Syncing individual and company growth

Is it better to invest in development or churn & burn?

Melissa Rosenthal
4 min readJul 21, 2021
Photo by Gabriel Gusmao on Unsplash

Cast your mind across your current team. How long has each member been with you? As your company has grown, how well have they adapted along the way? Have you seen dips in performance that have been significant or prolonged enough for you to wonder whether they are still the “right” fit?

Last week one of my clients, while reflecting on his team, posed this question:

Should I accept that we’ll churn through people as we grow, or should we be investing more in developing them?

This question is an “either-or” choice. Either we’re a “churn & burn” factory that hires and fires people as we need them, or we look to develop people and keep them for the long(er) haul.

Either we accept that people will inevitably come and go based on their capability, potential or appetite for change. Or we become excellent at developing people to ensure they adapt to meet our changing needs (and achieve their growth aspirations).

I think posing this question as “either-or” belies the complexity of building great teams. In my experience, the reality is that people will leave as you grow and investing in development is critical to the growth of the team and your company.

TLDR: The key is to understand your people. Begin the conversation during recruitment and onboarding. Create consistent opportunities to discuss where they’re headed and how you can help them get there. In this case, it’s less about their performance today and more about their potential and goals for tomorrow.

Some people excel in the ambidexterity and breadth required of them in early-stage start-ups. It’s also clear that, as the team grows, roles narrow and more formal processes are introduced, those same people look to move on. No amount of development is likely to keep them. They know where they thrive, and they gravitate to those opportunities.

This is positive churn — people leaving for the right reasons at the right time.

Some others have a passion for seeing an idea from conception through to scale. They love the challenge of seeing change as it unfolds in front of them and being part of the decisions on how to respond.

Rapid growth requires all members of the team to adapt. They’re unlikely to adapt at the same rate, which means you’ll see variations in individual performance. Some of your star performers might suddenly look less than stellar. Often this is easy to observe but tough to diagnose. Are they tired? Are there things going on in their personal life that are impacting their concentration? Do they resent the new leader who’s been hired over the top of them? Are they out of their depth at your new level of scale and complexity? Would they just rather be solving different problems?

As a founder, the drop in performance can create a sense of disappointment. It may seem like replacing the person is an easy answer. But that’s not necessarily the case. For a start, it’s hard to create an engaged and positive culture if all people can see is a revolving door through which their friends and colleagues keep leaving, and it’s not clear why. And let’s not forget, the market for talent market is highly competitive. Even if you can attract the “best in class”, it’s likely to cost you.

So, how do you navigate the balance between positive churn and investment in development?

Declare your intent to your team

Ensure they understand the way you think about talent. If you believe that it’s OK for people to be with you for a reason, a season, or a lifetime, let the team know. That will make instances of positive churn seem perfectly normal.

Create conversations about talent development

Start the conversation about talent development during the recruitment phase. Talk to each recruit about how and where they thrive. Do your best to understand their aspirations. The earlier you start and the more open you can be about this, the more likely you’ll be to strike the right balance with each person. This will also enable you to set expectations about the process for their development and the support they can expect from you.

Connect performance conversations to development plans

Some people will insist that performance and development conversations shouldn’t be linked. Ever. But hear me out. I’m not talking about creating a dependency (“if you don’t perform, you won’t have access to development”). I’m not saying that the conversations should be combined into a single interaction. I’m simply suggesting that shared reflections about performance can lead to productive discussions about development. It enables you to focus on recent achievements, struggles and hopes for the future and connect everyone to more concrete development plans.