The Best Way to Lose a Superstar Employee

When your superstars leave, instead of burning the bridge, stay in close touch with them and stay on good terms.

What do you do when you have a superstar employee who is definitely going to leave? You are past the point of any chance of retaining this person. What do you do?

Reasonable minds differ on this question. I cannot tell you how many smart leaders and managers I know who place such a high value on loyalty that they have a very hard time forgiving someone who leaves.

In my view, that is a very limited way of looking at employment relationships, and I advise against taking that emotional and self-defeating approach.

The more your organization has invested in this employee, the more you have at stake in retaining that person—even if that person leaves, you have a huge investment to protect, no matter where it goes. Why not make sure the employee has as big a stake as possible in maintaining a good relationship with you, too?

Keep as Much as You Can

You may not be able to keep this person as a full-time, onsite, uninterrupted, exclusive employee. If you can’t keep the whole employee, why not keep as much as you can? Instead of losing them, offer your most valued employees the chance to take an unpaid sabbatical or to work part-time, flextime, or as consultants.

When your superstars leave, instead of burning the bridge, stay in close touch with them and stay on good terms. Try re-recruiting them after they’ve had a chance to rest or after they’ve had a chance to see that the grass isn’t that much greener on the other side. This is all about continuing to get a return on your investment in this superstar even after he or she has decided not to continue as an employee.

Make It a Long Goodbye

When it’s a superstar you’re losing, you want the goodbye to be as long as you can make it. Of course, some employees feel it’s best to make as quick and clean a break as possible. But for the superstar with whom you want to remain on good terms going forward, make it a long goodbye to facilitate a good succession plan, comprehensive knowledge transfer, and a smooth transition.

I always remember what a senior partner in a large accounting consulting firm told me: “We take succession planning very seriously—every time we lose a key person and realize there is no one on the bench read to step in.” Every superstar should be training and developing his or her replacement, on an ongoing basis. That should be something you talk about with your superstars in your one-on-ones with them, and your superstars talk about in their one-on-ones with their people.

If your superstars don’t have direct reports, it’s all on you. What is your best succession plan for every one of your superstars? Who is on the bench being developed to step in when that superstar steps out?

Develop Your Talent Bench Strength

Whether or not you have a person on the bench ready to step in by the time you know your superstar is leaving, you want as much time as possible so the superstar can help train and develop his or her replacement. If you have the luxury to hire the replacement before the superstar is gone, you should meet with him or her together on a regular, ongoing basis, in addition to meeting with him or her separately.

In other words, triple your one-on-ones for the duration of the transition period:

  • Meet one-on-one with the departing superstar.
  • Meet one-on-one with the new replacement player.
  • Meet with the two of them together.

In your one-on-ones, focus on the intensive knowledge transfer process, from the departing superstar to the new replacement player, that should be under way. Ensure that the transfer is more than a brain-to-brain transfer, however. Every step of the way, make certain that knowledge transfer is being documented in detail in a set of tangible information assets that can be used as learning or training tools.

Building Assets for Knowledge Transfer

Ideally, the tangible knowledge transfer assets you create should be somehow indexed and searchable. They should consist of thoroughly annotated step-by-step instructions and answers to frequently asked questions for every task, responsibility, and project. The importance of creating knowledge transfer assets is even greater when you do not have the opportunity for any brain-to-brain transfer; say, when there is insufficient overlapping employment of your departing superstar and his or her replacement.

Making sure knowledge transfer assets are built is much easier said than done. Despite the best intentions on everybody’s part, often the knowledge transfer assets built by departing superstars end up being painfully suboptimal. That is, unless their manager makes sure otherwise.

Once you know the superstar is leaving, you need to use your one-on-ones to keep him or her focused on the knowledge transfer process more than anything else. Make it the departing superstar’s last great mission and—importantly—legacy. In your one-on-ones, review the knowledge transfer document in draft form. Track progress. Look at every set of step-by-step instructions and make sure they are clear and complete. Ask for second drafts, and third. Loop in someone else to help test the assets.

They May Come Back Someday

Among the other best reasons to make certain that your departing superstars leave on the best possible terms is they are likely to be valuable players wherever they go next and throughout the rest of their careers. If this person is a superstar working for you, why wouldn’t he or she be a superstar wherever he or she goes? Why wouldn’t you want to be on really good terms with him or her?

Maybe this superstar might become your valued customer in his or her next career. Or a valued vendor. Maybe he or she will come back someday and be a valued employee once again, having gained the training and development resources of another employer in the meantime.

Bruce Tulgan is a best-selling author and the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking, a management research and training firm. He is the author of numerous books, including “It’s Okay to Be the Boss,” “Not Everyone Gets a Trophy,” and “The 27 Challenges Managers Face.” His newest book, “The Art of Being Indispensable at Work,” is due for release in the summer of 2020 from Harvard Business Review Press. You can follow Bruce on Twitter @BruceTulgan or visit his website at


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