Superstar Retention isn’t Just about the Money (and it may not be about the money at all)
Lately, I’ve been hearing from a growing number of highly successful mid and senior level managers who are seriously considering a job change. Why wouldn’t they? We’re experiencing an extraordinary employment market. For me, as an executive recruiter, this is all great news. Still, when I ask these candidates why they want to leave a position in which they’ve clearly been successful, I’m sometimes troubled by there answers. After all, I’m not just a recruiter, I’m a senior leader of our firm. I’m always wearing my manager hat. The answers I get point to long simmering issues with their current positions. Most of the time, those issues seem so fixable.
So why doesn’t their current employer fix the problem? Because too many managers fail to recognize these underlying issues. Worse, they believe that anyone can be retained if you offer them enough money.
Yet, that’s simply not true, especially for elite performers. In a thought provoking HBR article, “Prevent Your Star Performers from Losing Passion for Their Work,” Michael Kibler describes a process of “executive brownout.” Unlike burnout, there is never one, single moment of crisis or failure. Instead – and, I would add, ironically – top performers can become slow victims of their own success. Being indispensible at work comes at high personal cost. While these superstars still appear to their employers to be as productive and engaged as ever, the truth is, they’re not. They’re growing physically exhausted, mentally drained and increasingly disconnected from their personal relationships, interests and non-financial goals.
Throwing money at that problem isn’t going to fix it.
Instead, Kibler suggests, your top performers may need a raise of a different kind of currency. If you want your rockstar managers to invest in and support your company’s goals, he argues, you ought to be willing to do the same: discover and support their goals. I like Kibler’s perspective on the importance of establishing true, deep partnerships between employer and employee. And while you may not agree with some of his ideas, there is no arguing with the fact that retaining your best supervisors and managers calls for a robust investment in deep, mutual engagement. Here are my 5 rules for keeping top supervisors and managers by keeping them engaged, invested and happy at work.
1. Change the “Goals Conversation.”
I’m assuming you already coach your employees, tying their efforts, progress and results to organizational goals. I’m also assuming that you go a step beyond that, regularly checking in on your employee’s career goals to be sure they’re feeling challenged, secure and on track. But I’m suggesting that we could all go further than that. Learn about – and listen to – the very human goals of your very human employee. What else does this individual wish to achieve in order to feel well-rounded, even self actualized, in life, not just at work? The HBR piece references several examples, from encouraging an employee’s individual health goals to actively supporting another employee’s desire to establish a non-profit. And he uses powerful anecdotes to demonstrate why this shift in “compensating” people is a successful retention strategy. Of course, some of his solutions are only economically feasible for an organization’s senior most executive tiers.
Still, I believe the core principles apply to all. Opening that conversation might seem intimidating, even foolish. (After all, you’re their boss, not their mom.) But the surest way to keep top performers’ hearts and minds fully invested is to demonstrate that you, too, are invested in who they are, how they’d like to grow, and how you can support and encourage them in those goals. Whatever the scale, find ways to show real interest and deliver authentic support.
2. Stop Accepting Poor Performance.
And stop making your supervisors accept it. When a manager or supervisor comes to you with frustrations about another employee’s performance (especially if it’s one of their own subordinates) you may be tempted to avoid the painful truth. After all, you’ve got bigger challenges to manage and your superstar should be able to suck it up. Life isn’t fair, right? But when you do that, you send a powerful message to your best people that you don’t care about how the underperformance of others is dragging them down. I’m not suggesting hair trigger terminations. Always be fair. Get to the root cause of the underperformance and deal with it. (And always do everything in your power to find the right fit for someone you’ve hired into the wrong job.) But don’t just turn a blind eye. You demoralize everyone when you do that.
3. Give Everyone Access to the Organizational Mission
Why does everyone love the story about the NASA janitor who described his job as helping put a man on the moon? Because he was right! He was part of a mission that was profound, thrilling and personally gratifying. What is your organization pursuing? Does every single person on the team embrace that mission with passion and pride? It may seem inconvenient and unnecessary to make sure that the financial analyst wants to sing your mission from the rooftops. But if that person isn’t a whole-hearted champion for your cause, you’ve squandered an opportunity to harness their best efforts.
4. You Care. Make Sure it Shows.
It doesn’t matter whether you have a world-class recognition program. Well, it does matter; formal recognition programs are wonderful investments. But they’re not replacements for the warmth and caring that only you can deliver on behalf of yourself. Signing a form letter is not the same as writing a few words of your own and emailing, texting or saying them out loud. Paying for the quarterly “Recognition Dinner” is generous. But maybe not as memorable as hand-delivering someone’s favorite breakfast to their desk after they pulled an all-nighter to save the day. You get the picture. Recognition programs provide tools. But they cannot provide the sentiment. That has to come from you.
5. Do a Joy Assessment. Do it Often.
Walk the halls, look at people in the elevator. Listen to the words and the voices of everyone around you. Are people happy there? Or is your workplace a dull and dreary dud of a place to be? That’s on you. And the sooner you can fix it, the better. Who are these people who are so lifeless at work? What would reanimate them? Find out. And deliver it. If they’re the right fit for the job and the company, they’ll ask for changes that you should be able to deliver. From dress code changes to free food, to game areas, flexible workspaces or flexible time, figure out what will bring the happy back.