Getting value out of “I quit!”

Artist rendering of reality

Contrary to popular belief, management isn’t all roses. At the top of my list of least favorite parts is people quitting on me. That’s right, this does happen. Luckily not a lot, but given enough time and scale, this will happen to every manager at some point.

This is tough, because, I choose to own things to an extreme, therefore I’m all in on the “people don’t quit their job, they quit their boss” mantra.

To be honest, in painful situations like resignations, it’s very attractive to activate primal defense mechanisms such as pointing the proverbial finger in every possible direction but your own, and usually the quitter is very helpful in this regard:

“It’s not you, it’s me.”

“They’re completely crazy and offer me all this money, I simply cannot refuse.”

“I’ve been here a long time, I’m young, I need to try out new things.”

I’ll nod in acknowledgement; we’ll have some smalltalk; we’ll shake hands. Then I’ll go back to my desk, and think:

Where did things go wrong?

A while back I decided to change my attitude. Rather than just being depressed when this happens, I decide to figure out how to turn this event into something constructive.

We use feedback every day to improve, and somebody quitting is the ultimate piece of feedback. Explaining it away—as we’re tempted to do—is highly wasteful.

However, for that to happen you have to listen very carefully. It is my impression that people aren’t always fully upfront about “the real reason” for their resignation—if such a thing even exists. Part of this may be hedging their bets (the city I live in is relatively small, the chances we’ll meet again somewhere are significant—so telling me I suck is unwise), but I believe part of it is also that people honestly do not know what was the tipping point for them. I myself have chosen to resign in the past, and it was always a struggle to properly articulate why, and how this happened.

My favorite piece of writing on this topic comes from Michael Lopp (currently VP Engineering at Slack), in his article Shields Down:

Resignations happen in a moment, and it’s not when you declare, “I’m resigning.” The moment happened a long time ago when you received a random email from a good friend who asked, “I know you’re really happy with your current gig because you’ve been raving about it for a year, but would you like to come visit Our Company? No commitment. Just coffee.”

Now, everyone involved in this conversation transaction is aware of what is going down. While there is certainly no commitment, there is a definitely an agenda. The reason they want you to visit The Company is because, of course, they want you there in the building because seeing a potential future is far more compelling than describing it.

Still, seeing it isn’t the moment of resignation. The moment happened the instant you decided, “What the hell? I haven’t seen Don in months and it’d be good to see him.”

Your shields are officially down.

But, let’s say it happened—you didn’t catch it, and somebody decided to quit. Digging to find the cause is tough. Nevertheless, there are always hints, and it’s our job to pick up on them. Some are obvious—I’ve seen people going from super high energy to dirt cynical in a matter of weeks. Some less so — why is that person giving talks on meet-ups and conferences, but never about anything he’s doing at work?

Ultimately, I now try to establish a plausible theory of what really happened, and act on it. Was there a strong hint they were discouraged by the tech stack? Let’s see if we can use this as a kick to finally get things moving there, as we always planned, but somehow never go to. A resignation can function as leverage in escalating certain issues up the organizational chain to prioritize them as well.

I’m not claiming this is easy, but it’s worth the effort. For sure it’s preferable to the alternative, which is to sit, sob and do nothing.

In summary:

A resignation is the strongest piece of feedback you are going to get; figure out a way to use it to your advantage.

In life, there are no problems, just opportunities — they say. You just have to see them. Sadly, this is pretty hard when they punch you in the face.