A Leadership Dilemma: At What Point Should Star Performers Go?


The goal of hiring is pretty simple: Fill an open job, preferably with someone who will be a strong performer. Even better, finding someone who turns into a star performer.

Yes, everyone wants to find that next great employee, and most managers would tell you that star performers are worth their weight in gold because they not only do great work, but also help elevate the quality of work from everyone else around them.

So, why would you ever want to see a star performer go? According to The Wall Street Journal, "some of the best managers not only allow their top performers to leave, but actively encourage it."

"You can't keep good people down"

The answer: Great leaders understand that great talent is going to leave eventually, and organizations that build a reputation for finding and nurturing great talent and helping them move along to bigger and better things become "talent magnets" that talented people want to work for.

According to Dr. Sydney Finkelstein, the Steven Roth professor of management and director of the Tuck Center for Leadership at Dartmouth College,

One leader told me that it was “normal” for people to want to pursue their own interests after a while: 'We let these people go on an individual basis, and they left with their heads high and with great feelings toward us. It was probably the most successful thing we ever did.'

Another said: 'You can’t keep good people down, and if they get a really good opportunity that you can’t match, it’s inevitable you’re going to lose them. But that’s the price you pay for having really outstanding people.'

For many companies, losing great talent would be a catastrophe, a crisis, something to worry about. But according to Dr. Finkelstein, really great leaders don't think that way. As he wrote in The Journal:

As these bosses also understood, such turnover isn’t nearly as destructive as most managers think. When a stream of top performers go on to better things, the departures usually hasten the flow of more top talent into the company. Outstanding bosses who let their top talent leave developed reputations as launchpads; their companies were places to go to supercharge a career.


You should welcome your stars leaving

My take: This approach to talent is something I call the "Dynasty Approach," and we see it most clearly in the world of sports.

Teams like the University of Alabama's football team or the NFL's New England Patriots are great over a long period of time because of a management system that is constantly looking to refresh the team with up-and-coming great talent to replace longstanding star performers as they graduate, retire or move along to something else.

In both these cases -- and I am sure you can name others -- the organization is built on the premise of always finding new talent that can become great. And, the proof of their success are in the championships they are always competing for and frequently winning,

This is a leadership philosophy that makes a lot of sense. As Dr. Finkelstein puts it:

The next time your top performer talks about leaving, what will you do? I suggest you follow the lead of the world’s greatest bosses and welcome it. Our people are our greatest assets, but not in the way we usually think. To win big, we can no longer afford to keep our best talent to ourselves. We have to be willing to lose it. Our talent will be better off, and so will we.

Editor's Note: Looking for that next superstar employee? Checkster can help with great tools -- like the Reference Check and the Interview Check -- that can streamline the process for finding and hiring great people.