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Food for Thought: When Staff Leaves, It’s Personal

Every person that owns a small business will face staff attrition at some point. When it happens, how do you react? If they were problematic folks, the inclination is to applaud. That is more knee-jerk anything else because their departure may have greater significance — perhaps it’s a warning sign. So, the question becomes: How do you keep your staff together? The short answer is that you cannot. Moreover, when people leave, ownership should take it personal because there is a lesson to be learned.ouchimages

Advertising and marketing are revolving doors, especially when one is dealing with so-called creatives. No matter what catalyst drives a person out the door, if the causal factors are not addressed, the company will become deader than Mo Green.

My agency has always had a small staff. We function based on the needs of our clients, assigning at least three people to an account. Obviously, larger agencies can throw more people on an account because they have the people. That makes sense.

Small staff grows with freelancers, part-timers and interns increasing its size temporarily to accomplish what needs to be done. The agency thus operates as a squad rather than battalion. Either way, creative quality and the integrity of the agency’s culture has to be paramount.

Across the board, almost every industry (including advertising) faces a debate regarding wages, pay structure, and benefits. It has to be sufficient for one to support their family. True, a well-run agency can make a lot of money, but conversely poorly run agency can run itself into the ground. That’s why staff attrition has to be taken seriously.

In the past, I failed to have an exit interview with each person that left my employ. I discovered later that a person left not necessarily for higher wages, but because their new employer promises them greater creative responsibility. In other words, they wanted to do something of real value. Exit interviews also allows you to discover that conflict between staff members may be the primary causal factor in leaving.

Business owners do a disservice to themselves if they are clueless as to what causes the run to the front door. I know because I have been there, and it’s easy to get mired in the quicksand.

I have made a choice to change our business model, transitioning from traditional to digital. Let me make two confessions:

1) Digital platforms are only tools — they are not the world unto themselves. It is complex because it is technology. You want the clients to embrace your new and improved delivery of services. But, your agency wasn’t hired to dazzle anyone. It was hired to improve their sales;

2) The second thing is this. You have a style, a level of and delivery of competent creativeness. No matter what you call it, its advertising, reduced to its most effective forms. I miss that.

Let me share my “teachable moment,” where the veil of ignorance fell from my face — it happened in a two week span. I fired an account executive for gross job dereliction and dishonesty. A day later, an executive staff member left without courtesy of a letter of resignation. It turns out, she wasn’t very well liked, but she was valuable to me. As the guy in charge, I should’ve had my hand on the pulse of my staff. I inhaled but within a week, two other people resigned as I exhaled.

Their reasons were sound and logical: creative opportunities; more money, better benefits. Counter offers were proposed, but in the end, they left.

Valuable people had gone out the door, and clearly I missed warning signs. Friday of the same week saw one more departure – sound reasons I thought. That weekend, another letter of resignation came in my e-mail. I e-mailed my Coordinator of Strategy. “We’ll rally the troops. Let’s go through those resumes — don’t worry.” Her reasoning was sound and made sense. After talking to her, I watched the Sopranos and got a nagging feeling ‘Eddie Big Nose’ was gunning for me.

Monday I poured over resumes and found several good candidates to interview. The Coordinator of Strategy came in, tearful with her letter of resignation. Another opportunity came along over the weekend. Blam! Blam! Blam! “Eddie Big Nose” got me.

I learned a lot as I lay figuratively bleeding. Maybe this will help someone similarly situated.

  1. Meet regularly with the entire staff to keep them abreast with company happenings. Send a company e-mail in case something or someone was left out;
  2. Meet with employees likely to exercise free agency. There are subtle hints. There may be something that can be done – adjustments perhaps can made to keep them. If you promise to rectify a concern, be sincere and execute it as promised. Don’t bullshit.
  3. Develop a sense of family. If affordable, have either a company picnic, or regular lunches. It is the little things that count;
  4. Assign meaningful duties not within the job description;
  5. Allow cross-training. Employee ‘A’ may be better suited for another position. Perhaps they are too reserved to ask about it, but you’re meeting them halfway;
  6. Don’t play favorites. This is very difficult because some people are more personable than others are. A ‘q’ factor causes us to gravitate to them. That creates discord;
  7. Strive to raise pay above cost-of-living indexes, and certainly keep up with industry standards;
  8. Improve your benefit package, and pay bonuses:
  9. Acknowledge your employees because they are the linchpin of the business.

In a previous incarnation of my business, staff broke bread at lunches, and we kept up with pay standards. Even though it strained our budget, bonuses were paid around Christmas. I’m not saying that this made me the perfect employer, no one is. But as a boss it’s your choice to cultivate a sense of family or became overly corporate.

Your business will function better in unity. Sometimes, loyalty keeps a person wedded to a job because of some type of intangibility.

I’m not too cynical or idealistic to want an old fashion company in our fast paced culture.

Bernard A. McNealy, President

CDM Digital Advertising

Bernard Alexander McNealy

Bernard Alexander McNealy

Advertising agency owner and creative director. Married and published writer of mystery novels.