Why Do All the Great People Leave First? | Tim Tolan | Healthcare Blogs Skip to content Skip to navigation

Why Do All the Great People Leave First?

January 9, 2010
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The market must be changing. Our inbound call volume from candidates ready to bail from their current employer is ratcheting up like the 11th hour on a Jerry Lewis Tele-Thon. It’s only been a week in the New Year but it’s been quite noticeable. Ring- ring- ring is sort of what it sounds like. .

And, as Billy Mays (God rest this pitchman’s soul) would say – “But wait – there’s more.” I seem to get more and more calls from candidates that just can’t take it anymore. They are sick and tired of being sick and tired and are ready for a change. Some are willing to take less compensation just to get out of their current environment. That’s pretty sad.

And…There’s more. These are not your average run of the mill C players ready to head for the exit doors. Oh no. These are the very people that carry the load for many of the organizations they are working for. A and B players. Yep. They do all the work and they can’t wait to pull the trigger and bolt. Why you ask? Employers have had an unfair advantage in this down employment market. Employees have had to suck it up and take whatever their employer dished out. Well the tides-are-a-changing and I see a major wave of candidates just waiting for the HCIT hiring frenzy to begin to run from their current situation. And run they will.

Here’s the really sad part for the clueless employer and in no particular order.

# 1 - Many employers just don’t get it. They are too busy feeling good about getting a false sense of higher productivity with fewer resources while the very people that make them look good on paper are on the verge of leaving. The disconnected employer will absolutely get hit on the blind side and it will be too late to do anything about it.

# 2The great people that do most of the work are the smart ones that will figure it out. The once great employer with great financials that has met and exceeded budget for the past couple of years will suddenly be stuck with the C-Team. That’s right – not the ideal talent pool. Not a good plan - but well deserved.

# 3For HCIT employers that have not had the chance to read the paper lately – we are approaching a shortage of skilled HCIT workers across all functional roles. It will be unprecedented. Now what? Better think long and hard about how you value your most prized asset – your people. Your really good people are ready to walk!


For those that don’t “get it” – it probably doesn’t matter anyway. It will be lights out before you will ever notice. That would be a shame. Maybe not...



These are all good points. I think companies have somewhat of a knee-jerk reaction to financial hardship by deciding that their biggest expense, employees, are the places to find costs savings.

While the A-player is seeing everything being dismantled, he/she is expected to pick up more slack, while things like merit increases in salary and bonuses are put on hold.

That may be a successful way to handle the balance sheet during the crisis, but the goal should be to come out stronger and more well-equipped to handle business once financial conditions improve. That means seeing years into the future and providing value to those that have the most to contribute to the company's bottom line.

Instead, the A-players are warned that they might be laid off too, and to not protest all of the changes if they want to keep their jobs. Somehow, for A-players, not getting fired is not enough incentive to stay around.

You have a gift for words: "... have to demonstrate that they want them around."

You clearly struck a chord with several of us.

Part tongue-in-cheek, and part seriously, I correlated time-to-leave with intelligence of the mid to senior level executives for one particular culture. There was clearly a group where the "Great [-est] People" left with the shortest tenures.

One was my boss he left at 11 months but recognized the hopelessness and started the move at month five. He had over a decade of accomplished C-level service elsewhere before he arrived, and had a well-branded, executive MBA which, based on his executive behaviors (smart people behavior, strategies and meetings), he had clearly benefited.

He wasn't alone. I had other talented bungee-bosses. These experiences tuned me into the phenomena you elaborated with your post and its comments.

This has nothing to do with HR. A culture that consistently demonstrates that employee value is taken seriously can weather many storms, be it from rightsizing, pay cuts or increased workloads. I've seen it in many places: if the employees knows they are valued as part of the greater mission, they can and do put up with a lot more than you'd expect during troubled times.

Without that culture of employee value that begins at the top, however, the exodus begins and the boat will sink quickly. And in the new world order of HIT, the swim for the A and B players won't be too far to reach a new island of exciting and gratifying HIT opportunities--that is, if they're not picked up first by the lifeboats of organizations (read, consulting firms) already in wait for these talented folks in the HIT space.

Different times, but demonstrating employee value has always been important. It's just more so today.

Wow, so much to comment on... thank you Tim for this (clearly!) thought-provoking post, and thanks Joe for your thoughtful reply. This topic is so important right now, and I can only hope that employers truly grasp just how valuable health IT expertise is in the current marketplace.
I think that the only thing simple about this is the point that if employers want to keep good people, they have to demonstrate that they want them around, and not do the opposite.
Like I've said before, this is very, very interesting time to be a part of this industry.

Great topic, Tim. I always enjoy your blog posts, in part because you often share your recent experiences to which many of us can easily relate.

Great People Leave First?  That's a little too simplistic to let by, Tim.

There are an important groups of people who are clearly A-players and who hang on, long past "clueless" behavior, until:

1) A new, intolerable policy is adopted. Examples (from places where friends have worked):

A. One company instituted a non-telecomuting policy, i.e. "zero work-at-home (WAH), one day per week," replacing an existing one-day WAH/Week. The flexibility to reduce work commute by 20% was experienced negatively by the employee. And, in the employees opinion, it did not produce any improvement in service delivery or quality of that delivery. This was enough to cause the employee to check their options. "A-player" finds more attractive offer and leaves.

B. New responsibilities are added to an employee's load, apparently (to the employee) without any regard to the impact in general, or the work-life balance in particular. This person was already juggling a heavy burden from his existing role. The impact of the policy drove him to leave.

C. An obvious one, changes in compensation policy, perceived as negative.

2) Financial engineering that is blind to corporate strategy or business sense:

A. A friend at a large, multi-national, multi-billion dollar corporation recently had 12 months of strategic development wiped away when finance drove a RIF, blind to her revenue-driving expectations involving those RIF'd. Management expectations to grow new service revenues without these people did not change. In several cases, the $80+ recruiting cost of the recently hired, top talent, was clearly not considered, in addition to the lack of program management considerations. This also caused the senior exec A-player who owned the initiative to leave. The message she received was that she couldn't deliver what she was hired to do; she concluded that the company lacked the short- and long-term management capability necessary for her to be successful (and in turn, make the company more successful).

B. Another friend, another company, at the direction of the company's CFO and COO, developed a comprehensive strategy, vetted recurrently over 10 months with the senior management team, including the CEO. Without a fundamental change in the market or the company's health, the strategy was summarily dismissed, without any senior level discussion, owing to a long-standing cultural commitment to passive-aggressive practices (misplaced decision rights).

3) Failure to recognize the value brought to the company by the A-player individual:

A. Empathetic connectors - those employees who ensure that critical communication and necessary social functions are fulfilled.

B. Project managers, let go as a result of global budget cuts. The notion that they might be needed more than ever after a RIF is outside of what many execs can manage to.

C. Lots of other examples where the company cannot reconcile the intangible assets represented by the A-players, often related to product, customer relationships, and/or deep understanding of operations. This can be hard for A-player managers. It's seemingly easy for C-player execs to see A-players go.

In summary, HR can be hard and is often a predicament. That said, there are good practices, and ignorant ones. I agree that the topic is an important one for smart professionals to discuss.

Disclaimer: None of the above examples were drawn from either my current or past employers.  All observations are my own opinions.

Joe: I think it speaks volumes! However, you should note that the average tenure in America for a CEO is 2.6 years. While many may get pushed out by a Board - it sort of speaks volumes to many of the points made by many on this blog post as to why they head for the exit door. Even scarier than that, the CEO that leaves in 2.6 years knows after 12 months of their hire date they will be departing.

Very thought-provoking conversation, so naturally I felt the need to jump in! :)

Tim, I agree with you that the bottom line of this concept is that generally, either companies "get it," or they don't. And to speak to your point, Joe, the companies that realize that retention is a challenge for the company's DNA, not just on HR's to-do list, are typically the companies that "get it!"

But on a more personal level, I saw an interview recently about a couple who had been married 70 years. The interviewer asked the husband, "What's your secret to such a successful marriage after all these years?" The elderly man turned to his wife, cradled her weathered face in his hands and said, "Every day I am amazed by her. By what she knows, what she thinks, what she says, who she is." Certainly this is an extreme example of retention, but the message is clear: Looking for a certain way to end a relationship? Take the other for granted. This, too, is a simple lesson, but one that I've seen employers forget over and over and over again.

Kate - I know you and I share the curse of having songs stick in our heads. When reading this post, Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi" comes to mind. "You don't know what you got til it's gone." http://www.youtube.com/watch?vZgMEPk6fvpg

As always, a pleasure to roll around thoughts and ideas with such a bright group of teammates!


Thanks Tim. After giving it a second thought, I decided your message was not too simplistic. Retention, especially of the best and brightest is critically important in HCIT. I think you're providing a us all a service to share the message you are hearing from your current candidates.

I think my strong reaction (i.e. detailed comment) is driven by a secondary issue: Retention is a challenge for the companies DNA, not for it's HR department. The examples I gave make it clear to me that the CEO has, through her directs, the business owners, the primary influence on retention.

All to often, it appears that companies subordinate the retention challenge to HR, to inevitably respond to through benefit and rewards programs. Per my examples, that cannot and does not impact retention of the majority of A-players. They're most impacted by relationships, policies, and good management practices (o3s, feedback, delegation).  Of course, that's just my opinion. Maybe it's too simplistic :-)

Wow! i leave for a few days and this is what I get! Explosive and great feedback! Lots of great points, links and opinions - which I truly appreciate. This is what makes this fun for me. Getting honest, brutal - yet fair and balanced feedback! Thanks to all that posted. Seriously!

Joe: Too simplistic - I'm not sure I completely agree with that but I did enjoy reading your detailed reply.
Bottom Line: The talent game is changing and companies need to develop retention strategies to keep their brightest and most productive people. If not - well I think you know the outcome.