Angela quit. She walked in on a Monday morning, went straight into Alex’s office, resignation letter in hand, and said, “I have a great offer from another company that I’ve accepted. My last day is a week from Friday.”
Alex reacted. After listening to Angela’s resignation, he told her simply and clearly, “I know you don’t want to hear this. I know you’re not asking for a counter offer, but let me see what I can do.” Alex got on the phone with his boss. He called HR, and he called Legal. During those calls, he got approval to give Angela a substantive raise, a stock grant, a bonus, and a promotion.
He did all of this before lunch.
After lunch, he took this counter offer to Angela and he did the most important thing. He showed her all the components of the counter offer and he told her a story. It was a story of why she should stay at the company as an engineer, her role in the company’s success, and all of the opportunity that was ahead of her. He told this story amazingly well.
A week later, Angela walked into Alex’s office and told him that she was staying. She stayed for years.
This is a well-performed Diving Save.
Diving Save Disclaimers
Diving Saves are usually a sign of poor leadership. People rarely just up and leave. There are a slew of obvious warning signs I’ve documented elsewhere, but the real first question you have to ask yourself once you get over the shock of an unexpected resignation is: “Did you really not see it coming? Really?”
There are unavoidable Diving Saves. There are lots of companies that are foaming at the mouth crazy about the idea of recruiting your bright people. Sometimes these companies successfully sneak in and recruit a perfectly happy person who really wants to stay, but the offer is just so… bright and shiny. They have to accept.
Whether you screwed up or they were enticed by something bright and shiny, you start the Diving Save answering a lot of questions in a very short amount of time. The big question you have to answer is:
Do You Really Want to Do This?
A Diving Save requires a lot of urgent work that needs to be done immediately, and there’s a good chance this person still might leave. It’s going to be a shock when they open their mouth and the unexpected words “I resign” come out. You’re likely going to have a strong emotional reaction, but before you act you need to quickly answer a lot of different questions, like…
What value is this person creating? What is the unique work this person is doing that would be hard to replace? List three things this person has built or accomplished in the last year. Do you need more of these things?
What would the obvious and non-obvious impact to the team be if this person left? Move away from the work – how does this person fit into the team? What role do they fill that doesn’t have a title? Are they serving as essential connective tissue? Who do they balance out? Who can they translate for? Who would storm into your office absolutely furious if this person left?
What would the impact to the company be if this person left? Now that you’ve considered team impact, what about company impact? What is the story that is going to be told by people outside of the team regarding this person’s departure? Do you care about this story? How is attrition in your company? How many people have left in the last six months? Could this person’s departure trigger an exodus?
What are the crazy, unpredictable side effects of this person leaving? Get paranoid now. What are the least likely things that might occur when this person leaves? These theories can be goofball, but now is a good time to be paranoid – someone just walked in and quit and you weren’t expecting it. What else might be up? How might this person’s departure accelerate these hopefully unlikely scenarios?
What is the impact of performing a Diving Save? Ideal professional protocol involves a departing person who legitimately cares about the health of the team and does as much as possible to prevent disrupting it with their potential departure. However, if this was the way that people worked, the fact that a successful Diving Save had been performed would never be known to anyone except a small handful of people who needed to know.
People don’t work this way. You have to assume that much of the narrative and compensation that you’re about offer will become known by the team. I understand why people share this confidential information, but I wish they wouldn’t. You need to first understand that some set of people are going to know you performed gymnastics to give this person a reason to stay (whether they stay or not), and also consider the impact of the team knowing this. Think about it like this: if you were to explain to a random person – in great detail – the potential intricacies of your Diving Save, would they agree that you are doing the right thing?
A Compelling, Unwavering Story and A Show of Force
Once you’ve chosen to perform a Diving Save, you need to adopt a specific mindset: This person is not leaving. It’s a bit of a delusional perspective, since there is a very good chance they might leave, but for now your opinion is a resolute no way.
It took quite a bit of courage for this person to resign. They had to completely decide to leave, and, by doing so, they have mentally prepared themselves. Your job is to stand in clear mental opposition to that decision. Your job is to elegantly and professionally disassemble their plan, and you’ll do so with three interrelated tasks: Story, Compensation, and Curveballs.
Your first and most important task is to thoroughly answer the question: “Why should they stay?” You can start thinking about that answer by asking the question: “How did that other company sneak their way into this person’s head?” What was attractive to them about leaving? Was it the team? The opportunity? The compensation?
You had a unique opportunity to gather a lot of this data when they were resigning, but you were likely slightly in shock. Now is a good time to reflect on their resignation. What reasons, however small, did they give for leaving? You may or may not integrate this data into your Story, but as a starting point it is essential that you understand the mental conditions that led to their attempted resignation.
I start by framing the Story around opportunity. What is the narrative that I can tell about how this person can contribute to the company and to their team? What are the obvious opportunities ahead of them and what do they have to look forward to? Why have they stopped being able to see these opportunities themselves? What does winning look like? What are they going to build, why does it matter, and how it is going to help them grow?
The opportunity narrative is the cornerstone of your Diving Save. It frames everything that follows, and if you can’t define a compelling story regarding both the short-term and long-term prospects for this person, I’m not sure why you’re frantically working on a Diving Save.
Try a draft of your Story on a trusted, well-informed someone. They’ve got to have enough context about the person to know whether your story is credible and compelling. If, after a few practice rounds, your trusted someone isn’t sold, you don’t have a Story, yet.
Salary, stock, bonus, and promotions. These are easy things to understand. They are a simple way to measure relative value, but completing this task starts with a warning: Is this situation completely about Compensation?
Here’s the situation I’d like you to avoid. If the person’s current compensation is fair, and simply raising it convinces them to stay, is this someone you want to stay? While Compensation is easy to compare, the reason I wanted you to start with developing the Story is because you want them to stay because of the compelling narrative, not simply because of compelling Compensation.
If it’s only about money, it will always be about money. You might be able to build a compelling Compensation package, and they might accept it, but if the only reason they are staying is money, not opportunity and growth, you’re delaying the inevitable. There is nothing preventing another enterprising company from building an even brighter and shinier offer and – guess what – they’ll be leaving… again.
If it’s not entirely about Compensation, my advice is, oddly: go big on Compensation. Let’s remember all the components:
- Base salary
For each of these aspects, you need to first ask yourself: “Is this fair? Is what I’ve compensated this person fair relative to their work?” If it’s not, what do you need to do to get it there? It’d be also good to understand why has it not been fair all this time? This is your baseline and it might clear up some friction between you and the employee, but you’re not done yet.
The next question is: “If this person kicks ass for the next two years, what would their compensation look like?” That’s probably a lot of money in salary, bonuses, and perhaps stock. That’s likely a promotion, too. I’m not saying this is your Diving Save package, but I want you to think about each aspect of compensation after two amazing years and then pick and choose the aspects that you believe will resonate.
As you’re planning the aspects of Compensation, you also want to understand your wiggle room relative to all the components. As we’ll see during the Pitch, you may need to adapt on the fly.
Two non-monetary aspects to consider: title and role. Title is the name that they can put on their business card. I believe in high tech this is becoming an increasingly irrelevant perk, but some folks grin when it says “Senior” in their title. So, go for it. The more important part of the promotion is the role: what is the work they are going to be doing? This is better defined and explained as part of your Story, but since title/role and compensation are often intertwined, you might be explaining it again here in Compensation.
The intent of the compensation package is a show of force. When you present the details of this offer, they should feel two things: you’ve considered everything, and holy shit.
With Story and Compensation built, your last task is Curveballs. This is a grab bag of hard-to-predict situations and questions that arise during a Diving Save, which might sound like, “Hey, I already gave my new employer a start date,” or “I already told a lot of people I was leaving. We had a party. What are they going to think if I stay?”
The core issue that you need to address is that this person likely fully decided to leave. This resignation (hopefully) wasn’t a ploy to get a raise; they were legit leaving and had altered their mindset appropriately. They were gone. You can start by working out in your head what you can do to make it socially ok and comfortable for this person to stay. Build a compelling reason and a one-liner answer for when the person inevitable gets asked why they chose not to leave.
If you’ve built a solid Story and have compelling Compensation, a lot of other Curveballs conveniently go away. If you understand your narrative about their career and reasoning behind how to compensate them, a lot of questions regarding “What are people going to think?” will be answered automatically. They are going to think you went with the best job available.
Before you pitch them on why they should stay, it’s worth replaying in your head every single word spoken when they resigned. You can’t predict all the Curveballs until you get to the Pitch, but from the time they resigned to the time it took you to build and present a response, small thoughts may have turned into scary Curveballs. The more you can predict and address before you pitch, the better your Story.
In the Angela Diving Save, one of the more impressive aspects of the action was the sense of urgency. Alex moved on the Diving Save swiftly and Angela noticed. He didn’t have to say a thing to for her to intuit that he believed that keeping her was his #1 priority. This sense of urgency is a great way to start a pitch – an unspoken but clear understanding that you, the hiring manager, are taking this situation seriously.
How you need to pitch the details of the Story and the Compensation, how you need to handle Curveballs, is entirely dependent on what this unique person – who is not resigning – needs to hear. Your Pitch needs to:
Be tailored to the person. What does this particular beautiful and unique snowflake need to hear? Have you addressed every single one of their concerns? Are they actually mad about something completely unrelated to their role and need to vent? I don’t know what specific advice to give you because I don’t know the specific person, but if you fail to hear them, you’re not going to save them.
Be delivered and then be adapted. When you get to the particulars of the Story and the Compensation, I like to tell the whole story. This is what I’m thinking… I deliver everything as one complete narrative, and then I shut the fuck up. The first few words out of their mouth, their immediate reaction, is going to tell you a lot. If they say the following, this is my initial reaction:
- Wow. We’re in good shape.
- Well. We’re in bad shape.
- Hmmmm. We’re in particularly bad shape.
Of course, you can’t base your reaction on a single word, but every word matters. You need to listen hard to what they’re saying, and if you’ve done your homework, you can adapt your Save on the fly. They’re interested in more stock and less base? Great, what about X?
You’re going to want an answer at the end of the Pitch, but in my experience, this rarely occurs. They’ve had weeks to think about and deliver a resignation and you’ve had 36 hours filled with email, phone calls, and meetings to work out a response. Once you’ve Pitched, give them time to consider. Make sure you’ve answered every single one of their questions and then pick a time to meet again.
They stayed. All that work paid off. Congratulations. Don’t pat yourself on the back too hard. A Diving Save is not a professional move at which you want to learn to excel. If you’re the guy at the company who is great at Diving Saves, you’re also the guy who is working at a company where folks apparently need to resign in order to have a real conversation about their roles.
Last worry: you need to remember that this person who recently decided to stay also recently decided to leave. They completely imagined and started acting in a world where they were leaving the company. We humans are fond of structure, habit, and familiarity, and this recently-saved person picked a new company full of strangers and opaque opportunity. This human had to make a brave leap to make this choice, and just because they chose to stay for now doesn’t mean they’ll remain.