August 29, 2017

Catch and Release: A Necessary Strategy for the Modern Leader

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Anybody who knows me knows I love to fish. I agree with Chuck Clark, who said, “Three-fourths of the Earth’s surface is water, and one-fourth is land. It is quite clear that the good Lord intended us to spend triple the amount of time fishing as taking care of the lawn.”

I’ve been fishing for decades, and I still try to steal an afternoon whenever I can to hit the river with my kayak and rod.

Arkansas has some premier trout and small-mouth fisheries. Many are “catch and release,” which is perfect for me because I love the energy of catching the fish and the thrill of the chase, but I don’t need trout for dinner every night.

Catch and release isn’t just a fishing strategy for me these days, though. It has also become one of the fundamental ways I think about leadership and relationships. If you’re a leader, you must hold employees and partners loosely enough so that when they take another opportunity somewhere else, you can live with it.

I hinted at this idea in the e-book I wrote for parents of graduates last May. Parents have to have a “catch and release” mentality with their children or they actually create dysfunction when transitions need to happen.

I’ve thought about catch and release most, though, in the area of organizational leadership. We live and lead in a world of rapid change. New offerings and opportunities bubble up constantly, and people are constantly on the move. The rising millennial workforce averages working for four different companies by the time they turn 32.

A catch and release mentality is vital in today’s work culture—both to survive as a company and to have impact on those you catch.

Catch and Release Leadership

The old way of doing business was “find people, develop them, and retain them.” Get a new employee at age 22 or form a partnership early on and stick with it.

That doesn’t cut it anymore.

Employers are scrambling to adjust. They know that the headache and heartache (and wallet-ache) caused by people leaving will take them under. This is why a Fortune editorial identified employee retention as the biggest concern of employers in 2017.

But what if we accepted the fact that people are going to leave? That even our best people will have new opportunities? That’s not simply dealing with the inevitable, though. It’s a strategy. It’s catch and release.

Jack Welch was one of the first leaders that I can remember to institutionalize this strategy. There was a season where people knew GE was THE place to go and train to be a CEO. Why? Because he brought people in—the best and the brightest—and he gave them experience, knowing they would leave. He was fine with other companies hiring away one of his vice-presidents to lead their company.

It’s counter-intuitive (you can probably imagine what comes up when you Google “let your top employees go.”)

But a few companies have figured it out. I love this line in the Wall Street Journal article—“You’re better off having the best people for a short time than average people forever.”

Think of what Jack Welch got:

  1. He got the talent of the best and brightest for a season and talent that was motivated to prove themselves.
  2. He attracted up and coming talent to replace them.
  3. His stock price rose every time someone left (or it sure seemed to).

Without a catch and release mentality, there would have been a logjam at the top—a bunch of people sitting around waiting for Welch to retire. Instead, he created a leadership structure that didn’t just want the one seat at the top. They saw their position as a training ground, not a waiting room. So they came to work for him, and they worked hard.

Why Not Catch and Release?

Sounds pretty wonderful, doesn’t it?

The reality is, it’s hard to be a catch and release leader. Just about the time you train them, get them ingrained in your culture and really productive, they leave.

So we adopt one of these other strategies instead:

  • Catch ‘em and string ‘em—Keep your best employees on the line by stringing them along. A bit more money here, a bit more responsibility there may keep them longer, but you’re creating a perpetually dissatisfied employee.
  • Catch ‘em and mount ‘em—Put your best employees on display. Give them a fancy title but no real say into company matters and direction.
  • Catch ‘em and fry ‘em—Since they are going to leave anyway, we work employees so hard that before long, they’re no good to you or to their next employer—not to mention their family and themselves.

When people leave, many leaders take this personally. Insecure and power hungry, they think that employees and partners should never leave. If you leave, you’re choosing “them” over “me.”

These leaders either double down on employee retention or they do the opposite and don’t invest in employees. They ignore Henry Ford’s advice, “The only thing worse than training employees and having them leave is not training them and having them stay.”

But what if there was another option? What if you committed to train them regardless? Proctor & Gamble is known for being great at employee retention. They cross-train employees, and they offer growing compensation and vesting options for every employee. At the same time, however, they’re a breeding ground for C-Suite employees. P&G knows that bringing people in and training them means they could leave.


You will lose people. You can be shocked and frustrated by it or you can plan for it and flourish because of it. As comedian Steven Wright said, “There’s a fine line between fishing and standing on the shore like an idiot.”

It starts with the way you see the world.

As for me, my faith helps me live with catch and release because I trust that God is in control. I will do the best I can to keep my best people, but if something outside of my control happens and an employee leaves, that’s okay.

Fight for a mindset of abundance rather than scarcity. People with a scarcity mindset assume that if you have something (or someone), then I don’t. But an abundance mindset says that if I am open-handed with my resources (and people), then I will reap the benefits of the abundance in the market down the road.

If I train my people well and stay friends with them when they leave, the culture I’ve created and the reputation I maintain will reimburse me for the difficulty.

There are other fish in the sea, and hopefully the one that I just released will go on to have an even bigger impact in the next place they land. And who knows what might come swimming our way as a replacement.

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