People Leave Bosses, Not Jobs

Barry Goldberg On Leadership

People Leave Bosses, Not Jobs

No one running a business today is surprised to know that there is a serious competition for talent going on. Between the aging in the workforce of millennials who have even less patience for growth and promotion than we saw in the dot-com run-up and the rapid change in skills needed, hiring managers and leaders are very clear. In a recent poll of CEOs in the United States, the competition for talent is among the top three priorities for over 75 percent of organizational leaders.

The use of pre-employment screening for attitude, capacity, initiative, work style, etc. is on a serious rise, and more companies are budgeting skills training for new hires. The strategy is that if a company cannot get exactly the skills needed, the job offer goes to someone who will be a good cultural fit and has the personality or mindset match. The time needed to prepare a worker for a position is longer and the training investment is larger; these are the new costs of the war for talent.

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But in the end, we know that people leave bad bosses, not jobs or companies — meaning that they stay for the same reason. In a feedback interview for an EVP coaching client, I recently heard a VP say, “This place is a zoo. We are as dysfunctional as it gets, lack the tech infrastructure to get work out the door and rarely get the budgetary resources necessary for projects and initiatives. But I am not leaving my boss. She is a voice of reason and I learn a ton from her. And I know she respects me — even when I am getting ‘tough love.’ I will stay here as long as I am working for her.”

So here is my question. Why is that company spending millions in pre-employment screening and personality testing and almost nothing on creating good bosses? If people leave bad bosses, then that means they stay for good ones. In short, a system that spends more to bring in talent and get new hires ready for responsibilities is wasting its time and effort if there is no process for improving those skills and capacity for management. Yet that is often the case.

Bad bosses are not necessarily bad people. Many people in managerial positions never had training in leadership or managerial sciences. In fact, one study from two years ago identified the single top reason for promotion to management as an ability to do the job being managed. It is not just the best salespeople who make the best managers; that is true for most positions.

So how to get out of this cycle?

  • Use those same pre-employment tests to identify those with managerial talent and begin to cultivate it early.
  • Create an internal leadership development program that focuses on the first few years for new hires, complete with a mentoring and job rotation process.
  • Get new hires an internal mentor and teach the mentors how not to become a second boss.
  • Provide regular 360 feedback focusing on managerial presence and skill as well as leadership competencies.

In a recent peer advisory group I visited (not one of mine here in Little Rock), I heard a CEO describe a conundrum. His CFO was very skilled as a financial strategist but had a 25 percent turnover rate among his staff. Clearly the CFO was a bad boss that people were leaving, and no amount of training or coaching was having an impact.

After 30 minutes of looking at the cost of the turnover, the idea of a chief of staff position who could handle the managerial oversight of the finance organization looked like a bargain. The CFO then could concentrate on what he was very, very good at.

After all, we are not all going to be great bosses.

I. Barry Goldberg is a credentialed executive coach and Vistage private advisory board chair. Contact him at