One of the questions leaders need to ask when they are losing an employee is how they will feel if he or she goes to work for a competitor. If the employee isn’t good enough for their own organization, they should be pleased if a competitor is stupid enough to hire that person. This does not seem to be the case with American Express and Al Kelly.

Kelly was a rising star at American Express for over two decades. He left in 2010 reportedly because he did not see a path to CEO at American Express. Since then he’s done some interesting things in and around New York, sports, wifi and the like. But CEO of Visa is exactly what Kelly must have had in mind when he left American Express.

Good for him. Kelly will certainly have to pay attention to his own executive onboarding as it is the key to accelerating success and reducing risk in a new job. He can also learn from how Ajay Banga managed his onboarding into MasterCard. But that’s not the focus of this article.

This article is about losing a star.

At Procter & Gamble we used to look at people leaving on two dimensions. Loss or no loss. Surprise or no surprise.

• No loss. No surprise. Probably managed out, perhaps subtly, perhaps directly. But these were the people we hoped would go work for competitors and hurt them instead of hurting us.

• No loss. Surprise. Not managed out. Not expected to leave at this point. But we didn’t really care where they went since they weren’t helping us.

• Loss. No surprise. These were people like Al Kelly at American Express. Net contributors to the organization. Definitely would have liked to keep them if we could. But realized it was probably not in their own best interest to stay with us for whatever reason. For someone to stay with an organization it has to be good for them and for the organization.

• Loss. Surprise. These were the nightmares. People we wanted to keep. People we thought we were going to keep. But somehow, somewhere along the way we lost touch with what was going on with them and were surprised when they left. Every so once in awhile we tried to make a counter-offer. And every so once in awhile someone accepted it and stayed – for a while. But generally not for the long term which is part of why you should never make or take counteroffers.


Implications for you.

The prescription is easy to say and hard to do.

Get aligned around performance and potential.

Make sure your key people are aligned around your employees’ performance and potential so you know which people you are prepared to lose and which ones you do not want to lose. Do understand that performance and potential are two different things. You do not want to lose a high performing employee who is in the right job and not likely to get promoted any more than you want to lose a rising star.

Looking back on their careers, no. 1 thing senior executives regret is not moving fast enough on people. The no. 1 thing high performers want is for someone to get the poor performers out of their way.

No surprise losses.

Don’t worry about the no loss people. But you do care about the people that will be a loss. Some will leave. Even if they are strong performers, if it’s not right for them, at some point they will lose heart. You’ll have to let them go. But know what’s happening with them and help them through the transition on their timing and their terms. Others will notice and appreciate what you did.

But don’t lose the people you don’t want to lose and don’t have to lose. We’ll never know if American Express could have created a different internal path for Kelly. Today, they probably wish they had.