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Rise of the Superhumans, Part 1

Mary* was a rock star at Vandelay Industries*. (* = Names have been changed.)

Mary was one of the smartest kids in high school – with strong academic and athletic prowess. She was competitive and smart. Her classmates knew she would go places.

Her first step as a professional was obtaining a mechanical engineering degree on an academic scholarship. She graduated with a 3.9 GPA from a good engineering school. She was recruited to work in the design lab at Vandelay, helping to design new products for customers. After obtaining a PE license, she was promoted into a job as a sales engineer at Vandelay. In this role, she traveled the country working with customers to develop her company’s products based on their needs. Despite the rigors of her travel schedule, she enrolled in an executive MBA program that met on the weekends. For two years, she flowed from work to customer to school to work. She did not take a day of vacation for two years.

MBA in hand, Mary was promoted into a program manager position, owning product lines from ideation to obsolescence. She was the only female program manager and was 10 years younger than the average age of her peers. Mary still maintained close relationships with many of the customers that had come to rely on her as a sales engineer. They often called her directly if they needed anything, bypassing their sales reps and sales engineers.

Throughout her tenure at Vandelay, Mary had shown a knack for building diverse internal networks – from the sales teams, to customer service, to marketing, and operations. Externally, she was on the first-name basis with many of the CEO’s of many of her company’s biggest customers and most important suppliers. Her programs outperformed the others in the company - and was responsible for an over-sized chunk of company revenue.

At one point, Vandelay was going through a rough patch and several middle managers were let go. Mary was given the added responsibility for the customer service team, doubling her amount of direct reports. The budget was tight, so she accepted the work without a raise. Additionally, because of Mary’s quick rise through the company, her compensation was significantly less than her (male) peers due to HR policies tied to seniority.

Almost everyone in the company knew and respected her. Her management team often gave her extra tasks that needed to be done well and did not fall under anyone’s job responsibilities. At every step in her career, she rose to the challenge, orchestrating continued success. Management had her slated for their long-range succession planning – the SVP of Operations would be retiring in another seven years, and they had her on the short list to replace him.

She was seen as the future of her company.

Until the day she turned in her notice.

One of Mary’s friends from business school was starting a company and asked her to join as their COO. Two weeks later, Mary was gone.

Vandelay was stunned. Life without her would be hard and only got harder.

In Part 2, I’ll discuss what came next for Mary’s old company. For now, let’s discuss steps they could have taken to keep her.

Here are the failure points in Mary’s case:

  1. Compensation. Mary was essentially doing the work of 3 full-time jobs on any given day. Just because she was relatively junior to her peers, does not mean she should be paid less. There should be parity among peers, regardless of tenure, age (or gender) with some flexibility to pay more for additional responsibilities, experience, or value to an organization. In the case of absorbing the customer service manager’s job responsibilities, at the very least she should have been given a raise for the additional responsibilities. While many top performers are intrinsically driven and compensation is not a big motivator, being paid for what you are worth to a company is important to any professional.

  2. Eliminate vestigial job responsibilities. Mary’s abilities as a sales engineer helped get her promoted, but her customers should have been handed off to others to let her focus on her primary job. A common practice in many companies is an employee gets promoted only to keep some, most, or all, of their old job while trying to get started in a new one. It is a recipe for stress and blurred lines of responsibility.

  3. Work to limit burnout. Managers need to manage the workloads of their top performers. Many will stay fulling engaged in their work until the day they quit. Mary’s manager failed to offloaded some of her less important responsibilities and made sure she took a vacation.

  4. Career planning. Did anyone ask Mary what she wanted to do with her career? Probably not. Great managers will have career planning conversations often with their people. Goals can change over time as life happens. In Mary’s case, she was ready for a higher role and did not want to wait several years for a chance at a promotion. If promotion is just not viable a while, managers should work on alternatives to keep their best employees productive or work to land them a promotion at another company, such as a supplier or customer. The best managers will help their people stay engaged.

  5. Do not tolerate mediocrity. Organizations often accept poor performance from employees and expect their higher-performing peers to pick up the slack. A-players like to work with other A-players – nothing will demotivate one more than feeling like they are “doing all the work around here.” It’s common for 80% of the work to get done by 20% of the workforce.

  6. Recognize often. Every employee likes to feel valued for their work and recognized for their accomplishments. How they like to be recognized varies from person to person. Managers need to learn how their people like to be recognized and do so, often. Mary’s boss assumed she knew how much she was valued, and never bothered to tell her.

  7. Disengaged Human Resources. In any organization, one of HR’s most important roles is talent management. In Mary’s case, nobody from HR raised the alarm with her management team about her compensation (in fact, their policies were the primary cause of the gap). HR needs to cultivate the human capital within the organization. Sometimes manager will take advantage of their employees, heaping more and more work on them, to the detriment of the organization.

It is possible that Mary would have left no matter what, but Vandelay did their best to give her reasons to leave and few reasons to stay. In Part 2, we'll look at the consequences to Vandelay of losing Mary - many of them unexpected - and how companies can avoid making the same mistakes.

If you enjoyed reading this, kindly consider sharing, commenting, or shooting us a note to tell us your thoughts.

The Rivet Group is an executive search and consulting firm that is dedicated to matching companies with exceptional employees (like Mary!) who can help bring them to the next level. If you are ready to hire for your team, explore new job opportunities, or have something else in mind, we'd like to hear from you.

We can be reached at

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