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Technically Human

What to do as an engineering manager when someone quits

David Kyle Choe
April 6, 2021

How to respond when someone on your team quits

Eric Gong, former VP of Engineering and technical recruiter and I discuss the realities of when someone on your team quits unexpectedly. Here are the 3 top takeaways:

  1. Give a Grand Exit: Send off the team member with positivity and high remarks. Specifically list out ways that team member has contributed to the team and the organization, and speak highly of them. This is likely not most people's first instinct, but this will have extremely positive and long-lasting effects down the line. It'll signal the kind of leader you are and more importantly how your team should respond in these situations.
  2. Accept the Unfair Feedback: Unfortunately, there is really no such thing as unfair feedback for managers. Even though things may be completely out of your control, it's up to you to listen, triage, solve, and advocate for your team. There's something to learn in even the most unfair feedback.
  3. Manage Up: Your bosses and your bosses's bosses will be looking out for your reaction. It's most important to have a clear, simple plan for when someone leaves the organization. Depending on the frequency of resignations, this may also be a good time to bring up more foundational issues such as pay, benefits, or culture that haven't been addressed.

Full Episode Transcript

David Choe: All right. Hey everybody. Welcome to another episode of Technically Human. This is going to be a doozy and I'm so excited. We have myself David Choe, the co-founder of Staat, and we have Eric Gong here.

Hey everybody, I'm here

Eric Gong: for the doozy.

David Choe: Yeah. So our episode last week had quite a great feedback, you know, I think it really resonated with people and it was for those that missed it, it was about red flags during interviews.

It was just about the interview process in general, on how to really think about understanding the motivation of somebody. In the interview process. And, and I think it it's, it's, it's stuck with, with a lot of folks, which I think is great. And this week we want to talk a little bit about something kind of similar, I guess, but more about.

Quitting. And this is, you know, pretty, pretty juicy topic. You know, I've heard, everyone's heard the phrase, people don't quit, leave jobs, they leave managers. And that's really what we want to talk about today. We wanna talk about, you know, experiences Eric has had from folks leaving his team. I want to talk about the lessons learned there.

You know, I think a lot of people talk about. Have their quitting stories. I have my own quitting stories, but it's never really talked about from the standpoint of the manager. And I think that's something that people need to talk about. You know, I think a lot of folks might feel sense of maybe shame about people quitting their teams, or have a sense of, you know, maybe resentment or disappointment, or I'm sure it's a myriad of.

Feelings. Right. So I think something really interesting, important to talk about and how to deal with folks leaving your team, you know, is it, is it a you problem? Is it a company problem? Is it a, you know, an employee problem? So I'm sure it's some, you know, compilation of all those things, but Eric, I would love for us to dive into the topic of people quitting and leaving managers and not jobs.

Eric Gong: Yeah. I mean, I've been hearing that quote for quite some time now. And I'd say when I quit better managers is because my manager sucks. And then when I became one, I realized I was the idiot. Now I've made it I I'd say it's a funny experience, right? Cause we all quit managers and not jobs. I think that's really true.

Yeah. I mean, like you feel pretty dumb. Well, I felt dumb every single time. Someone quit on me and I'd say like, this topic hits particularly close to home. Hmm for me, I tended to, even though I never like lashed out at people or like blamed them for leaving me, it just like hits me a lot because I'd say like, as a manager, I really, really care.

I care about people's futures. I care about them as individuals. And I got to say a lot of times it's, it's pretty much unplanned, right? Like even if you had the best, you can have the best. Relationship with someone and they'll, they'll quit on you. So for example, like there's this guy that I had on my team, we had like the best relationship and I, you know, like, You know, every one-on-one and be like, Hey, how you doing at the company?

And you know, the, are you happy and stuff like that. And the guy was like, yeah, I'm so happy. And then we used to have our one-on-ones like every two weeks and then As we were hyper scaling, I literally was like running out of time. I have 15 direct reports and like going to 20 and I was like, Hey, you know, like where can it save some time?

How's that, Oh, this guy I have one-on-ones with them every month because there's no way he's leaving. And so during, during the next one, I want to say, You know, I feel like we're in a good spot. Like we're a hyperscale this company and you know, why don't we do our one-on-ones every month he was like, yeah, fine.

And as we ended the one-on-one, I was like, Hey, is there anything, unless you want to talk about, he's like, Oh, I'm leaving the company.. Oh man. So I I'd say like, those kind of like, and I'd imagine like the way that it hit me, like a punch in the face. I'd imagine like for other and engineering managers, it. It hits just as much I'd imagine.

I don't know. I don't walk in anyone else's shoes, but

David Choe: How did you deal with that? Like, what were the, what were your personal kind of obviously mental and emotional repercussions, but also from a company standpoint, did it affect how you were viewed as a manager or your ability to retain a team?

All those guys would love to get into the specific.

Eric Gong: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I've got to look up what the seven stages of grief are. Cause I, I literally, when I was early management, the first guy quit on me. I was like, raging on the inside. Like, why am I an idiot?

Why I'm not good manager. I ordered every book on Amazon and like start reading them. And I say like, when I was very inexperienced, I had like, no idea. Hmm. Like why would people quit on me? What could I do? And as I got my experience, like I, I learned right. And sometimes it's in my control sometimes I'm not.

I also say that when people leave you, I mean, you look like shit as a manager, right? Like there's no way to about it, whether it was in your control or it's not whether it, that guy was, you know, that guy or gal was a good employee or not. Is still reflects upon you. So I think it's a double edged sword, right?

Like when you're, you know, when you're a manager and you can retain people is like, great. But when you lose, people's like it cuts deeply. And I'd say for me in engineering, it hurts a little bit more just because you will notice the effects. A lot more in organization from my perspective.

Right, right. Because it's actually like stuff you're not building.

David Choe: Yeah. I mean, could you, I don't know if it's, I'm sure it's hard to quantify, but are you able to say how much of the time it was? They quit really? Because of you because you were their manager versus some outside situation.

Eric Gong: Yeah. I mean, I'd say that.

So for this person, particular  is about money. I mean, there are like a lot of discussions about it and like, I definitely try to as as a manager, so I don't fault my, I don't fault myself in this scenario for like losing this person. But I always, I try to think how to have more honest and open relationships with my team so that when they're not Happy they could tell me, or when they feel like they wanna leave, they could talk to me about it.

Right. So I'd say in this instance, it was a growth moment for me because, Hey, I think I have this relationship with someone where, if he's unhappy, he could tell me, and then we could like work it out rather than like you find out one day. Yeah. And that's the worst thing I'd say in any kind of relationship, you find that one day or getting blindsided.

Yeah. You feel blindsided, right? Like sometimes the, your employees feel blindsided by company decisions or whatever, but as a manager you'll feel blindsided. So I'd say like I learned from that experience and that experience helped me find tactical ways to build more meaningful relationships with my employees, such that.

when they are unhappy or they are thinking about these things we talk about it.

David Choe: I mean, it's interesting. Cause it seems like, you know, you did all the right things, having regular one-on-ones, you know, obviously you create a certain kind of culture on your team and, and yet you're a blindsided.

Like what do you, how do you better prepare or can you, or is it, you know, is that just another, the life of a manager?

Eric Gong: No, you can. But I'd say like, so like when you're a new manager, right. They tell you to have these like, do, do these routine things. Right. I have one-on-ones and like, have like candid feedback, but like when you become a better manager, I think the key is like, you figure out how to have candid conversations with your team members.

I think that's the key, right? Because if you just have a one-on-one you say how you're doing. The answer's going to be, I'm doing good. How are you? Sure.

David Choe: Right. Like it's like a matter of asking the right questions during those kind of tactical meetings and stuff. Yeah. Yeah. Now what now? I now in my own company, or when I did it before, it's like, Hey, like, you know, like, you know, what's your happiness level here?

Eric Gong: Like, I mean, that's one question I like to ask, right? Like, Hey, what's your head? Like, what is your happiness level this week? Working here?

David Choe:  It's important that you asked that, but also that they're actually comfortable enough with you to answer honestly, right?

Eric Gong: Yeah. That's a skill that you'll develop as a manager, like reading in between the lines when someone's not happy and someone's not productive, you should know what are some signs. That you've picked up well in a meeting, I could tell you, like, when I'm in a meeting with the team, at a leadership level.

for managers and above, it's like, yeah, I'm listening to content. Like, yeah, I'm listening to, like, let's say we're at a stand up, right. Where, where I send them. And it has all like all the stakeholders, all the engineers. And people would talk about what they're doing. I'm actually not really listening to content.

I'm trying to read in between the lines. Right. Which means like, where's this, where's this team struggling, where are people struggling? How can I help them? Right. And like, what, what are, what are people's mindsets in a team listening for frustrations. Whether they're set or unsaid explicitly . Yeah. Yeah.

Cause that's, that's your job done? Unblock the team from like whatever. I mean, it could be tactical. It could be like, okay, like we don't have money for this tool. And then like you slapped down some dollars or it could be like conflict resolution. Right. It could be how people talk to each other. Like when you notice people, when two people are communicating and there's, there's friction there, like you gotta be able to read it.

Yeah. You develop this skill as a manager, because if you don't pick it up, it's going to blindside you. People are gonna leave you and you're gonna have no idea. Right. It's going to be too late. Yeah. Okay.

David Choe: Can you talk a little bit more about, you know, earlier you said that when people do leave you, it does kind of leave an impression, a negative impression on you as a manager.

Do you have any advice for people that are maybe experiencing this for the first time on how to pick up the pieces when this happens? After an employee leaves

Eric Gong: Get over yourself, probably number one. It's like, it's such an ego hit and I'd imagine for like newer managers, it's just like, it's got to feel like world ending.

It's like, it's almost like it's a breakup. It's like you're dating someone and is a breakup. And you got to face that person every day until they leave and people just kind of talk of it and you just have this, like in your minds this thing that people talk about, and, and I'm just talking about it from the perspective of someone new, when you become more experienced, it's like, okay, like it, you got punched in her face.

You feel like shit. And then you need to be able to handle it  with. Strategy, tactics and decorum. Hmm. Can you talk about those three things? Yeah. So, okay. Like Bob quits on you, you could do one or two things. Just say Bob was a fucking idiot. Anyways, he sucked as a programmer. Good riddance.

How does that reflect on you as a leader? Yeah. So whenever someone quits, unless they literally like set fire to the Kobe's or like did some malicious, you give them a grand exit, right? Say like, Hey, you know, like, so I got used to doing it and at a, you know, Monday morning meeting to say like, Hey team, I have something that I want to share that it's unfortunate, but you know, Bob has decided to move on.

From ABC widget company. Bob has done an amazing job here and like highlight Bob's accomplishments. Right. And say something positive about Bob and let Bob have a grand exit from the company. So like in the beginning, I wouldn't know what to do with it. I'm just mad at Bob for like, I don't know. I like to think myself as egotistical, but.

It does hurt your ego, right? Like it does make you wonder about yourself as a manager, but like, you need to get really tactical about it. Like, like learn from it. Like, you know, like what, what can you learn from this situation as a, you, as a leader get feedback, right? Like what did you do? Where do you create a toxic environment?

Do you create an environment that someone cannot drive in? Did you not look out for someone's career? Is there something that you could have done or there's nothing that you could have done? Right. So I think it's a learning lesson.

David Choe: And then is that like a, you set out, you set out some separate time to have that conversation, asked those questions with the person leaving.

Eric Gong: Yeah. So I think it's a very gentle situation, but like, obviously, like when someone resigns. Like you could, I mean, that might not be a bad time to do it then and there to be honest, but if it's not an appropriate time, you ask for permission, say, Hey, like Bob, I understand you want to leave. And whatever you think is right for you, I fully support is it okay if we talk about it?

Right. In certain situations, maybe it's just like a bad situation. Maybe Bob and Bob had been fighting or, or maybe if it blindsides you, then you, you will want to learn from it. And trust me. Well, I can't speak for anyone else, but there's been so many times in my career where I heard stuff about me, that I was like, wait, what really?

And there's always like, I like to say that, like when you're management you deal with stuff fair and unfair. So regardless of what Bob says, that is fair or unfair, learn from it. Hmm. Interesting. When people quit on you, other people are going to be like, Oh, someone left, left Bob's team.

Bob must not be a good manager. Is that fair? I mean, or Eric's team. Yeah. Right. Or David's team. Right. Someone quit on you. Like I'm, I'm in engineering and then someone quit on you by your Deborah or quit on you. What goes through my mind? Fair or not. It's like, Hey, it's not going to man magic. And the second person quits on you.

So, Oh, David Good manager, is that fair or unfair? Probably pretty unfair. Right? Right. Like people are leaving you, I'm just judging you. So I'd say like, whatever feedback, like Bob gives you, like however unfair bass sound, write it down and try to learn from it because in the moment you're probably like, Oh, this person's an idiot.

Yeah.

David Choe: Maybe do you have any examples of that? Like unfair feedback you've received. In those times with people resigning.

Eric Gong: So couple of episodes ago, I told you like a guy was or a person singing in the office and told me that I did not support them in this situation. I felt that that was unfair at the time.

And then I just kinda told myself at an equation of like, was it fair or unfair? And just try to learn from it. And I didn't label as like fair or unfair. It's like, what can I learn from it? How can I do better the next time? And I guarantee you in my, in my opinion, it's like in any given situation, that situation could have been handled better.

I don't care how you handle it. Even if you handle it, like the, the best politician in the world, you could have handled it better. Like even the situation where like someone did something that was like bad for the team. Like they just walked out. And they came back. I, you know, there was a level of justification where I was like, ah, I got to tell this person, what they're doing is bad for the team.

Like, my tone could have been better. Maybe my tone was so aggressive. This person was like, Oh fuck you. So in my mind, it's like, I felt like the quitting was unfair to the team and me, but I could've handled it better. So I think there's a learning lesson. So I felt like that was unfair. There were times where.

And I'm one of those bosses that really care about someone's careers. And like, sometimes people like quit and they're like, Oh, like, I wish like you could have grown me more at the company.

David Choe: Hmm, what did they expect? I feel like that's very common. You know, that's a very common thing people say and want.

What do you think? Like, cause you're, you're someone that cares that is actively trying to grow someone's career and yet the person on the other side feels like you're not doing enough. What, what is it that they really want? You think.

Eric Gong: Could be unreasonable and unfair. That's not on you, but that's the reality.

And that's your job as a manager is to understand what people like really understand a person, or you could go on to your one-on-ones and say, how are you doing? And then hear, I'm good. How are you? I don't ask that dumb question anymore. Cause you're going to get sidetracked, but everyone, I guarantee you, they want a great career.

They want more money. Right. They want a happy workplace who doesn't want that will what they want match, what you can offer, maybe not, but it's your job to re, to really know, like, to, to understand where they are. Right. That's how I feel about one on ones other managers might be like, all right, just report what you're doing to me.

And that's it. And that they could run their org the way that they want. But I think like a really good manager understands their reports, where they are mentally, where they are like in their career, what they want, right. And how they can make them the most productive. It might be unfair, man. I guarantee you want to run a really big company today.

People are gonna quit on you for things that are out of your control.

David Choe: Totally going back to one thing you said before, you said strategy, tactics and decorum. I wanna hear more about what you mean by decorum in terms of reacting to someone's resignation.

Yeah. Yeah. So it's exactly what I mentioned. Right?

Like give someone a grand exit. Okay. So the guy who was just like, all right, like I'm out because you, you told me I can accolades it's I'm out. I was, I was pretty mad. But when we announced that Monday morning, I was like, Hey, this guy's awesome. You know, he kicked ass in his work and we want to be thankful for that until this person leaves.

Yeah. Because if you talk shit, if you talk shit in any way, shape or form, and you show vitriol, the people there, they pick up on that. Totally.

What about kind of managing up as a manager, someone leaves, what advice do you have for kind of, you know, the directors or the VPs of engineering above you and how they might perceive you or your team, how to handle that kind of dynamic?

Eric Gong: Yeah. It's that's a really good question. And I'd say that I, I think the thing that could benefit a manager the most is to be tactical. And not come up with excuses, like, Hey, like, this person was not a good engineer anyways, and we'll like, be fine without them. Right. Like, that's not very good, but I'm saying like, Hey, upper management or a person that I report you.

I, I know it's a bummer that, you know he or she left. But here here's the plan so that we can go on without this person and then provide a plan.

David Choe: Yeah. What do you, how do you typically structure those plans?

Eric Gong: Yeah, I just say like, well, what did this person in my mind as I, well, what does, what, what did this person do?

Right. So like, let's say they were engineer, you know and I'd say, well, let's now that this person is leaving in two weeks, here's the plan. Such that we could bring in someone just as good, if not better. Right.

David Choe: Where in that? Yeah. Where in that process is there, like, kind of like, you know, it seemed like you were suggesting people basically do like a retro on their relationship right after the person leaves.

Where does that kind of happen with leadership or like the type of people we hire or like where, where do you make those suggestions to the change? To the change in recruiting, based on the learnings of someone's resignation.

Eric Gong: Yeah. I mean, you need to have your own one-on-ones with your own leader and suggest changes that need to be made.

Right? So for example, it's like, if everyone's leaving because of money, you should make it a point to let your organization know. And there's been times while I was in an organization, my boss wasn't listening enough, or my boss couldn't. Do what it takes. So I actually asked her meaning what my boss and my boss's boss and HR to talk about salaries.

Right. Sometimes you really have to, and not put it in like any kind of like super negative way. Like, Hey, my boss is not doing their jobs, so we need more people, but I'd say like, it's how you frame it. Right. So it's a little bit of politics. So like, Hey boss, like we had some people leave this year kind of.

And it's not great for us hitting our goals. I have an idea that I want to share and I think would benefit to have like the chief. Whatever officer in this and HR, so that we call align. Can we do this? Yeah. Right. So I think like when there are gaps like that, you can't say like, Hey, you know, you're not doing a good job boss.

Getting people raises, like you gotta play a little politics. Totally. So for managers, they're gonna figure out how to have those conversations within the organization.

David Choe: Yeah, man, the life of a manager is rough. It's pretty rough in terms of kind of dealing with all these things that you get, not a lot of credit credence for, or, you know, no one's really like patting you on the back, but this is like the hard work, getting that kind of a meeting scheduled and booked and ready to go and advocating your team.

Man. That's that's, that's hard.

Eric Gong: So I'd say that, like that, that that's like the curse of management, right? Like when, when things go, well, your team data, when things go to shit, like it's your ass on the line on. And always, really is. So like, when like people ask me about management, I say like, you really it's a people game.

Yeah. And you've really got to love the people aspect of it and not the money aspect of it. Right?

David Choe: No, I think this has been yet another incredible episode of technically human and really like, there's so many takeaways here about tactics, like the grand exit. I think that's something people can do right away.

Relationship retro. I'll pull the things out that we talked about, but I think it was great. So thank you for sharing. So candidly, as always about your experiences, I know these aren't easy topics by any means, and I'm glad we're talking about them. Yeah, well, it's always a pleasure and hopefully this helps the audience.

So if it does let us know and we'll do more of these. Right. Awesome. Thank you so much for listening and yeah. Please give us some feedback and hit us up across our socials. We'd love to hear from you. All right. Cool. Thanks David. Thank you. Bye bye.

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