Surely you’ve heard that truism that people don’t leave their companies, they leave their bosses. While there are contrarians out there who consider it fashionable to “debunk” that belief, you know better from practical experience. Nothing will disenchant and then disengage a hard-won high performer faster than working for a poor leader or manager. Someone focused on the end results of what people do versus the people who create the results. Anyone come to mind?
So we know this to be a truth based on our own first-hand experience. And so we try training our managers. Things improve a little bit for a little while. But then your talent retention becomes a front burner issue again. And then we provide more training, starting the cycle all over again.
You’re the one who feels the pain more than anyone else in the organization – and probably more often. But the good news is that because as the leader who touches all aspects of your organization and its culture, you also have the most power to implement some core changes that will slow down that cycle and then stop it altogether. The power is yours.
Here’s what you do:
Consider your SEQCDM: Every organization has these components: Safety, Environmental, Quality, Cost, Deliverables and Management. And, especially now when the economy is so dicey, any organization will naturally slide in the favor of putting Deliverables, Cost, and Quality before Management. As the HR leader, it’s your job to constantly keep nudging the Management component higher up the organization’s priority list. You know the bottom line benefits of good management behaviors. But your fellow leaders may need to be reminded. By you. And frequently. Where does Management actually show up in your organization’s list of priorities? How many notches up that list can you move it by reminding your leaders that high-performer retention is crucial for all the other priorities to be met?
Reconfigure your managers’ priorities. This will take tremendous courage on everyone’s part, especially when keeping their jobs has been on everyone’s mind (including your own?) in recent years. The pressures of an increasingly litigious society, decreasing market opportunities, a contraction in the job market have eroded personal career confidence and caused managers everywhere to make Number One Priority One. If talent retention is top on your own priority list, the time has come to encourage your managers to put themselves third on their own list of priorities – after the interests of the company and after the needs of their people.
Teach your managers to be aware of the gaps between what should be and what reality is. Disenfranchised high performers are acutely aware of how things should be (your company’s culture, its practices, the way its leaders treat their people) and what the reality really is in terms of their day-to-day experiences. Have your managers gotten into the habit of assuming everything is fine by their people because no one is complaining? It could be that no one is complaining to them. If your people aren’t busy raising legitimate concerns it could be because they’re busy quitting – either in fact (looking for a new job) or in place (sticking around, doing the minimum, and infecting the rest of your workplace with their malaise). Your managers are either your front-line buffers (protecting their own jobs by keeping senior leadership in the dark about the truth of your corporate culture) or your reporters – giving you the intelligence you need to cultivate a culture that helps you keep the talent you want.
Managers who have become accustomed to covering their backsides by keeping the truth of the should be/reality gap from senior leadership will need your support and encouragement. Reward them for their awareness. Make sure they are not punished for delivering unwelcome truths. Your own behavior will give them the courage they need to develop into true talent-retention partners.
Teach your managers to make management decisions the right way. Have your managers become over-reliant on policy manuals and rules? You know the signs. They come to you with increasing frequency, asking for a rule or policy about this incident or that possible infraction. They have gotten out of the habit of thinking for themselves, or using independent judgment, which is the true job of a manager. They confuse the concepts of fair or equal treatment with the right thing to do.
Think about it: Your policy manual, which is a necessary organizational foundation component, was actually written to anticipate the management challenges of your poorest performers. Your best people don’t need all the minutiae detailed in your policy manual to do their jobs well and responsibly. And laboring under such a heavy millstone of rules sucks the life and passion out of any top performer – especially your managers themselves. Managing purely by policy is managing to the organization’s lowest expectations.
Liberate them from the minutiae. Give them the training and leadership they need to be able to confidently pry their own fingers off the policy manual. Give them the chance and encouragement to think independently when it comes to making case-by-case judgments about the challenges their people present to them.
If you’ve hired and promoted well from the beginning, you’ll have managers who know how to do the right thing by their people. And your top performers will respect the logic behind what might appear to be actionable disparate treatment in the eyes of your bottom 10%.
Will the right thing make you more subject to litigation than “equal treatment”? Probably. But if you’re running the people side of your organization with avoiding lawsuits as your number one priority, you will go bankrupt. If running a competitive, successful organization staffed by high performing people who are committed to staying is your priority, litigation might be in your future. Take heart in knowing that an unfair labor practice charge or lawsuit is not a bad thing. It’s the cost of doing business in a society that is increasingly encouraging low-performers to regard themselves as management victims. A bad unfair labor practice charge or lawsuit is a bad thing.
As long as you’ve done the right thing, and you’ve taught your managers to do the right thing by using their wisdom and independent judgment, you may end up dealing with litigation now and then. (But you probably would anyway.) But your organization will be a better, stronger, more competitive organization as a reward for the risk you and your managers take.
Free your managers up to develop authentic relationships with their people. If you want an environment where adults bring their best, most responsible selves to work and pull together in the name of company competitiveness, you must have strong relationships. The workplace is nothing but a network of relationships. All relationships require the same things to thrive: mutual support, trust, communication, and real caring that can be freely expressed without fear of misinterpretation.
If an employee under stress needs a hug, your managers should feel free to provide that hug if they want to, without fear of a charge of unwelcome attention. If a manager knows that an employee is struggling with substance abuse or a pressing family crisis, why wait until that employee’s performance suffers before the issue is addressed in a corrective action context? Why compound the original problem with job stress? Strong relationships will free your managers up to help their people before a personal crisis also becomes a job security crisis.
It is in this context of strong relationships and the trust that arises from these relationships that inspires people to be dedicated and innovative (and therefore competitive). And it’s safe to share the bad or hard news, soon enough to be able to do something about it. (And therefore prosper in business, staffed with those top performers who would never dream of putting their resumes into circulation.)
Teach your managers to engage the heads, hearts and hands of your top performers. This article has been about developing your managers to retain your cherished high performing talent. So let’s think for a minute what makes up a high performer? Someone who goes above and beyond the job description to contribute energy, and thought, that so-called “discretionary effort,” to the work at hand. No matter what the job is (a factory worker or CFO), discretionary effort necessitates that a person’s head, hands and heart are all incorporated into their work. Are your managers trained and encouraged to open their conversations with their people to encompass all their skills, passion, and work-related time to the benefit of your company? Or have they gotten into the habit of limiting their best performers according to job description, roles and responsibilities? Your best people may be bored and frustrated. Teach your managers to discover and tap into all their potential and desire to throw their lot into the mission of your company. Or teach them to love sourcing and interviewing candidates to replace them.