How to Lose a Superstar Very, Very Well

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

Retaining your superstars

The more you and your organization have 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 he goes. Why not make sure the employee has as big a stake as possible in maintaining a good relationship with you too? You may not be able to keep the employee as a full-time on-site, 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, to work part-time, flextime, or as telecommuters or 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 so much greener on the other side. This is all about continuing to get a return on your investment in this superstar even after the superstar has decided not to continue as an employee.

Here’s the other part of the equation: If your employees know that as soon as someone mentions maybe, possibly leaving, is tantamount to burning bridges with you, then guess what? Your employees are never going to tell you when they are thinking about leaving. They are never going to talk to you about it before it’s too late. How you deal with people when they actually leave will have a huge impact on when and how employees will discuss it with you. If thinking about leaving means, “Good riddance,” then you won’t know an employee is thinking about leaving until it’s too late. The irony is that the only way to create an environment where employees will tell you when they are thinking about leaving is if leaving means, “Good luck to you! We’ll help you in every way we can and then let’s figure out how we can maintain a great relationship going forward.”

Assuming that this is a superstar you are losing, you want the goodbye to be as long as you can possibly make it. Some employees, of course, once they decide to leave its best to make it a quick and clean break. But for the superstar with whom you want to remain on very 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 one of the big accounting/consulting firms once told me: “We take succession planning very seriously, every time we lose a key person and realize there is no one on the bench ready to step in.” Every superstar should be training and developing her replacement, systematically, 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 their own direct-reports, then it’s all on you. What is your succession plan for every one of your superstars? Who is on the bench being developed to step in when that superstar steps out?


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 that the superstar can help train and develop her replacement. If you have the luxury to hire the replacement before the superstar is gone, you should meet with them together on a regular ongoing basis in addition to meeting with each of them separately. In other words, triple your one-on-ones for 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 that should be underway from the departing superstar and the new replacement player. Ensure that the transfer is more than a brain-to-brain transfer, however. Every step of the way, make absolutely certain that the knowledge transfer is being documented in detail in a set of tangible information assets that can be used thereafter as learning/training tools. Ideally, these tangible knowledge transfer assets would be in the form of completely indexed and searchable, thoroughly annotated step by step instructions (along with 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 brain-to-brain transfer, if there is insufficient overlapping employment of your departing superstar and his replacement.

I have to stop and note that making sure this knowledge transfer asset is built is much easier said than done. I’ve seen, over and over again, despite the best of intentions on everybody’s part, the knowledge transfer assets built by departing superstars end up being painfully suboptimal unless the manager makes darned sure otherwise. Once you know the superstar is leaving, you need to use your one-on-ones to keep him focused on the knowledge transfer process. Make it the departing superstar’s last great mission and legacy: The Superstar Memorial Annotated Standard Operating Procedures. In your one-on-ones, review the knowledge transfer document in draft form. Every step of the way, track the departing superstar’s progress. Look at every set of step-by-step instructions and make sure they are clear and complete. Ask for second drafts and third drafts when necessary. If you need to, interview the departing superstar about every step in every set of SOPs to get that next level of detail.

In addition to making good use of the long goodbye, among the other best reasons to make certain that your departing superstars leave on the best possible terms is that 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 she be a superstar wherever she goes? Why wouldn’t you want to be on really good terms with her? Who knows, maybe she might become your valued customer in her next career? Or a valued vendor? Maybe 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?