InsideOut Development

The Tricky Thing About Retention

by Joyce Petrella

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A young woman walked into my office on a sunny autumn afternoon. She was one of our firm’s most highly valued employees. At 26, she had been able to master our complex business, build strong and genuine relationships with her peers, and amaze our clients with her responsiveness and grasp of their needs. We recruited her only three years prior and had plans to promote her in the upcoming year with increased responsibility and fast-track to account management, the key role in our firm.

I welcomed her arrival into my office. She always was cheerful and a great storyteller, and I was excited to hear about her latest client meeting or whatever other topic she wanted to discuss. In the first five minutes, I learned how she had solved a knotty issue for the client and the results she had been able to achieve.

She took a breath and then concluded, “and I think I’m ready for something different.”

Ha! I was prepared; I spilled my enthusiasm for her contributions and how I saw a bright future ahead for her at the company. Her response left me stunned. I never saw it coming.

“No, I mean really different. I’m giving you my two weeks’ notice. I’m joining an improv group here in the city. I want to do stand-up comedy.”


The tricky thing about retention is, until you have a valued employee tell you they’re leaving, you simply don’t know what you don’t know. High potential talent may have aspirations you can’t even imagine.

In today’s economy, we are seeing low unemployment, increasing opportunities, and a gig economy that enables talent, of all generations, to seek non-traditional career paths.

In the scenario above, no traditional career trajectory to account management was going to entice her enough to stay. The odds were clearly in her favor, not mine, to negotiate. Rather than attempt a lame counteroffer, as her coach, I felt my job was to engage her in achieving her goal.

As it turned out, she had been thinking about this for a while. She was planning to work as a waitress and other odd jobs while getting her comedy performance honed. As we explored options, we realized we could continue to work together in a creative way by hiring her as a freelance employee. We needed burst capacity during peak periods, so this option suited us both: she could realize her dream and stay connected with her friends at work, and I could retain her valuable expertise.

In our coaching conversation, I learned so much. I only wish I had offered coaching sooner.

Category: Coaching Retention

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Joyce has spent more than 25 years working in corporate leadership in industries from healthcare and insurance to technology and aerospace. Throughout her career, Joyce has actively sponsored the advancement of women in STEM through her roles on university boards and leadership of women career development initiatives. She holds a Master’s degree in Linguistics from Harvard University. She is also an avid reader and traveler and loves following international cycling events.

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