Grappling With the Cruel Problem of Staff Turnover

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MARC BROWNSTEIN: Staff turnover is one of those often cruel occurrances that always seem to hit at the wrong time. You just won a new piece of business, and the person who you pitched with (or planned to put on the business) departs for a corporate job. And, of course, it's volatile for existing clients to have to endure the replacement a trusted member of their agency team.

Yet, it happens more and more in small agencies. There are several reasons: perceived limited career growth opportunities; better pay and benefits on the client side; morale swings are felt more easily; and unhappiness with a direct report.

How a small agency handles staff turnover is key to minimizing its impact. In my experience, this is what must be done:

1. Craft a plan to replace or re-allocate staff on the affected clients. Do it swiftly and thoughtfully, as your employees and clients will interpret your actions accordingly.

2. Communicate the news and plan early to your existing staff. Tell them who's leaving, why they're leaving, and if they've done a good job, be sure to acknowledge it. You never know if that employee may want to return. Good communication stops rumors from starting. Also, be honest. And articulate the plan to replace the individual(s). Remember: timely moves in times of staff volatility are crucial to stabilizing existing staff and client relationships.

2. Inform the clients. This is one the toughest calls an agency leader has to make. I once had to inform the CEO of one of our client brands that his account executive was leaving, and I told him who would be replacing that exec. Next day, the replacement resigned! Hang around long enough in the agency business, and you'll see it all. Point is, your client wants to know that the replacement knows their business, is smart, and won't take up their time to train the new person(s). Long learning curves can cause resentment by clients. So make the transition seamless for them.

4. Always know who your next hire will be. I preach this early and often to my management team. You never want to start a search for a position when a key person leaves. Have coffee with potential hires on an on-going basis. You'll learn a lot from exploratory interviews, about the market for talent in your area, along with what's going on at other agencies.

5. Check in with your clients to make sure they are clicking with the new staff. And do the same with your employee -- it's important that both sides are happy with the new marriage.

6. Talk to your remaining team. Ask them why your agency is experiencing turnover. Being armed with facts allows you to make improvements to stem further staff defections.

Finally, remember that not all staff turnover is a bad thing. As an agency colleague once told me, “It's good to stir the pot and re-energize your agency with new talent.” Whether you intended to. Or not.
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