If your exit interviews are useful, then you’re doing something wrong
Last week, Charlie published an article titled How to run the perfect exit interview. It was a useful post - full of handy insights and some nice, actionable steps. If you’re relatively new to the HR or Operations game, then I think it’s definitely a great place to start.
However, reading it over did get me thinking about the true value of exit interviews. Since then, I’ve come to a realisation. I actually think the more useless your exit interviews are, the better you are doing in your day-to-day role.
Let me explain what I mean.
Last week, we said goodbye to our former Head of Engineering, Dan Lucraft. Dan had been with the company for nearly two years, and was absolutely instrumental in laying the foundations of how we build software at CharlieHR. When my co-founder Rob and I were (essentially) beyond clueless about how software companies should be run, it was Dan who held our hand through that process.
So naturally, his exit has been a real blow. But it was in no way a surprise.
Dan and I had been talking about his future for at least six months prior to his departure. I don’t mean we’d been talking explicitly about him leaving - more discussing what a positive step forward looked like for him. Dan had been working within high-growth tech companies for nearly ten years, so it’s hardly surprising his priorities changed over that time. He has a family now, and he wanted to spend more time on his learning and independent projects.
When those thoughts and discussions eventually crystallised into a decision to leave, it meant we could start preparing for his departure together.
He helped us to understand how we should replace the skills and experiences he’d be taking with him. He showed us the opportunities that his departure would unlock for other engineers on the team. Together, we were even able to settle on a date for him to leave - one that made sense for both him and the company.
After all of this, you can imagine that his exit interview wasn’t a particularly eventful affair. We already knew why he was leaving, and any feedback about his role or the company that we might have asked for had already been given, fully and gladly, in the months prior.
The point I’m trying to make here is that you need open lines of communication with your team all the time, not just when someone has decided to leave. If you encourage your team to talk to you (and keep on talking to you), then you open yourself up to a vast wealth of information.
With that goal in mind, here are five techniques you can use right now to encourage open, honest and constructive dialogue with your team.
Creating communication - how to encourage your team to tell you what they are really thinking
1. Set the tone
The tone of a business is set by the people at the top. If you want to encourage an environment of open communication, then it needs to come from you - make it known to your team that you are always available to talk, about whatever they want to talk about.
At Charlie, I set aside time every Wednesday afternoon for people to catch up with me if they want to. That’s not to say the door is closed for the rest of the week - but carving out some time specifically for that purpose is a useful way of preventing communication being sidelined by other priorities.
2. Set the scene
Over the course of your career, you’re going to have many different conversations with your team. Each and every conversation is different and will have its own particular goal.
Some conversations will be feedback orientated, some will require you to be very supportive, while others might require you to be deliberately challenging. Whatever the goal, you should pick an environment to match. The space that you use has a direct effect on how well that conversation goes and helps to decide whether you’re going to be able to achieve the goal you had in mind.
Here are a few examples of different environments, and how I tend to use them:
A meeting room within the office
These are good for short, focused conversations, where there is a very distinct issue to discuss.
Out of Office (e.g. a local coffee shop)
These are great for longer meetings where you want the individual to think a little more ‘big picture’ - about their career trajectory maybe, or how they want to progress individually.
Walking meetings (go for a quick loop around the block)
These are a great option if there’s going to be lots of processing to do for both sides - for example, if they’ve got some feedback they want to give you or if you have some challenging news to deliver. It also has the advantage of being able to talk without loads of intense eye contact, which can be useful if you want to let their mind wander a little.
Remember, not all conversations are created equal! So use your environment to help you get the most from each one.
3. Ask the right questions...
A good question can be the difference between a productive, insightful conversation and an absolute dead-end. Here are some tools that have worked for me:
Don’t ask why; ask ‘what’, or ‘how’
Typically “what" and “how” questions are much less confrontational than ‘why’.
Flip the perspective
If someone is getting stuck by looking at something from one angle, try asking them to flip it around. If a team member is struggling to define what success looks like for them in the upcoming year, turn the question on its head - ask them, “what do you want to avoid happening this year?”.
Give them a heads up
If you think it might be hard for someone to give you an answer right on the spot, give them a bit of time to consider it in advance. Maybe drop them a message mentioning the topic they’d like to consider.
4. …but know when to say nothing
Sometimes, though, it’s not the questions that you ask that draws out the most informative responses - often it can be the awkward silences that you leave between responses that draw out the really valuable information.
Why? Awkwardness is a powerful tool. Silence makes others talk, and that’s really the name of the game here - you are trying to get the person opposite you to talk as much as possible.
5. Share and be vulnerable
I am always amazed by how some business leaders expect their team to be honest and open with them (and are surprised when they aren’t) but don’t lead by doing the same.
You cannot expect anyone in your business to be honest with you if you are not honest with them. This means a few things:
In order to be a transparent organisation, you need to give people information about why the business makes the decisions that it does. Likewise, be open about sharing your own thoughts on topics of interest. If you can’t tell someone what you really think about a situation, then it’s unlikely they are going to do so in return.
Show some emotion. Running a business is hard and it’s unrealistic to pretend that you don’t occasionally find it difficult. Being vulnerable with your team is very important - it shows your team that you’re in exactly the same boat as them.
I’m not saying you should scrap your exit interviews for good. By all means, carry on running them - but if you’re relying on them as the main source of feedback from your team, then something has gone seriously wrong.
Ideally, exit interviews should be a confirmation of things you already know. They’re an opportunity to document feedback, codify insights and maybe clarify some specific learnings. As I heard Dan himself say before he left, waiting until the exit interview before asking for feedback means that you are already far too late: because the best, most robust and constructive feedback you’ll ever get is from people who still have a stake in the results.