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Retaining Emerging Leaders without Breaking the Bank

leaders at every level logoIn the Gig Economy, Great Resignation, Quiet Quit era, the war for talent is real. Retaining emerging leaders requires more than competitive pay and benefits. Heaping on perks and coddling employees isn’t the answer either.

Many organizations lament the extreme accommodations they’ve made. Their valiant efforts to appease disgruntled employees have backfired. In the tech sector alone, numerous big-name companies made allowances for ongoing work-from-anywhere arrangements. As their profits declined, they resorted to reductions in force. For some, the end to work-from-anywhere triggered a mass exodus of talent. The losses, either way, are costly and could have been prevented. 

Considering the Impact of Burnout and Addressing It Appropriately 

figure with long resumeIt’s easy (and tempting!) to overdo it. Fear of losing employees produces a wide variety of reactionary responses that are counterproductive. Employers may see short-term relief, but employees are seldom satisfied by short-term, reactionary responses. 

Gallup and others are reporting heavily on the impact of burnout in the workplace. The common signs and symptoms of burnout are people who feel: 

  • depleted or exhausted.
  • mentally distant from their job.
  • negatively about their work.
  • cynically about their job.
  • reduced professional effectiveness. 

Burnout is defined by the World Health Organization as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

 Here’s the important takeaway from that definition: “has not been successfully managed” is the responsibility of individuals, not employers. Sure, employers must make reasonable efforts to ensure that expectations are reasonable and that the workplace is not oppressive. But employees are responsible for getting their stress (even workplace stress) resolved. They may need counseling and should access employer-provided benefits or EAPs for this. They may need a true vacation and should access earned vacation time to get completely away for restoration.

 All too often, employers are accepting misplaced responsibility for something that’s largely out of their control. Burnout is fueled by attitude, non-work stressors, and living in a VUCA world.

 The employer’s obligation is to reduce real (not perceived) situations where there is:

 unfair treatment at work.

  • unmanageable workload.
  • unclear communication from managers.
  • lack of manager support.
  • unreasonable time pressure.

Here’s where employers go overboard. They accept blame without doing reality checks. Is there really too much work or unreasonable time pressure? Or is that perception only, something that could be addressed by providing clarity rather than knee-jerk reactions like reducing workload in ways that negatively impact business results?

 Going overboard is apparent when you see managers doing the work of frontline contributors, making excuses for employee underperformance, and or “sheltering” employees from challenges and growth opportunities. These extreme responses condition employees to over-rely on employers for stress management and comforts that are unrealistic. 

If you’d like to learn more about what happens when managers go too far and end up coddling employees, view this free, on-demand webinar on the People First Potential Channel.

 Focusing on Development Instead of Retention Alone

 For those tech companies (and MANY other organizations), the heavy emphasis on retention-at-any-cost subverted the true aim of maintaining business strength and building capacity for the long-term. 

Caving to employee demands in an effort to get them to stay with your organization is seldom a good choice. Any seasoned manager can tell you stories about counter-offering when an employee has a “better offer” elsewhere. The employees who stay, collecting higher pay, often leave just months later. Whatever caused them to pursue higher pay in the first place remains a lingering dissatisfaction. The pay increase is a band-aid solution, not a long-term fix. 

The same principle applies today. Desperation to retain employees leads to: 

  • withholding feedback and appropriate performance management steps.
  • managers doing the work of front-line contributors instead of delegating and holding others accountable for their own work.
  • pay increases that are unsustainable and force compromises and cuts elsewhere in the organization.
  • anticipation of employee backlash that suppresses innovation and causes stagnation.
  • Reduced standards that disappoint customers, reduce quality, and frustrate dedicated employees (the ones who have tried valiantly to pick up the slack).

 In these tail-wagging-the-dog scenarios, one of the first sacrifices is employee training and development. If you’ve heard any of these responses to requests for training, mentoring, or other development opportunities, you’ve already deprived employees of the one thing that’s mostly likely to retain them

“They’re too busy to add training to their plate.”

Most people are burned out and unstimulated by lather-rinse-repeat work. Ever notice how someone’s capacity expands when they’re motivated and interested by a challenge? 

The work of Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, one of the co-founders of positive psychology, reveals that “the best moments (in life and work) occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” 

In other words, if you’re “protecting” people from challenges, you’re depriving them of satisfying experiences where they can have their “best moments.” 

“If we train them, they might take their skills elsewhere.”

And if you don’t train them, they’ll definitely take their skills elsewhere. People want and need ongoing development. They want to work for employers who invest in them. 

Numerous engagement, wellbeing, and employee experience studies concur. When employees feel that employers are giving them opportunities to grow and develop, they form stronger emotional connections and loyalties to those employers. Conversely, when people don’t feel they have growth opportunities, they become disengaged and unsatisfied. 

“We don’t want them to think we’re unhappy with their contributions.”

If employees see training as a punishment, you’re positioning it all wrong. Training can be its own reward, and it should never be something that’s viewed negatively.

 This can happen inadvertently. Messages like “It’s time for our annual mandatory training. Sign up and get it over with so we don’t get hassled by HR” are damaging. They cause negative perceptions about training in general. They suggest that training is a waste of time, something to endure, and of no value.

 Instead, training should be authentically championed for its benefits. Messages should sound more like “Here’s a growth opportunity that the company’s offering. It’s a way for all of us to learn more about what’s changed in the past year and to prepare for upcoming challenges.”

 When training or retraining is required as part of a disciplinary process, make it clear that this in an investment in the employee. It’s support that will help them become more successful.

 “We don’t have time to create and deliver training.”

When HR and managers are so busy recruiting, interviewing, and onboarding employees that they don’t offer ongoing development, it’s a surefire way to keep that revolving door spinning.

 It doesn’t take much time to screen and select a training provider. Rather than backburnering training until “someday” when HR has time to develop and deliver it in-house, partner with a trainer who has quality content and will align it with other development initiatives so it’s as good a fit as if you’d designed it yourself.

 If you withhold training because your ego won’t allow you to admit the need for outside help, you’re doing a tremendous disservice to your entire organization.

 “We don’t have budget for training at this time.”

Who does? Only the biggest organizations have big budgets for new training initiatives. And even those are capped and allocated, sometimes leaving little wiggle room for unplanned training to address new needs.

 Here’s the fastest way to get funding for training. Compare the costs of turnover (lost institutional knowledge, impact on customers and other employees when there are vacancies, recruiting, interviewing, selection, onboarding, ramp-up time, etc.). You’ll probably discover that retaining even one employee more than covers the cost of training entire teams.

 In the War for Talent, You Can’t Afford to Lose Your Emerging Leaders

 According to Builtin, “the cost of turnover is extremely high: it’s estimated that losing an employee can cost a company 1.5-2 times the employee’s salary… For hourly workers, it costs an average of $1,500 per employee. For technical positions, the cost jumps to 100-150% of salary. At the high end, C-Suite turnover can cost 213% of salary.”

 The cost, though, isn’t fully reflected in those equations. They include standard and obvious costs for advertising job openings and the time required for interviewing, hiring, and onboarding. They don’t reflect hidden costs like missed or delayed revenue generation, lost productivity and knowledge, and the impact on team members who remain and must take on the extra burden.

 Add to all of that the additional cost when the person who lose is an emerging leader. It’s someone who was on-track for assuming a next-level role or expanded capacity. It’s someone who positively influenced others and had the “intangibles” that made them an exceptional employee. This is not an easy person to replace, because it’s about so much more than technical skills.

Emerging leaders are attractive to other organizations. They suffer the same blows when they lose their emerging leaders, so they come after yours (just like you go after theirs, to be fair). In this heated battle, expenses multiply. The stakes get higher, as do the costs. You offer more, they offer even more… And so on. Like most wars, the war for talent takes a heavy toll.

 Way back in 1998, McKinsey conducted research with 77 companies from a variety of industries to understand talent retention issues. They coined the term “war for talent” and concluded that better talent is worth fighting for.

 McKinsey’s research, since validated by many more studies, emphatically underscored the importance of perpetually refining the employee value proposition (the reason why top talent would choose to work for you and stay with you). They advised, then and now, to “develop, develop, develop” people if you want them to become and remain employees with your organization.

 If you want to stop the madness, stop being so reactive. The knee-jerk reactions to try and retain employees aren’t working. They may pacify people temporarily, but they leave their long-term needs unmet. The only solid solution is to offer learning, development, and growth opportunities that are meaningful and satisfying for employees.

 Training should focus more broadly than job skills, industry knowledge, and company protocols. Truly investing in people includes developing them as leaders and teaching them soft, transferable skills. Developing emerging leaders in these ways will enhance the contributions they make immediately and will accelerate their readiness for next-level roles. The impact on your culture will also be profound as interactions, communication, collaboration, and motivation improve.