the other, if you think this is an opportunity you can’t pass up, then good for you. You deserve the best. I’m not going to try to talk you out of it. I just wanted to thank you for your contributions. If you’re open to it, we could brainstorm a bit to make sure you’re making the right decision.”

Bolting major client

The phone call couldn’t have come at a worse time for Alexis Bloom strand. The sole owner of New Morning Windows, she had just had surgery to fuse four vertebrae and faced months of recuperation. She was in the midst of building a new house on the heels of divorce. She was also negotiating with her ex to buy the Minneapolis building that housed the business they had launched twenty-two years earlier. On top of all that, it was just a month after the 9/11 terror attacks.

She had an inkling bad business news was brewing. Two weeks before going under the knife, she asked her flagship client, one of North America’s largest window manufacturers, whether the rumors were true about its impending purchase of her competitor, a Canadian custom window manufacturer nearly three times New Morning’s size. No deal was in the works, her client assured her.

Build a stable of advisers

Panicked business leaders don’t make good decisions. When one of New Morning’s suppliers later hit a rough patch, Alexis suggested he pony up for expert advice like she had. It was an expense he said he couldn’t afford. “I told him he couldn’t afford to,” Alexis said. “Our legal and consulting fees were $200,000 one year. That makes me sick. But if we hadn’t spent it, we wouldn’t be here today.”

Upgrade financial fluency

Working with consultants helped Alexis learn the nuts and bolts of cash flow and cash management. “I knew the basics,” she said. “But they showed me the importance of mastering the financial end.” She now knows how to build a financial planning model to prove the company’s long-term viability and attract new financing.

Raise the performance bar

Forced to scour her labor costs, Alexis didn’t like what she saw. Some veteran employees were coasting on inflated salaries built by automatic annual raises. She tackled productivity issues head-on by implementing education and training programs.

Expand your customer base

Alexis recruited new sales reps to pursue new markets, an important part of her strategic plan. But don’t overlook existing markets when you need to replace lost sales. When a wholesale customer dropped us, for instance, we called his strongest competitor and delivered a message that was hard to refuse. We could increase sales, we told him because we understand the local market and carried brands with established name recognition—built courtesy of his competitor.

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Last word

I’d pull out all the stops to win a customer back. I’d appeal to decision-makers to— please, please—in recognition of our longstanding relationship, at least sit-down and talk things through. (In a case like Alexis’s, obviously, that isn’t an option.) Together, we’d explore what our rival offered versus what we had. If we were outgunned, I’d be the first to admit it. More often than not, a few tweaks here and a few concessions there were enough to save the relationship.

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