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Would You Trade Your Career for a Pickup Truck?

While having lunch with one of our university’s rising stars recently, my dining companion recalled how hard it was for her to leave home to start her doctoral program. Because her father was determined to keep her close by, he offered to buy her a decked-out pickup truck if she would agree to attend a very mediocre graduate program in their hometown. “I was close to my family and I really wanted that truck, so it was hard,” she explained. Despite the attractive offer, she eventually declined her father’s retention package.

While I’m sure the now assistant professor’s father loves her very much, one might argue that his offer was selfish. Had the deal been accepted, he would have kept his daughter close by, but she would have been denied an opportunity to be a superstar. Good for him. Bad for her.

In some weird cosmic convergence, the truck story was shared during the same week in which I reconnected with two people who left our university feeling bitter. Both individuals are remarkably talented, and each left our university unhappily and noisily, outraged that the university did not beg them to stay. “If they were so great, why didn’t you do more to keep them?,” you may ask. My answer? “Sometimes it’s just wrong to bribe someone with a decked-out pickup truck.”

I like to think most decision makers consider the long-term impact of a retention package before offering one. Will it be enough to make a difference, or will it simply delay an ultimate departure? Will it cause discord in the recipient’s department? What are the costs of not trying to save the person? While those are all important institution-centric considerations, I believe we also have an obligation to consider the impact of our retention efforts on the individual’s long-term career prospects. In short, is a retention deal truly in the individual’s best interests?

In both cases, the people involved didn’t want to leave, but they were obviously ready to assume very big-deal leadership roles, and we had no big-deal leadership slots available. Given that, we had three obvious choices. We could throw cash at them in hopes they would stay a bit longer. We could create new positions with fancier titles that would take money we didn’t have and enrage, or at least annoy, people we didn’t need as enemies. Or, we could let them pursue real opportunities with institutions that were dying to have them. We chose the latter.

While both individuals believe the university was wrong to let them go, they acknowledge that their moves have been professionally transformational. That doesn’t mean they aren’t still bitter, because they most certainly are. Will the passage of time soothe their bitterness? It will probably take years to find out.

What’s your philosophy on retention packages? How do you know when it is in a person’s best interests to move to the next professional level?

[Creative Commons-licensed photo by Flickr user rogerbarker2.]

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