Those who know me well know I am a voracious reader. From newspapers and magazines to business related books and novels it’s a rare site to find me without my Kindle or some type of printed reading material. Lately I have noticed a number of articles on the reasons why your best employees are leaving your business and I have to say I saw this problem trend coming more than a decade ago.

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In the late 1990’s I was having a discussion with my division manager and at the time I was frustrated with the lack of advancement opportunity at our company. He smiled looked me straight in the eye and said; “times are changing Doug, you’re a high performer working for a company that has fallen on hard times. The days of working for one company for your entire career are over. I think you would better serve yourself by completing your education here and making plans to move on.”

Needless to say I was a bit shocked, the day I was hired at Kodak I can remember looking at my fiancée who had just gotten hired as a teacher and saying “we are set for life.”

Times had changed, very slowly I might add but right in front of my eyes the company culture that reinforced loyalty and commitment with enhanced benefits and a lifetime of employment was no longer the norm. The introduction of computerized operating systems and forms of communication in a few short years had forced companies to hire in talent in attempt to catch up or out perform their competitors. That field grew so quickly those who were smart enough to be on the front end of this wave were hunted and rewarded with some fantastic career choices.

At the same time the fortune 500 were openly benchmarking corporate benefits to help control costs and improve their bottom line. Where most of these companies had offered Health Care and Dental Insurance at no cost to the individual employee, the rising cost of these benefits and forced some to begin deferring a portion of this cost to their employees. In a few short years, those companies who offered a benefits package that was above the mean looked to work their packages back to the mean and the end result was if nearly all the large companies in the marketplace offer same benefits package what make one more attractive than the next?

The answer was pay and opportunity for advancement and soon they began to recognize some of their best people began giving the customary 2 weeks’ notice, moving on and leaving a holes in experience that were very hard to fill.

Fast forward t0 2015 and I begin to see articles in Forbes, New York Times and Wall Street Journal on the Top 5 or 10 reasons why your best people are leaving and while many of these offer accurate reasons, I couldn’t help but think; when the employee is left, isn’t trying to figure out why a bit too late?

With the thought of being proactive I would like to offer the Top 5 Things You Can Do to Keep Your Best People.

  1. Pay Attention – A good percentage of your top performers will be what I call intrinsically motivated. They enjoy what their job, getting up, coming to work and contributing to the success of your organization and company. Don’t be lulled into the trap that this will be forever because even intrinsically motivated people need recognition and reinforcement. The intrinsically motivated are at first very easy to manage, give them a project or assignment and let them run. What we forget is when they first got started we kept a close eye on their work and provided frequent reinforcement and as time went on and you become confident in their work the interaction between the top performer and manager quickly drops off to seldom or none. Don’t be shocked to find out when the top performer leaves he/she lists one of the reasons they left was they did not feel appreciated. I had one recently tell me that when he started he weekly phone conversations and face to face monthly meetings with his managers they would talk about work first and then family and personal interests. By the time he left 4 years later the only time he only got called when there was a large problem that needed to be addressed and he hadn’t seen his manager face to face in over a year. When he called his boss to ask to set up a meeting to give his notice he wasn’t surprised to hear; “Is this something we can cover on the phone or Webex?”   So how can we address this? It’s simple really, pay attention. Don’t make the assumption that your best performers will remain happy forever working in an environment that lacks face to face human interaction and reinforcement from their boss. Those who no longer receive that interaction at work will soon seek it from your competitor and the change rarely has anything to do with money. If you’re looking for dedicated employees you need to become dedicated to having healthy working relationship. Set up scheduled phone as well as face to face communication on a regular basis and if you really care you won’t let that schedule slip.
  2. Listen and Confirm Understanding – A large percentage of your top performers will openly communicate through all channels made available to them. And, provided the information they communicate is used or given adequate consideration they will continue to communicate. The most important thing to understand here is this communication might positive feedback or stinging criticism or processes, projects or people. Right or wrong your employee is communicating their belief with an intent to help you improve the business and what you do with this information is in now in your hands provided you actually listened to what was said and confirm that you understand what was said.  I have had to pleasure of working for a few world-class leader/managers and what they all had in common was the ability to listen, confirm understanding, and communicate what they planned to do with the information discussed. Each also understood they some of their best performers could also be some of their most vocal critics and while many managers might label someone who occasionally openly criticizes a policy or practice as a bad actor. The manager/leader who has the patience to listen and confirm understanding learns the top performers will follow up that criticism with a suggestion or two on how to improve the problem. Managers who don’t listen and confirm understanding will stop the conversation short, offer excuses or claim the issues is out of their area of control or responsibility. Top performers expect their ideas and concerns to be heard, discussed and acted on in some way. When they get the feeling they have been labeled or their ideas and concerns no longer carry any weight they will go silent. Your silent top performer, the one used to be full of great ideas and suggestions is silently biding his/her time. His/her time at your company is now limited and is 100% dependent on how you respond.
  3. Remove Non-Value Added Work – I really wanted to call this BS but that wouldn’t be very professional now would it? The funny thing is Scott Adams the creator of the comic strip Dilbert developed a great career for himself by exposing the humorous side of non-value added work we all have to deal with. Being fair most of these 10 to 20 minute additions are added with good intentions in mind but very rarely are any put to the test of an actual business case. Is there a return on investment to doing a 5S review of one’s home office on a monthly basis? Should someone who is subjected to 1 hour or more of on-site safety training at each new site they visit each month be required to complete three 20 minute electronic safety shorts each month? What if you found out that a good portion of their job was instructing and reinforcing safety in the workplace? How many software programs do you require your people to have that require a unique password that can’t be repeated and must be changed every 30, 60 or 90 days? Interesting as it might sound, the last time anyone was ever interested in how much time I spent on value added work was when I was a maintenance craftsperson. Our department did a study of wrench time in an attempt to better utilize our craftspeople by identifying, simplifying or eliminating non value added work. The end result was a more efficient organization that could complete more planned and scheduled proactive work. But as soon as you advance into a salaried professional position very little attention is paid to just how much of your job responsibilities is non-value added work. Worse yet, required non-value added work and have yet to work for or with a company who has ever surveyed their professionals in attempt to relieve them of this nonsense. Add non-value added work to the first two items and you’re top performers will become frustrated for sure, punish them for ignoring or pushing back on this nonsense and you’re giving them yet another reason to leave.
  4. Compensation and Benefits – The big elephant in the room that nobody every wants to talk about. Add to this some of the most respected consultants in the industry of Performance Management such as Dr. Aubrey Daniels will tell you that pay/salary and benefits are not motivators, while there is a short term positive reinforcement that comes with a raise, within weeks the recipient will soon be performing at the same level prior to the raise. The question is then, how is it that compensation and benefits can help to make our best performers stick around?  Pay attention and stay on top of who your top performers are and how they are being compensated. Times have changed in many ways, in today’s business environment if your top performers are writing articles, speaking at conferences and have customers who think the world or their work you can bet that they are being contacted by head hunters on regular basis. You need to not only pay attention to the what your top performers are earning but what the top performers in your industry are earning and make darn sure they are at or above that number. Those who fall asleep while their top performer is plugging away and suddenly gets call from your competitor with a sweet offer seldom win the battle with a counter offer. One of your best people now knows he/she was undercompensated and you were aware of the fact.
  5. Set Up a Realistic Growth Plan – Keeping your best is all about what lies ahead. The intrinsically motivated top performer wants to continue to be challenged with meaningful work that includes what it will take to get to the next step. Have open and honest discussions about career goals and don’t be surprised if some aren’t at all interested in being managers. Innovative high performers often have a hard time understanding those who don’t have that same time they still need to see opportunity for career advancement. Last but not least and I wish I could change this in every company around the world it’s time you abolish the foolish glass ceilings most companies have put in place in terms of education. Unless we are talking about Lawyers, Doctors and Accountants the world has seen far too many examples like Bill Gates who became one of the wealthiest men in the world on a high school education. High performers are motivated to continue to succeed and if your company wants to deny them advancement although they may clearly be out performing even their colleagues with a higher education plan on watching them walk out the door shortly after they come to the understanding that their career growth is over.

 

In the end it all comes down to making some very tough personal decisions, what is it worth to your business to keep the best of the best? Is it worth it to reward loyalty and a strong work ethic or is it easier to let 10 or 20 years of experience walk out the door and take the risk that in 6 to 8 months someone will step up to fill the gap and maybe even bring some much needed innovation? The reality is high performers don’t grow in the halls of universities and walk through the doors of your employment office on a daily basis. The work ethic is a learned behavior and intrinsic motivation (the satisfaction that comes from doing your job well) that goes along with is a rare combination that should be held in high esteem and rewarded and in doing so those who display these qualities will repay you in kind.

So stop dreaming of who might fill those big shoes when one of your best turns to leave, instead pick up the phone, make a trip and work on building a relationship based on honesty and trust that says “I/we recognize and value what you bring to this company.”

The most important thing to remember is good people don’t just up and leave, good people who don’t feel valued and appreciated do!

 

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