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When Top Talent Should be Allowed to Leave

Consider the following management scenario: you're the leader of a highly successful team, but one that has recently had to tighten its belt financially. While you are committed to training and building success long-term future, your current reputation and success rests heavily on one or two key members. And one of them just announced that he wants to leave.

Wayne Rooney
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Wayne Rooney

Worse, he's come out and criticized the organization publicly, stating that the fiscal constraints have hampered your organization's ability to attract the top talent it needs to ensure a successful future—and he isn't prepared to waste his time at any organization that isn't meeting his level of ambition.

(Privately, you suspect that his real concern with "fiscal restraint" is much closer to home: despite being your highest-paid employee, he knows he could make more elsewhere.)

So what do you do?

Those with even a passing acquaintance with the world of English soccer may have recognized that the above scenario bears more than a little resemblance to a situation that played itself out in the public eye last week: the Wayne Rooney contract saga.

For those unfamiliar, Rooney is the star player at Manchester United. At the start of this season, he was pulling in a salary of around 90,000 pounds per week, on a contract set to expire in two years. In August, he announced to the club that he wanted to leave at the end of his contract period—and the information became public last week. When pressed to justify his reasoning, Rooney issued a statement that essentially expressed his belief that the club is in terminal decline.

Two days later, he signed a new five-year contract—rumored to double his previous salary—with United manager Sir Alex Ferguson praising Rooney because "he has accepted the challenge to guide the younger players and establish himself as one of United's great players. It shows character and belief in what we stand for."

PR spin aside, the saga reflects just how dangerous it can be for any organization to become too reliant on a handful of key operators. Whatever happens for Rooney now, he has damaged both his own and his team's brand—and while he has secured a better deal for himself, nothing else he mentioned has changed.

The club that he believed to be in decline—in part because they can't afford to match the astronomical salaries being paid elsewhere—is actually in a less competitive position now that they've tied up a much more significant portion of their revenue in his wages than before.

"Whether the fix pays off in the short term or not, it's hard to escape the notion that it sets up a situation in the long term where the club is regarded as something of a cash cow for top talent, rather than an organization known for its excellence. And once you've got to the point where the only incentive you can offer is financial reward, you really are in trouble."

There are many who believe that the management at Manchester United did the right thing under the circumstances. But there are some cases where retaining your top talent is less important than upholding the values of your organization. This should have been one of them. Quite apart from the fact that the deal agreed with Rooney is enough to pay at least two high-caliber players, management has now set up a situation where other players may feel emboldened to do the same.

There's an old cliché in sport that says that no one player is bigger than the team. In this case, that has proved that to be untrue. Whether the fix pays off in the short term or not, it's hard to escape the notion that it sets up a situation in the long term where the club is regarded as something of a cash cow for top talent, rather than an organization known for its excellence. And once you've got to the point where the only incentive you can offer is financial reward, you really are in trouble.

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Phil Stott is a staff writer at Vault.com in New York. Originally from Scotland, he has also lived and worked in Japan, South Korea and Eastern Europe. He holds an MA in English Literature and Modern History, and a Masters in Research in Civil Engineering, both from the University of Dundee.

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