Tuesday, February 28, 2012

That One Stings

As regular readers know, I grew up in a city with minor league baseball.  As it happened, a few of the players from the years I paid attention went on later to significant major league careers; one of them even became a first-ballot Hall of Famer.  (Yes, I saw him play in the minors.  Even then, you could tell he’d be special.)  

Following a minor league team is a different enterprise than following a major league team.  In the majors, you root for excellence, and the better the players, the better.  It’s simple.  But in the minors, when a player gets really good, you brace yourself for his departure.  The really great ones don’t stick around long.  So you hope to catch moments of brilliance, but when you see someone really stand out, it’s bittersweet; you know he’ll be gone soon.

That came rushing back to me this week when a really outstanding employee attracted interest from a higher level.  She’s terrific, I absolutely understand the interest, and I’ll be right there cheering her advancement.  But in the short term, it’ll be a loss that stings.

It’s the same sting I remember from thirty years ago.  Any ethical manager knows the feeling.

I’ve been lucky in my own career; on the occasions I’ve gone to bosses to tell them that I was looking elsewhere, they’ve been supportive.  They took the position that fostering the growth of your people is what you do, even when that means they grow away from you.  It’s based on an ethical sense of how to treat people, and a faith that taking the high road consistently will generally pay off over time.

Not every organization or manager believes that.  I’ve seen managers punish outside interest as disloyalty, and punish people directly or indirectly for failed attempts to leave.  That’s common enough that a widely understood etiquette  has developed about reference checking that says you don’t contact references until someone has reached the “finalist” stage.  Why endanger their standing in their current job unnecessarily?  

I abide by the etiquette, but I don’t like where that perspective leads.  If jobs become jails, why bother trying to excel?  And if nobody ever grows or stretches, what happens when the folks on top retire?

That possessive style doesn’t lead anywhere good.  It assumes that the present is the best that could ever happen, and therefore that any change amounts to decline.  It’s pessimism as an organizing principle.  No, thanks.

I’d rather bet on the future.  (It’s what educators like to do anyway.)  Encourage people to develop and grow, and accept the occasional sting as a cost of doing business.  The folks who are capable of more than they’re doing now won’t stick around forever, but while they’re there, you’ll get their best.  Enjoy the flashes of brilliance.  And smile when the rest of the world discovers what you already knew.