01/28/2014 01:20 pm ET Updated Mar 30, 2014

When Good People Quit, It's Not Them, It's You

George Costanza's break-ups on Seinfeld became the stuff of legend. He was the expert at letting people down with the "it's not you, it's me" routine. If you are a manager, you may have heard this from former employees who left for a new job. You might have believed them.

Most managers focus on the external reasons why people leave, like new opportunities and a pay raise from a different company. Fewer managers think about what they can actually affect -- how things work inside their own firm, and how that may have contributed to someone's decision to leave. Being self-critical is never easy, but it's paramount to understanding how your company is functioning, and what you can do to improve it.

When I was a Marine officer and intelligence analyst, I frequently spoke and wrote about ways to improve military leadership. But like many military veterans, when I transitioned to the private sector and co-founded a tech startup, I had to re-think some aspects of the management and leadership style I had learned in the military. One of the biggest differences? Marines aren't fielding calls from Air Force headhunters. When you're managing a talented team in the business world, you have to do everything you can to keep your team intact.

It's not simply the pull of flattering recruiters or a pay raise from another firm that pulls away an employee; it's usually a problem within the company that gives them the initial push. As a manager, it's comforting to think there was nothing you could have done to stop a productive worker from leaving, but only by examining the real causes can you hope to prevent similar departures in the future.

At my company, we've worked with clients and studied the academic literature to better understand why employees leave, and what managers can do to prevent it. From that experience, here are five simple questions to improve self-awareness as a manager and leader.

Am I listening? When was the last time you fielded an idea from one of your team members, worked with her to crystallize it, and then allowed her to put it into action, and shine in front of peers, you, and your boss?

Am I bringing employees into the conversation? By sharing your broader plans with the team, they'll better understand how their work fits into the business unit and company's goals more generally. It also makes it easier for you to find out if there is anything bothering your employees, and what you can do to help. If you create an environment of trust, your people will come to you with their concerns, not with their two weeks notice.

Is my team always in emergency mode? If so, you're not managing their time effectively. Period.

Am I giving positive feedback to my employees? Often people in leadership positions don't give many compliments to their people. But try and remember how much a few positive words from your boss meant when you were an individual contributor. Then think of instances when you've given that kind of credit to an employee. If you can't think of many, you have likely created an environment in which you see yourself as the only person who does anything of value -- a dangerous spot to be in.

Am I excluding people? A good team is made up of people with different and complementary skills, but it can be easy to focus your attention on certain types of employees, while overlooking others. For example, an introvert might not volunteer his thoughts very readily in a meeting, but if he's focused on observing and analyzing the situation, perhaps his opinion is the one you need the most. Not everyone is like their manager. Knowing and appreciating the value of diversity will serve you well.

Even the best managers will lose many employees over the years. But by regularly analyzing the work environment you create for your people, you can minimize those losses, and create a better working environment for you and your team.


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