Some Thoughts About Keeping Talented Workers

People don’t leave companies, they leave managers.” Heather mentioned this to me a few weeks ago during a chat about employee turn over.

When she said it I instantly liked it because it was familiar – Applying Corporate Lessons To Personal Training is a post I wrote a little less than a year ago that captured my thoughts about the similarities between the relationship between corporate manager / leader and their staff to the relationship between a personal trainer and their clients – and because it makes a lot of sense. If someone has made the decision to work for a company, it probably checks off enough of their requirements to be a potentially satisfactory way to spend their working time. After that point, any decision to leave, as opposed to moving on to something else, will be a result of a material change in their job OR having to work for someone who is awful.

Having spent time doing more jobs than I can count, I can say that with a few exceptions she is correct. The two exceptions were when I was an IT recruiter for 7 weeks and didn’t like the job (the managers were really great people though). The other was my last Group Fitness job that I needed to move on from to focus on building my own business (both managers are great people who I consider friends and mentors still).

Below is a list of the things that a manager will do that will maintain high levels of engagement and lengthen the duration of employment.

  • Treating the employee and all other employees fairly. Human beings respond negatively when they perceive a lack of fairness. It creates an emotional response that prompt fight, flee or freeze behaviors, none of which create a positive work environment or are conducive to great work. It is safe to say if someone who works for you believes that you do not act fairly, they will not do their best work for you and have one foot out the door. Your actions have created a lose:lose situation.
  • Being direct and honest. People tend behave logically and make the best decision possible based on the information they have available at the time. While it is not necessary or appropriate to share everything about a company with the team members, managers should be honest with them. Fearless honesty provides the individuals with the information they need to do their best work and to plan their future course accordingly. This doesn’t just mean having powerful conversations, it also means having regular performance reviews to help people develop their talents and grow into their roles.
  • Treating employees as individuals. Every person is different. Commonalities between people cannot be mistaken for absolutes. While it is usually more challenging to take the time to figure people out, it is a lot less work in the long run. What you learn about them can be integrated into their development plan and create more meaningful work experiences. By treating employees as individuals, you will be able to leverage their strengths to compensate for their weakness and help them grow professionally and personally.
  • Be willing and capable of doing the job they are asking people to do. Bosses are NEVER too good for any of the tasks they are asking their team to perform. While they do have very different responsibilities, the moment they imply that they shouldn’t / aren’t going to do the tasks of their subordinates, they are elevating themselves above the very actions that generate company revenue. If you can’t or are unwilling to do the jobs you are asking others to do, don’t be surprised when they do do them only a little better than you do.
  • Use common sense when it comes to the implementation of systems. We are energy conservers – we innately try to make things easier and will spontaneously alter actions to get the job done but by using less effort. For this reason, company systems need to reflect this tendency. Having people duplicate tasks, take extra steps or perform a job using more effort than is needed will be identified as wasteful and create friction. For this reason, managers need to review systems, listen to employee feedback concerning them and accept that the workers are usually going to be better at solving problems of efficiently simply through practice. This is a tough pill to swallow for a lot of leaders because it requires that they forfeit some control in the interest of getting the job done.
  • Act with the end goal in mind. Effective managers / leaders do only the things that are going help their team and the company achieve service delivery and profitability. There is no room for ego or power struggles as these things tend to inhibit pragmatic action. Their actions are efficient, they take the fewest steps needed to achieve the goal and they are open to the evolving nature of work. They model the behaviors that, if copied, will move others to the same outcome. They take an objective inventory of how they spend their time and will eliminate the work actions / tasks that do not serve to directly improve service delivery or productivity.

Cultivate Their Talent, Don’t Groom Leaders

The best leaders / managers I have ever had asked questions, listened to the answers and gave me the freedom to express my vision without judgment. They assumed that I was an expert of my own life and were at my service when I needed guidance, coaching or a chance to talk something out. I’m sure they would have groomed me for their job had I expressed an interest in it and the willingness to work hard to earn the opportunity, but they saw me as an individual with my own hopes and dreams and didn’t view me as future version of them.

I am grateful for this because it is the only fair way to engage staff. It might just be the height of arrogance to assume that other people should follow in your footsteps as opposed to blazing their own trail. Sure, if someone enrolls you in that, pull out all the stops to help them become a carbon copy of you, but it’s a mistake to move forward believing that YOUR way is THEIR way.

When you hire someone for a job, do so with the intention of helping them make the most of that opportunity. Be truthful about what the job entails, what your responsibilities are to them, how they will know that they are performing well and how you will coach them to gain the needed skills to excel at the role. Honoring these commitments is what leaders do. Too often people are hired into a company and left to fend for themselves under the guise that the best people will act like a leader and figure it out. The best people will act like a leader and figure it out, and they’ll leave very quickly. There is little to be gained working for someone who is unwilling to invest the time to figure out what you want or to listen to you tell them what you need. Cultivating talent is a skill and success is not being promoted into leadership or leaving the organization. Success is measured by how much they improve coupled with how well they perform the job they were hired to do.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with promoting someone into a leadership role, nor do I believe that creating a leadership training program is a bad idea. But these things should only occur when there is a leadership role for them to move into. Suggesting that something exists that doesn’t just to get someone to step-up or change their behavior clearly demonstrations a lack of leadership skills. If you can only motivate using dishonesty and false promises you will quickly find that your talent leaves and your business will suffer.