The Great Resignation: Senior leaders and the career choice trade-off

Career AdviceLeadership Strategies
min Article
Paul Ballman
November 16, 2021
3 min
Career AdviceLeadership Strategies
Executive Summary
‘The Great Resignation’, has seen 4 million Americans quit their jobs in July alone, 40% of UK companies reporting skills shortages in their vacant roles.


The last two years have been challenging, but they have also taught us a lot. The Covid-19 pandemic has caused many across the world to revaluate their long-term career and life goals. Although some sectors were impacted more than others, the global health crisis has shaken industries all over the world, with millions quitting their jobs in pursuit of a better life. This phenomenon, dubbed ‘The Great Resignation’, has seen 4 million Americans quit their jobs in July1 alone, 40% of UK companies reporting2 skills shortages in their vacant roles, while ONS data3 from September found that job vacancies rose to over 1 million – the highest number since records began.

The Great Resignation poses a threat to talent retention, but it also reflects a positive disruptive force. Behavioral scientists like Daniel Kahneman have revealed the extent to which we live in a form of autopilot, following a well-worn path of habits, defaults, and assumptions. It’s a useful way to preserve our conscious energy for the problems which really matter, but it can also lead us to repeat mistakes unknowingly for years on end. Until that is, we are shaken out of these habits by disruption. The TFL strikes of 2014 are a great example of this in action with researchers finding that around one in 20 stuck with their new route to work when the strike ended. How many hours of commuting would have been saved and how many miles of exercise would have been completed if only the strikes happened a decade earlier?

The pandemic has also  encouraged people to reassess their lives and rethink their priorities, even basic habits and routines had to be consciously adjusted. Leaders, who made the decision to sacrifice their free time for their career in their 20s, were suddenly afforded the chance to see their families far more. Many of them decided not to make that same sacrifice in their 40s. For this reason, we must have greater open-mindedness on what a leadership role should look like in the post-pandemic world. Over my career, I have personally experienced the impact of choosing to work flexibly. At different times, for family reasons I have worked 2, 3, and 4 day weeks, and on each occasion, there was a clear impact not just on pay, but also on how promotable I was seen to be. We shouldn’t blindly return to this way of thinking, we should work to make flexible and dynamic working patterns as acceptable for the most senior roles as they are for everyone else. If we fail to make this shift, people will inevitably feel that a return to old practices and presenteeism are the only way to the top. The pandemic has shaken us out of our automated career paths – let’s use this as an opportunity to experiment with new approaches.

One way of creating a future where leaders are less likely to follow predictable career paths is better, more active succession planning. Businesses must ask what experience, new roles, or responsibilities need to be given to next-generation leaders over the next few years to get them ready for promotion and then do something about it. All too often high potential people are identified with the note that they are not yet ready due to a certain skill or experience gap, only for nothing to be done and two years later that gap still exists. Succession planning isn’t just about identifying successors, it is about practically doing something to get them ready.

The academics who coined the term ‘The Great Resignation’ believe this phenomenon could be replaced by a wave of boomerang employees who return to the workforce thanks to a new healthier environment in the workplace. The reasoning goes that those who left their jobs may not have done so if there had been more flexible working practices in place and clearer long-term succession. The businesses that I work with seem very aware of this possibility and are both actively discussing working patterns and investing heavily in succession planning. How many of them keep it up when this crisis is a distant memory and talent appears plentiful remains to be seen.

1 Anuj Nayar, The Great Resignation: Three Money Moves to Make Before Quitting Your Job,” Forbes, October 5, 2021

2 Jemma King, “How to protect against staff loss ‘during the great resignation’. New research offers guidance”, Bdaily News, October 6, 2021. 

3 Tom Evans, Vacancies and jobs in the UK: September 2021,” Office for National Statistics, September 14, 2021.