BY EDWARD E. LAWLER III COMMENTARY BY ANNA PRINGLE, F. LEIGH BRANHAM, JIM CORNELIUS, AND JEAN MARTIN
Why Are We Losing All Our Good People?
Sambian Partners has prided itself on being a great place to work, but now talented employees are leaving. What’s going on? MARY DONILLO, the head of human resources at Sambian Partners, motioned Tom Forsythe, Sambian’s assistant director of commercial design, to a comfortable chair in her ofﬁce. It was late on a Thursday afternoon, and the Chicago sky looked like slate. The darkness outside made the overhead ﬂuorescent lights in her ofﬁce seem even more glaring than usual. “Hey, Tom,” she said, adding an extra bit of warmth to her voice. “I was so sorry to hear that you’ve decided to leave. I know your mind is made up – everyone’s already tried to talk you out of it. But I do hope you can help us understand why.” She paused and offered a rueful smile. “It’s a huge loss, but maybe we can learn something from it.” Tom sat stifﬂy in his chair, one side of his face partially covered by a few strands of dark hair that had escaped his ponytail. The lights brought out the bags under his eyes, and his ﬁve o’clock shadow looked more like a seven. With a newborn at home, he probably hadn’t been getting enough sleep, Mary thought. “Well, I think you know that I wasn’t out looking,” Tom said. “Their headhunter came to me, and, what can I say? It’s an of-
fer I couldn’t refuse. I mean, a directadmit partnership to J&N? It really is an opportunity that doesn’t come along often.” Mary couldn’t help blinking at the mention of J&N, Sambian’s much larger competitor. In the past year, it had seemed to step up its raids on Sambian’s talent pool, luring some very capable people over to “the dark side,” as Sambian’s CEO, Helen Gasbarian, liked to call it. “I’m glad for you,” Mary managed to say. “Although I wish it were anywhere else.” “I know.” Mary studied Tom’s face for a moment, wondering how to press for more. No unplanned departure was good news, but this one was really setting off alarm bells. Tom was at the top of his game; at 35, he’d been with Sambian nearly eight years. The company had been like a family to him, even after he got married and had children. He’d won a slew of design awards, and he was on the CEO’s short list of high performers. Mary could see the attraction of a partnership position. But was that the whole story? At Sambian, Tom enjoyed the same kind HBR’s cases, which are ﬁctional, present common managerial dilemmas and offer concrete solutions from experts.
Harvard Business Review 41
HBR Case Study Why Are We Losing All Our Good People?
of authority he would have at J&N, if not more. He chose his projects, set his own priorities. Did he know how hard it would be to earn that kind of autonomy at a new ﬁrm, partner or no? “I’m sure it’s no news to you that you were coming up for promotion,” she ventured. “If not this year, then maybe the next. Would it have made a difference if the raises had been bigger? For that matter, would it make a difference now? I mean, there’s no shame in reconsidering – you really are highly respected here, you know.” Tom looked at his hands. “It’s nice to hear that, Mary,” he said. “But of course I’ve already accepted. And anyway, it’s time to move on. I have to challenge myself, keep it fresh.” “But you’ve always managed to keep it fresher than just about anyone. Are the projects themselves less challenging these days?” She avoided the obvious question: Have you been unhappy? Tom tilted his head and looked directly into Mary’s gray eyes, as if reading her thoughts. “I’ve been very happy here,” he said. “The people are great. I’m not running away from anything. It’s just that a fantastic opportunity came along at a good time.” Mary kept probing, asking all the standard questions, but Tom demurred, merely repeating what he’d already told her. By the time the...