What a difference a year makes! Back then, one of an IT manager’s biggest challenges was retention, since recruiters were peeling off technical professionals right and left. Back in January, I wrote a column about retention that discussed the benefits you could implement to slow the exodus of talent out the front door.

This year, of course, the situation is quite different. Unfortunately, many technical managers have had to lay off people for the first time in their careers—a humbling experience. (If you’re dealing with that situation now, here are some suggestions.) The calls from headhunters have slowed to a trickle, and retention isn’t the problem it used to be.

However, one thing remains the same. Your best people are always the ones who are most at risk, precisely because they are your best people. In this column, we’re going to look at what you should do when your right-hand man or woman decides to leave.

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Making the most of that two weeks
Let’s start by setting the stage. Your number two walked into your office on Monday and turned in his or her resignation. The new employer is offering a sizable increase in responsibilities, the chance to work on a hot technology, and a substantial raise. Let’s assume you’ve done everything possible to keep this top employee by offering a change in job, more money, or a different title and new responsibilities—all to no avail.

So there you are, knowing that your best deputy is going to leave the organization in two weeks. What do you do now? How do you make the most of a bad situation? Here are some suggestions:

Park your ego at the door and put your emotions in a suitcase
Paradoxically, while IT managers have the greatest sense of loyalty and gratitude to our best employees, we feel more hurt and betrayed when they decide to leave. While it’s understandable to be angry or bitter, it’s counterproductive to let your employee see those emotions. You’ve only got a couple of weeks at most to transition everything this person was doing to someone else. You don’t want to close that window of opportunity by venting your resentment.

Create and manage the transition plan personally
In the past, you could ask this person to handle almost any task. In this case, you need to personally manage the departure strategy. After all, the person is leaving the company and will already be starting to focus on the new position.

Get the departing employee’s buy-in to your plan
Because a key employee is leaving, it’s unrealistic to expect the same level of commitment that you’ve seen in the past. Show the plan to your employee, explain what you want to get done during the next two weeks, and ask the person to candidly tell you if he or she is up for it. If the employee is only willing to get 60 to 70 percent of that work done, it’s much better to know up front, so that you can make adjustments accordingly. Put the person at ease and make sure that he or she feels comfortable giving you an honest answer, and not just the answer you want to hear.

Concentrate on the strategic, not the tactical
The most common error that IT managers make in this situation is failing to focus on strategic issues. Because the departing employee is typically working on the most important projects, the technical manager will spend most of his or her time transitioning those projects to others. While this part of the plan is crucial, it ignores the whole strategic dimension. Your best people do more for you than just manage projects. They help mentor other staff members, support your initiatives, and provide departmental leadership. They also keep your feet on the ground by giving you the “lay of the land.” Make sure you spend some of that person’s final two weeks getting his or her views on how your organization could function more efficiently and what roadblocks may be lurking ahead.

Replace in haste; repent in leisure
Let’s assume you can fill the soon-to-be-open position. While your first reaction might be to get someone on board as soon as possible—or more likely, to fill the job internally—you should resist that temptation. If you’re like most of us, you “cheated” a little on your organization chart, giving more responsibility to your best performer. Now that he or she is leaving, take some time to see how you want to reorganize your staff going forward. Further, if you make a quick hire, you are more likely to make a mistake, letting the fear of being shorthanded blind you to a candidate’s flaws. This is particularly true when it comes to replacing a valued associate.

Not a panacea
Don’t get me wrong. It hurts when you lose a good employee, and it really hurts to lose your best employee. Nothing I’ve said here should minimize the importance of doing what you can to save your star performers. Once they make that decision, however, it’s up to you to make sure the transition is as painless and productive as possible.

How did you replace a key person in your shop?

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