What To Do When Your Team Quits

You might find yourself - especially with The Great Resignation in the news - with a bunch of team members that leave all at once. Here’s some things you can do about it.

Step 1: Figure Out What Happened

You need to understand why people left. With one departure you might not be able to find a trend. You should try anyway, and be on the lookout for signal in the rest of the team. If two people leave, sometimes it’s just friends leaving at the same time. Often it’s not. If three people leave, there’s very little chance it’s not a trend.

In any case, you have to figure out what’s going on. Any next steps you take will be for naught if you don’t understand the reason people are leaving. Be introspective. Remember that often people leave managers, not companies - the reason might be you. Talking to your peers can be a great way to generate leads. Talk to people far enough from the situation to have a different perspective, but close enough to make a diagnosis – e.g. if you run Sales, talk to your CMO, if you run Product, talk to your CTO/VP Eng. In any case, you need to have a very strong hypothesis about what’s going on.

Then fix whatever that thing was that drove people out of the company. Sometimes there’s no longer a problem to fix - damage was done in a single event that likely won’t recur (e.g. a bad policy that was then revoked). Sometimes there remains a problem and it needs a ton of work to fix. Whatever it is - fix it.

Step 2: Get The Remaining Team Ready For Next Steps

You need to get your remaining team motivated for the change and scarcity that lies ahead. There’s two things you can do here:

  • Set expectations. E.g. “We’re going to be operating with less people for a time, but we will be backfilling all roles, and we’ll use this as an opportunity to iterate faster on our process, work more efficiently, and rebuild. We’re going to have a challenging but formative next 3-6 months.”
  • Pay them. Retention bonuses can be worth their weight in gold. Your remaining team are in fact more valuable because they’re more scarce, so pay them more.

Step 3: Do Less Work

Don’t try to do the same amount of work your team did before people quit. Find places to cut scope, cut work, and do less. You must do this intentionally. If you don’t do this intentionally, people will try to just do all the work that was already happening, they’ll burn out, and then they’ll quit.

Step 4: Become More Efficient

Less people, generally, means easier change management. Use this as an opportunity to rip the bandaid off with all of the things that you didn’t have the time or priority to roll out to a larger team. Your opportunity for optimizing your team’s process and organization just skyrocketed. Do things like:

  • Cancel low-value meetings
  • Automate manual processes
  • Standardize divergent processes and tooling

Step 5: Backfill, Fast

A common trap is to have the manager fill in for the previous person in some way. Then that manager doesn’t backfill fast enough. Then that becomes the status quo and is a nadir you can’t get out of.

Backfill these roles as soon as possible. When backfilling fast, use every recruiting lever you have, e.g.:

  • Agencies
  • Signing bonuses
  • Re-evaluate your comp bands
  • Do a referral push
  • Transfers from teams that have an easier time hiring
  • ..etc.

Step 6: Work Harder

Especially as a manager, having a big chunk of your team leave is your Action Movie Montage Moment. If you let it demotivate you or let the state linger for too long, things will only get worse. This problem will not get better with time. You have to take action and you have to sustain that action until you’ve turned things around. Don’t be unhealthy, but if there was a time to cancel a long vacation, or burn the midnight oil, this is the time.

I’m a fan of the idea that at least once a year or so, you should try to be the hardest working person in the office for a period of time. If your team quits, I’d recommend you pick this time to be that person.