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The Yoko Ono Factor

Tool: Dealing with the fact that nothing lasts forever

Two weeks ago, I spoke with a start up team that had just lost a team member and was in the dumps. Starting a business is tough and having someone leave was hard on those that stayed. They are not the first firm to experience it and they won’t be the last. It is completely normal. The question is what to do about it.

Fight, flight, freeze or…

Absurd as it may sound there are still people who see any attempt to leave as treason and fight anyone trying to go. Others deny that it has any effect, believing that one person is good as the next. Others freeze, doing nothing as people walk away. All three have their flaws and fortunately there is an alternative. Accept that people come and go – and think through how to deal with it.

People come and people go. What are you going to do about it?

Break ups can get complicated – especially if you’re not prepared. Like marriages, nobody goes in expecting to quit, but committing to a job, especially in a start up does not mean you have to accept all the risks unaltered. Going in, most of the discussion about expectations is focused on the positive, the things everyone wants to happen. It is worth thinking about what your expectations are if things do not go as hoped – and specifically if someone wants to leave.

Think ahead

Here are a few steps that can help:

  • Accept the possibility that someone may want to leave – and that they might have a perfectly acceptable reason to do so.
  • Talk through how you would like that process to go. Should there be a handover of roles and responsibilities or should they pack their things in a cardboard box and leave immediately?
  • What are the rights of both sides? Who gets to keep what? Intellectual property? Customers? Colleagues? Suppliers?
  • How will you agree on what you have agreed ? A handshake? A document?

(Note: if you’re in a big firm, don’t make the mistake of thinking HR has taken care of this. They may have the legal aspects covered, but everything else is on you. Do you want to know someone is thinking of leaving – or wave as they walk out the door? What relationship do you want to former colleagues?)

How to do it right – and not so right

Some bands, like the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys, go on forever. The former seems to have come to terms with each other – and remained on good enough terms – to stay together. The latter are an example of another option. They replace band members one at a time and will probably play forever. Most bands, like the Beatles, however, do not.

Plenty of Beatles fans rue the day John Lennon met Yoko Ono, but meet her he did and the rest is history. When Lennon left, it was over. Given how many lead singers have gone solo and drummers have died of drug overdoses, the modern band without a plan for what to do if someone leaves is ignoring a very obvious risk.

Be prepared for the Yoko Ono Factor

Yoko Ono happened. The band should have been expecting it – and so should you. Think through what you will do if someone decides to leave the team. What if your superstar CEO gets a better offer? What if your techlead gets lured away by Google? Saying it isn’t going to happen won’t protect you – and their departure does not have to hurt.

Time heals…

Yesterday a tweet came in from a VC announcing that the startup had been added to their portfolio. Time heals all wounds, the saying goes, and perhaps it has taken some of the sting of losing their fourth team member. Your team may be vulnerable, especially if you have not discussed the issue. Whether you think you’ll last as long as U2 or you don’t, start talking now. Yoko Ono is out there somewhere. Count on it.

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