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I’ve seen a list entitled “Why Talented Employees Stay” floating around Twitter. The list has been bothering me, because I don’t think it’s quite…right. The list is interesting, but I don’t believe it tells the whole story. Taken at face value, I think the list could even make it more difficult to retain certain people — not less.
The list has too many broad assumptions baked into it to make something that’s easy to favorite and retweet. Here’s the list.
Talented employees stay because they are…
- Paid well.
- On a mission.
Let’s take these on one at at time.
Of course, money is important. As my best friend put it to me years ago, “Put your thanks in an envelope.” Pay people what they’re really worth to your business — not market value for the region or locked into some arbitrary pay grade. Pay them for the value they actually bring to your company, which oftentimes is more than you can quantify on paper. Put another way, if the owners are living like fat cats while they are cheap with their employees’ salaries & benefits, the disparity gets noticed by the people doing the work.
Money is far from the only component in being paid well, however. Personally, I’ll argue that money is the most important part of a compensation package, but other attributes of compensation that lead to better quality of life are also important. For instance, US employers should provide for an employee’s well-being with a decent health care plan that is largely paid for by the employer. This is a big benefit that some employees might take for granted if they don’t experience the dollar cost, but employers can point out the value of the benefit by providing a total compensation report from time to time.
Providing for an employee’s future is also a useful component of being paid well. Provide a 401K with matching. A 401K plan without matching demonstrates no commitment on the part of the employer to the employee. The plan is merely an administrative convenience for the employee with little other practical benefit.
I’ve never had a mentor. What about moments of mentoring? Yes, usually just after I screwed up in some way. This sort of mentoring could also be called “starting a paper trail.” ;-) Does being mentored have appeal? For technical stuff, you bet. Data networking is a tough discipline. Someone to lead the way would have been great. But either I’ve been the engineer who’s supposed to be doing the mentoring, or else the people who could mentor have been just too darn busy.
My point is that talented employees might indeed appreciate a mentor, but ironically, the talented folks are often expected to be mentors. While there’s room for both mentoring and being mentored, I’ve never worked on a team where there was enough talent going around that one could participate in both sides. That said, I would never consider leaving an organization simply because I wasn’t being mentored.
The topic of mentoring raises another issue, though. I have left organizations because there was nowhere for me to go. Being mentored can mean acquiring new skills. Gaining new skills implies that you’ll be able to use those skills, presumably in a new role or with new responsibilities. In that sense, maybe if I had been fortunate enough to benefit from a mentor, I might have anticipated a career path I could follow where I was. Instead, I moved on to other opportunities rather than wait around.
This point is an interesting one to me. I don’t go to work to be inspired, and I’ve felt roughly neutral about the purpose of most companies I’ve worked for. Almost all of them, even those operating as non-profits, had one central goal: make money. The desire for profitability has far outweighed any more general business goals. In a few cases, the desire for profitability has outweighed business ethics as well. It is hard to be inspired in that situation beyond, “I do my job so I get paid.” And honestly, that’s enough inspiration for the most part. Put another way, I get inspired every couple of weeks or so.
Financial “inspiration” aside, I’ve always found my own inspiration in the form of applying technology to solve business problems. All too often, businesses are not that interested in their IT until it breaks. I’m happy to be inspired on their behalf.
Empowerment is a useful tool in some work environments, but I feel it’s a meaningless term for the most part. “Empowered” makes it sound as if employees can make their own decisions and help move the business ahead. The idea sounds forward-thinking and modern on paper, and in fact it is entirely appropriate — even necessary — to empower selected employees. Why would a company go to the trouble to hire smart, capable people, and then not empower them?
The problem is that empowerment rarely comes with a budget. So, a company can say their employees are empowered all they like, but if there is no budget with signing authority assigned to an employee to actually buy things, then empowerment is limited to where they park and when they take their lunch hour. Yay and stuff.
Challenge is a work feature certain personality types want. I am one of those. Without challenge, I bore easily. Without challenge given to me, I’m likely to invent my own. But I’m just one personality type. Not every employee comes to work each day because of the challenges handed to them on the job.
Some employees are delighted to clock in, go out for lunch, clock out exactly on time, get home, hit the couch with a bag of chips, and call it a good day. Push them too hard at work, and they’ll become agitated. Yes, even talented people. Why? Because folks have lives and concerns beyond their day job. Burning hot all the time due a wonderful, challenging work environment leads inevitably to burning out.
Involvement in a company is another complicated matter, even for talented folks. I’ve seen this happen both ways. On the one hand, I’ve been fairly involved in smaller organizations, and been privy to lots of the internal goings-on. By and large, that experience hasn’t been good, due mostly to the lack of professionalism on the part of the company owner. When the business owner is running on the ragged edge of financial ruin, taking advantage of customers, or otherwise dealing dishonestly, involvement feels like being forced into a life of criminal servitude. That’s a poor retention strategy.
Involvement can also introduce stress. Even when the business is completely above board, knowing what’s going in the the company and being involved to help drive the company forward is a burden of responsibility. Some people take those responsibilities very seriously, and work beyond what’s even expected of them in order to drive a good outcome. As with challenge, this is likely to induce burn out.
On the other hand, a complete lack of involvement will lead to apathy on the part of talented folks. Why stick around if you never know what’s going on, when important business events are happening, or why certain projects are being undertaken? Talented folks certainly like to have some idea of what’s going on. Context helps them know how best to accomplish what they are being tasked with.
On-the-job appreciation and how folks like to experience said appreciation varies. I agree that everyone likes to be appreciated. People like to know that their peers respect them for their abilities and contributions. Subordinates like to know that the manager who can fire them values them and comprehends the effort they put in. However, not everyone likes to be appreciated in the same way.
Personally, I am introverted. I don’t like public recognition. Such events make me feel awkward and uncomfortable. Please don’t have a party for me. Don’t stick my name at the top of a corporate broadcast e-mail telling the world of some achievement. Don’t parade me in front of an assembly and hand me an award. Rather, say appreciative things to me during my review. Or, send me an individual e-mail letting me know that something I did was appreciated. Perhaps, pull me aside at an inconspicuous moment, and tell me what’s on your mind.
On a mission
I feel that being “on a mission” is closely tied to being challenged & involved. Challenge is usually in the context of being on a mission. Involvement implies that an employee is informed about the mission. However, there are different levels of mission. For instance, communicating a message of mission in a large corporation is difficult thing, because large corporations very rarely appear to be going anywhere. They just sort of exist, churning out quarterly numbers and hoping financial analysts are pleased. Therefore, missions have to be compartmentalized in such a way that they are useful to individual employees.
Here’s an example. I have been involved in a few data center migration projects in my career. In one of those moves, the reasons behind the migration were vague, the new location seemed poorly chosen, and the leadership communicated poorly. We were on a mission, but we didn’t know why we were going through the pain of re-racking equipment, re-provisioning circuits, and executing the rest of the logistical horror required to pull off the project. In another case, leadership explained to all of us clearly why we were migrating from the old facility and the benefits of the new facility. In addition, a believable roadmap of how we were going to get there was provided. Not only that, there was mission beyond the mission of moving the data center that we understood as well. The project was an immense undertaking of several months and thousands of person-hours. But, we all knew why we were doing it.
Interestingly, being on a mission isn’t helpful for all employees. In the latter example I cited above, at least one employee quit due to the mission. They felt that what was being asked of them was unreasonable. The mission was not one which they wanted to undertake.
Not all talented people are the same.
My point in this missive is to raise awareness that no simple checklist results in high employee retention. Individuals are just that: individual. While there are certainly common sense environmental elements to provide for all employees, the fact remains that different people will react in different ways to their work situation.
The hardest thing.
There is one glaring omission to the listicle that started this article. I would add “understood.” Only when talented employees are understood can an organization fully comprehend how to retain them. In other words, remember that your employee is a human being, and get to know them. If you don’t, you will not retain them by sagely nodding when some seemingly self-evident list shows up on Twitter. Clicking “favorite” is easy. Putting time into people is hard.
Ethan Banks writes & podcasts about IT, new media, and personal tech.
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