Fight the Great Resignation: Stop a Leadership Void Before It Starts

Being aware of why people leave—and of what can convince them to stay—will help your organization keep staff members around, a human resources expert says.

In the midst of The Great Resignation, associations might be focused on the immediate talent void. But this era of mass job evacuation also puts an organization’s leadership pipeline at risk—jeopardizing a pillar of organizational strength and a valuable tool for succession planning. In fact, it’s people between ages 30 and 45, who are leading resignations.

What are associations to do? To start, try to learn what your longer-term employees are hoping to get out of their careers, said Mary Ellen Brennan, an HR expert and principal of MEBrennan Consulting.

“I think first that they can try to understand what the issues are for their people—where are they going, what do they think they’re going to achieve when they leave—and trying to see if they could make some of that happen within the organization,” she said.

Some other insights about keeping the Great Resignation in check at your organization:

1. Create a path within the pipeline for potential leaders.

One challenge many organizations face is a leadership cohort that isn’t necessarily ready to retire … and potential successors waiting in the wings, unsure of whether their valuable talent will ever take them to the top within your organization.

Brennan suggests creating a pathway within the pipeline in which emerging leaders share designated aspects of leadership authority, such as a deputy executive director role. This can help encourage the next generation to stick around even as an iconic leader maintains an important role.

“Sometimes it’s hard for leaders to think about sharing their leadership already in power with someone else,” she said. “But it does create that line of succession that helps to keep that key person that you’re trying to develop a person in your pipeline.”

2. Break down silos to lessen the impact of an employee loss.

Even with your best efforts, influential and valuable employees may leave, and you may find yourself having to manage that loss. And you don’t want to be caught off guard—especially when the team is more modest in size.

“We always feel the losses very keenly, but I think probably even more with a small organization,” Brennan said.

To avoid this disruption, she recommends that teams avoid silos, instead allowing people to get a handle on the work that different types of employees execute.

Once staff members understand other roles within the organization, they’ll be more prepared to “step into [a leadership role]—either sideways, laterally, or up the ladder to a role when it becomes available,” she said.

“The CEOs that I’ve worked with are always looking at the pipeline further down and urging people to take advantage of opportunities both inside and outside the organization so that they build that readiness,” she added.

3. Don’t discount the mission.

While associations have lots of tools that can keep employees happy, Brennan says that having a mission employees believe in can be one of the strongest moats to encourage employees not to look for greener pastures.

She pointed to an analysis of an organization that found employees were willing to put aside other concerns for the sake of its mission.

“When they felt that they were really working in a way that contributed to the mission, that seemed to keep them afloat and keep them from leaving and giving into the complaints that they had,” she said.

She also said that it was important to have staff members work closely with the mission—including working directly with members to help make the mission feel more real. She said this was the case with younger generations in particular.

“This generation is looking for being able to make an impact and having that work matter,” she said. “They don’t want to go to the job that their parents went to in which they, for lack of a better word, felt like they were a cog.”

4. Leaving, sometimes, is growth.

While it can seem like losing employees can be dangerous for your organization, sometimes it may simply be the best way to nurture association leaders.

“The best CEOs with whom I’ve worked have realized the need to grow their employees as leaders, but it may lead to them needing to move on for further growth,” she said. “We may not have a position for them, but it is commitment to the profession and association industry to identify and develop leaders.”

A departure doesn’t close the door on a talented employee returning to an organization someday. But it’s worth understanding why an employee might want to leave, she adds—whether that reason is a desire to become an entrepreneur, a direct reaction to COVID-19, or a workplace issue to focus on for the next generation of talent.

(Pinopic/E+/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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