Corporate leadership is no cakewalk these days, with competitors nipping at your heels and customers, vendors and investors clamoring for your attention. As a leader, you have some sources of gratification besides the paycheck. (After all, when do you have time to spend it?) One of the aspects of a leadership job most frequently cited as a source of satisfaction is the ability to cultivate a protégé (or more than one).
It’s exciting to watch a person on your team develop into a seasoned pro, to help an employee get management wings, or to see one become a subject-matter expert. Those satisfying moments make your investment of time and energy in a star employee worthwhile. That’s why for a leader, there are few things more frustrating than walking into work on a Monday morning to find your star employee giving two weeks’ notice—when you had no idea he or she was job-hunting.
People need fresh challenges and new surroundings, to be sure. Still, a manager who has mentored an up-and-comer might hold out hope that when the protégé’s career plans shift, such that they want to light out for new experiences, the executive who has been developing him or her might be one of the first to know. It doesn’t always work that way. Here are five signals that the person you most hoped would one day succeed you in your job has other plans.
1. No further complaints of daily irritations. If your star performer always gave you an earful about the slow arrival of expense-reimbursement checks or the company’s lackluster social-media strategy and one day the complaining stops, you’re in trouble. People stop complaining when they realize their energy is best invested elsewhere—and they’ve started sending out résumés.
2. Key employee turns networking zealot. When the star on your team, who was always too busy for outside networking, starts filling up the coffee-date schedule, look out. That’s a reliable sign that career-advancement is best sought elsewhere.
3. Star performer starts asking about stats. When you work in a company, the people around you know your reputation. When you launch an under-the-radar job hunt, those people don’t know you and you need facts and figures to make your case. So when your star employee starts asking where to find last year’s sales by territory, or the revenue attributable to a product he or she worked on, take notice. Somebody’s résumé is getting an update.
4. Protégé seeks externally facing assignments. If your star performer’s job is concerned mostly with internal matters, and he or she shows an unusual interest in your organization’s customer- and vendor-facing projects, pay attention. If you can’t understand why an overloaded manager suddenly wants to attend every trade show in which your company participates, keep in mind that trade shows are great places for job-search networking.
5. Superstar doesn’t care about raises and perks. Nothing spells “Stealth Job Search” like a sudden lack of interest in long-term compensation and career advancement. If your company’s bonus plan pays out only to people who are still with the company on the date the payment is made, your star employee may lose interest in the bonus plan once a job search has begun.
What to do? Talk frequently to your employees, not just the superstars, about their job satisfaction and their career plans, or at least once per quarter. There’s nothing wrong with people moving along. After all, leaders and team members who have worked well together at one shop tend to circle back together over the years. The shame is to be in the dark about a valued employee’s unhappiness. That’s avoidable only if you never take a star employee’s connection to the team—and to you—for granted.