Why it’s almost always a good thing when staff quit

June 2001

In my final year of University, after months of applying for jobs, I was close to giving up hope. It was 2001 when one man finally gave me a chance, and made me realise I might be able to make something of myself.

The man was Mark Smith. He was the boss of the Queensland arm of a National Human Resources consultancy called SIAG (Service Industry Advisory Group). “You went to Gregory Terrace?”, he said in the interview. “Ah…yeah”. “I’m an old boy… you’ve got the job”.

Not many things have excited me more in life than signing that contract for $27,000 a year.

I learned a lot from Mark. One of the first things he said to me was “No one is indispensable”. We had a few members of a small team leave, and I worried that we’d be screwed.

In hindsight, it was the best job I ever had. But at the time, I had my eyes on bigger and better things.

After 12 months of working for Mark, I quit.

A month or so earlier I had found an opportunity to work for the Railway for more money, and I’d heard that with Government it’s all about “getting in the door”. Telling Mark was super difficult. He was the first person who’s really backed me and I felt like I owed him.

Mark said “What have you done, you’ve made yourself indispensable”.

It was a nice thing for him to say.

I know I’d been useful to the company, but we both knew it would move on perfectly fine without me, and it did just that.

Staff are the backbone of every business. They can make or break the company. An awesome team can achieve amazing things, and a toxic team can destroy value like you wouldn’t believe.

When you start your own business and someone comes to work for you, it’s like a vote of confidence and it’s exciting. When someone quits, it’s downright depressing.

Over the course of 17.5 years in business, I’ve gone through this cycle a lot, and in that time I hope I’ve gained some perspective.

January 2024

If you’ve been following my recent journey, you’ll know I’ve recently bought a Coffee company in Australia called Cre8ive Coffee – Soon so be rebranded to East Coast Roast (follow us on Instagram if you want to see it happen).

Related: 12 Weeks into Buying Cre8ive Coffee, an Update

What you may not know, is in the first few months of me buying the business, 3 out of the 5 full time staff quit.

I can imagine telling this story to my 26 year old self in 2006 when I started my first full time business. “Hey, being an entrepreneur is awesome! In 17 years time you’ll put most of your life savings into a business, and within a few months, 60% of the staff will quit. Cool hey!”

These people were people who said they would stay on after the sale, which was a big part of me agreeing to buy the business. These were important roles. The GM who ran the entire business, the Coffee Roaster who was the only person who made the coffee, and the technician who was the original founder and was responsible for 100% of all equipment maintenance that happened across a fleet of 100+ items of equipment around cafe’s on the Gold Coast (over a half a million dollars worth of equipment).

Before you think I’m a completely arsehole, I should mention that I bought a family business and 2 out of the 3 were family members, and the 3rd was 60+ years old and looking to retire!

Earlier versions of myself would have been completely terrified about this turn of events.

But that’s not the case. Here’s why.

No one is indispensable

At Black Hops we grew from 3 mates to 80 people over 5 years, it was intense. We had a lot of turnover too, such is the hospo industry. When Ali decided to leave, it was hard to imagine the place working without her. She was the heart and soul of our taproom, she’d won the best bartender in the entire industry the year prior, and she really was one of a kind. We’d built the whole brand off that taproom experience with Ali at the helm, and we couldn’t imagine it working without her.

But it did. Some people never came back, other new people came, and it all evened out. The business was turning over a couple of million dollars a year when she left. When I left we were turning over $16.5m per year. Past problems like that seemed completely inconsequential. The world has a way of moving on.

Every time someone quit, I’d get met with fear from the other senior people that we’d be screwed without this person. It was hard to imagine some of these parts of the business functioning without these people in there.

But they always did, every time.

I left over a year ago, I thought for sure the company would not survive without me, but as far as I can tell it’s still surviving.

Businesses have a way of surviving.

I like change

When people quit, I reflect on my own experience and I’m reminded that I quit the best job I’d ever had after 12 months. It was my first full time job, it was the thing that gave me hope in life that I could make it. Yet I left inside a year.

There was no real legitimate reason for me to quit. It was a a great job with awesome people. But I like change, and I was young and figured change at 22 years old was very low risk (and I was right).

Other people, especially young people probably also like change. You might think they are onto a great thing working for you, but in their mind, they just want a change.

It’s totally fine and normal. Don’t take it personally.

They’ve been thinking about this for a while

One thing I’ve learned many times over is you don’t want people to be there who don’t want to be there. If someone has quit, it means they’ve been thinking about quitting for a while. Quitting your job is a huge life decision, you don’t just decide one day you are leaving, it’s something that weighs heavily on your mind for a long time. Not to mention the fact that it’s super hard to find good jobs that perfectly excite you and match your skills and are close to your house etc. Most people have something else lined up when they quit.

So you add all of that up, you’ve got someone working for you who really doesn’t want to be there anymore. How can that possibly be good for productivity? And culture? It can’t.

If they want to leave, then your wants are aligned. You want them to leave too, and you just become the company that someone wants to come to when they leave somewhere else.

People can get toxic when they decide to leave

Unfortunately I’ve experienced this quite a few times in business and in relationships, when it becomes obvious that it’s over, things change very quickly. Your life partner can become your enemy in an instant. The same can happen with staff. Your biggest supporter can become the exact person who wants to burn you to the ground.

I’ve lost more than you can possibly imagine by not realising this. People can change instantly, once they decide they are no longer on your team.

These days I’m borderline PTSD terrified about this dynamic. If a team member quits, I would try to enable them to leave as quickly as possible. Pay out the notice and just let them move on. The chances are, they’ve decided ages ago and having them around any longer will only make the future team sad. Not to mention the damage they could cause if they get really toxic.

Customer and partners are stickier than you think

You have to remember that in business, most people’s days are filled with problems. They don’t need more problems. Your customers who were particularly fond of this staff member, have a million other things to worry about. They are sad that this person is leaving but the last thing they want to do is create more problems for themselves and leave in protest.

Upon hearing about a staff member leaving, most customers and partners will be sad for a day or so and then immediately get back to the 1,000 things they have to do.

There is no need to be fearful that they will all leave just because they like the person.

New people make things exciting

Whenever I’ve been in this situation in the past, new people have come into the roles to replace people we previously thought were indispensable and it’s created a whole new buzz around the business. The existing team get excited when new people come into the team, it makes things interesting, it changes things up at work which for a lot of people can be monotonous and boring.

Quite often you’ll get different perspectives that you wouldn’t have otherwise thought of and the business is better for it. Turnover can be a healthy thing, new people can make the existing team less stagnant and a bit of a shake up never hurts. The new person will probably be out to perform well and make a mark and you might even find the team work better to impress the new person and impress the boss with new blood around.

Businesses are more resilient than you think

One thing I’ve noticed as I’ve got older is businesses are more resilient than you think. Even if your business has a few staff members, and all of them are super tight with customers, you might be surprised to find that ultimately customers care more about the business itself than the people.

It flies in the face of everything I learned in HR school, but I’ve noticed it consistently as a founder. People can be surprisingly loyal to companies. It could be the friction of change, or it could be having some empathy for the fact that people come and go. It could be just that they are busy, I don’t know, but I’ve noticed that companies do a very good job at continuing to run when things are hard.

When your key staff member quits, you might just find on Monday morning, the customers keep calling in to put in their orders.

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Photo by krakenimages on Unsplash

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