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Why The Best Managers Fire Their Strongest Employees

Written by Will DeKrey | Jun 29, 2017 4:20:52 PM

Our executive team recently returned from a "field trip" where they learned from fast-growing tech companies on the West Coast. One particular observation they made stuck with me: Multiple companies transitioning from “startup” to  “scale-up” have hired COOs who served under Sheryl Sandberg during their careers.

Over the past decade, Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, has become known as one of the top executives globally. Some of her renown is due to what her teams have accomplished, but, much of her deserved reputation comes from what her team members have gone on to do after working with her.

I recently had the opportunity to work with a leader here at HubSpot who also has reputation for developing future leaders. Michael Redbord, like Sandberg, has had a rocketship of a career from frontline marketing consultant to VP of Services & Support at HubSpot. But, more importantly, he has relished in helping his team members grow in their current roles and find their next steps. The alumni of Redbord’s Customer Support team have gone on to become thought leaders throughout the organization, serving in roles from product manager to marketing guru. Redbord recently wrote, “We value Support as a launching pad for careers, and we're pretty great at that... The scores of high velocity careers are my proudest accomplishment.”

Watching Redbord and reflecting on the observation of Sandberg’s former staff, I realized something: Strong leaders unleash, rather than hoard, their best people. They celebrate the growth of their employees even when growth means saying goodbye.

While successful leaders build well-oiled, high-performing teams, we often forget that a well-oiled system needs both inflows and outflows. When you have a star employee trapped in a position that they’ve outgrown, it clogs the gears of high-performance. It’s bad for them, bad for you, bad for your team, and bad for your organization.

In her book Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter, Liz Wiseman reinforces this concept by exploring the difference between “Empire Builders” and “Talent Magnets.” “Empire Builders” develop -- but then hoard -- good talent. This is a trap that many first-time managers fall into: they recognize how much effort they’ve put into developing their employees and don’t want to have to do it all over again. Rising stars stop seeking opportunities to work with “Empire Builders” because they see the “dead end” warning sign of those who’ve gone before them.

Talent Magnets,” on the other hand, have a strong pipeline of new leaders pounding on the door to work with them. This is because they let their top talent go, and then support and publicly celebrate the success of their former employees. Rising stars see those results and want the same.

The “Talent Magnet” approach feels -- and likely is -- harder and costlier in the near term. But it solves for bigger, stronger, more resilient long-term results -- both for managers and for their employees.

For managers, former employees can be a huge source of value, connecting you to new business opportunities, filtering and recommending talent, and sharing semi-private industry information. SNL founder Lorne Michaels, for example, has been repeatedly highlighted as a leader who’s deeply benefited from staying connected to ex-proteges.

And, for employees, former managers will likely have a wider vantage point and better ability to to find the best growth opportunities, especially if they lie outside the current organization or unit. Rising stars will likely achieve greater career success with thoughtful guidance from their managers on where to go next then they would by navigating the job market on their own. Finding that next opportunity will help rising stars develop new perspectives and heuristics around problem solving. This experience will make them stronger leaders in the long run, and they might even bring those skills back to the team or company where they started. We’ve seen quite a few former HubSpot employees return later in their careers with new skillsets to offer.

Ultimately, if Sandberg and Redbord are any indication, the benefits of the “Talent Magnet” management style are worth the trade-offs required. So, if you are looking for your next move, make sure you find a boss who will show you the door when the time is right. And, bosses, make sure you’re ready to pull off the bandaid and fire your best employees when they're ready for that next step.